Ukraine crisis moving from bluster to diplomacy

Ukraine's attempts at a military solution to its problems with pro-Russia separatists look to be in disarray. But that may all be to the good, Nahlah Ayed writes, as foreign ministers gather in Geneva today to try to end the standoff.

Military 'operations' in disarray, but foreign ministers gather today in Geneva

Kyiv repels attack in southern Donetsk

9 years ago
Duration 2:56
Military 'operations' in disarray, but foreign ministers gather today in Geneva

For all those once again predicting the start of World War III — or at least a Ukrainian civil war — it's time for a closer look given the behaviour of the parties involved over the past few days.

Take the group of enthused, pro-Russian gunmen who took over Donetsk's city council building in Eastern Ukraine yesterday.

While not exactly a commonly accepted form of expression, theirs was an act meant for world consumption. Why else would they invite the media in for a tour and a chat?

"Our main demand is for Ukraine's parliament to pass a law about local referendums on self-determination," said their spokesman.

Just about everything that has resembled a brush with violence in this crisis has been just that, a threat, a gesture, just a step in what has become a new Cold War dance.

That's not to take away from the precariousness of the situation in this part of the world, or the very real danger of this kind of jostling.

One wrong move and threats could easily deteriorate into loss of life, vows for revenge or worse.

Though a few shots have been fired, mostly in the air — and the air in some pockets here is truly combustible — that kind of violence has generally failed to materialize. Although this morning a Ukrainian report claims three pro-Russians were killed in the town of Mariupol overnight. If proven true, watch for efforts on the ground to try to contain the reaction.

Why? Well, because while the U.S. (or Europe or the West in general) and Russian interests have often clashed in the recent past, with bloody results in places like Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Ukraine is seen as different.

It is in the very eye of the Cold War storm and always has been, and so must remain as calm as the eye of a storm can be.

War in Ukraine, or over Ukraine, is in no one's interest. Not even for two long-time foes like Moscow and Washington.

It's why they will, in fact, not only avoid war, but go to extraordinary lengths to prevent it.

It's also why, despite all the bluster and rhetoric from both sides, Russia is still a member of the G8 (albeit suspended for effectively annexing Crimea).

And it is why Russia has not (and likely will not) invade Eastern Ukraine.


You can see these realities in the way that everyone involved qualifies threats and warnings with the assertion that the only solution to the standoff here in Ukraine is diplomatic.

Take NATO secretary general Anders Rasmussen's statement yesterday announcing a decision to beef up the alliance's defences for its Eastern European members.

"We agree that a political solution is the only way forward," he said right at the start. He then proceeded to outline the details of the so-called reassurance package for those Eastern members: more ships, more planes and more preparedness on the ground.

There was nary a word from Russia in response.

Ukraine has not been encouraged to join NATO, nor has it or will it benefit militarily from its many allies — that's been made abundantly clear.

It is on the Russian frontier. And that is just a hair too close for NATO or anyone to get adventurous, unless they really meant business.

"The ties between Russia and Ukraine are long-standing and deep," says Christopher Westdal, who has the unique experience of having served Canada both as ambassador to Ukraine as well as to Russia.

"Ukrainians have as much freedom to adopt a security policy that is hostile to Moscow, as we Canadians have to adopt one that is hostile to Washington," he says.

"No country in the world has a more profound interest in good relations between Russia and Europe … than does Ukraine."

Talks are starting

And yet Ukraine — at least the current incarnation of its government — also does not want to lose total control.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Geneva Wednesday night for high-level talks with Russian, Ukrainian and European leaders to try to resolve the standoff in Ukraine. (Reuters)

Just because it sits where it does geographically doesn't mean it will accept Russia — or pro-Russian separatists — continually meddling.

So it has tried in the past few days to send that message, using its dilapidated army and the much vaunted "special operation," announced by its interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov.

It promised that its attempts to win back key buildings and installations would be gradual and responsible.

It has not gone so well. Ukrainian tanks have been commandeered, decorated with Russian flags. Ukrainian soldiers — who probably know better than anyone the risks involved — have shied away from confrontation (just as they did in Crimea).

They are far more pragmatic than some of their supporters in Kyiv, who are spoiling for the kind of fight that would surely ignite a much bigger conflict.

Foreign ministers from Ukraine, Russia and the West are gathering in Geneva today to try to resolve the situation.

And having failed to demonstrate its desires for the talks with a physical threat, Ukraine's interim prime minister merely stated them.

"The aim of this meeting must be stabilizing Ukraine, stopping terrorist activity supported by Russia, and renewal of a dialogue," Arseniy Yatsenyuk said simply.

Those who see beyond the dramatic and dangerous bluster already see the outlines of a deal that could be made in Geneva with little give and take.

"Russia needs … to be without the threat or risk of a hostile security police in Ukraine," says Westdal. "And as well, to have the language and cultural rights of its diaspora in Ukraine protected."

Russia also clearly would like a more decentralized Ukraine and is willing to tolerate quite a bit to achieve that aim, even an escalation in NATO forces.

If Russia were truly offended by NATO's reassurance package, it might have walked away from today's talks. And it may have begun moving its troops, which are just over Ukraine's eastern flank.

It's doing neither. NATO noted yesterday there has been no appreciable change in the posture or the positioning of those Russian troops.

Though as Donetsk residents have warned, expect today to be "hot" on the ground, meaning more confrontation and unorthodox pressure tactics.

But barring a major departure (and perhaps even with one), you should also probably expect today's and subsequent talks ultimately to move ahead.

Because, unlike many other discussions of this type, the success of those talks is in everyone's interest, despite the empty and vexatious rhetoric suggesting otherwise.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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