Leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France emerged from negotiations in Minsk, Belarus on the morning of February 12, after 16 hours of talks, and announced that agreement had been reached for a ceasefire in Ukraine's civil war.
The conflict has divided Ukraine since the overthrow of the unpopular, but democratically elected, president Viktor Yanukovich in February last year.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told journalists that “despite all the difficulties of the negotiation process, we have managed to agree on the main issues”, the February 12 Moscow Times reported.
The civil war is between the Western-backed Ukrainian government in Kyiv and the Russian-backed breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the country's east.
Under the terms of the agreement, the BBC said on February 12, the ceasefire will come into effect at midnight on February 15. Soldiers from both sides are to withdraw from the front lines, creating a buffer zone ranging from 50km to 140km. The troop withdrawal is to be completed within two weeks.
A deadline has been set for the end of the year for a full political settlement. This will include elections in Donetsk and Luhansk followed by the Ukrainian state regaining full control of its border with Russia.
The agreement also calls for the rebuilding and development of the devastated regions by the Ukrainian state in cooperation with Russia.
One factor as to whether the agreement holds is the attitude of the breakaway republics. Contrary to Western claims, these republics are independent actors, not merely Russian puppets.
The leaders of the two republics, Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitskiy, signed the agreement but were listed as private individuals. The republics are not internationally recognised.
They cautiously welcomed the ceasefire. “We cannot but believe and respect the opinion of three most important presidents today ― of Russia, Germany and France,” Plotnitskiy told LifeNews TV on February 12.
“And if they guarantee that the envisaged changes will secure that Ukraine will be transforming due to Donbass' efforts, we cannot but give Ukraine this chance.”
The BBC quoted Plotnitskiy as saying: “We hope that thanks to our efforts today, Ukraine will change and stop firing at civilians, hospitals and socially important facilities.”
However, the agreement calls for the breakaway republics' forces to withdraw from the front line of September 19, requiring the surrender of territory captured since then. Government forces, however, have to withdraw from the existing front line.
This will leave government forces in control of the rail junction of Debaltseve, the scene of recent fighting and important site for communication between the two breakaway republics.
The agreement is also ambiguous about the degree of decentralisation to be implemented. The Kyiv government is beholden to far-right nationalist forces committed to a unitary state.
Significantly, the West was represented by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, without US participation.
The European Union and the US have backed the Kyiv regime and applied economic sanctions against Russia. But in recent weeks, EU leaders have distanced themselves from US threats to increase the supply of heavy weapons to Kyiv by US$3 billion.
Similarly, the EU has been more cautious than the US about bringing Ukraine into NATO. Despite the Cold War ending a quarter of a century ago, NATO remains a military alliance directed against Russia.
Unlike the US, the EU is heavily dependent on hydrocarbon imports from Russia and sanctions have also harmed the EU.
The US holds 80% of the world's nuclear weapons, but Russia is the second largest nuclear power. On February 10, the Guardian reported that, belligerent rhetoric notwithstanding, US President Barack Obama was supporting the Franco-German diplomacy and was likely to veto a Republican bill in Congress to increase supply of heavy weapons to Kyiv even further.
The Western media have mostly uncritically backed a narrative that attributes the entire conflict to Russian aggression against a government that came to power in a popular uprising against a Russian-backed dictator.
For its part, the Russian media have mostly echoed the Russian government narrative that portrays the breakaway republics as resulting from popular uprisings against a fascist regime in Kyiv that seized power in a Western-backed coup.
The reality is more complicated than either of these narratives. “You’ve got all this misinformation coming out of Kyiv, out of Moscow, out of Washington,” US academic and author Stephen Cohen said in a February 3 interview with Democracy Now!.
Ukraine became an independent nation-state only in 1991, as a result of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. For most of its history it had not been united.
During the late Middle Ages, the east of what is now the Ukraine was under Mongol, Tatar and, later, Russian rule while the west was ruled by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The first attempt to create a Ukrainian nation state followed the Russian Revolution in 1917. After several years of violent conflict, the west fell under Polish rule while the east became a constituent republic of the Soviet Union.
After the rise to power of Joseph Stalin in the late 1920s, Soviet Ukraine suffered authoritarian rule from Moscow and, as the agricultural heartland of the Soviet Union, bore the brunt of Stalin's genocidal forced collectivisation in the 1930s.
For its part, the west suffered national oppression under Polish rule.
Ukraine was briefly united in 1939 when the Nazi-Soviet pact gave the Polish-ruled part to the Soviet Union. However, the 1941 German invasion again divided it ― and made it the scene of some of the most violent fighting of World War II.
Most of the population supported the Soviet forces, but right-wing nationalists in the west collaborated with the Nazis and engaged in ethnic violence against Russians, Jews and Poles.
This history explains the complex ethno-linguistic make-up of Ukraine. The media divides the population into ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians, but the two languages are related and there is a linguistic spectrum from east to west. Most Ukrainians speak a hybrid of both languages.
This history also explains ideological complexities. After independence, a kleptocratic elite of former Soviet bureaucrats sought to establish themselves as a capitalist ruling class.
The ossified socialist ideology of the Soviet Union was replaced as official ideology with a hybrid nationalism that drew on traditions of Soviet patriotism as well as the right-wing nationalism of the 1940s.
Soviet Ukraine, in particular the Donbass region, had been the industrial heartland of the Soviet Union. After independence, Ukrainian industry remained dependent on markets in Russia and other former Soviet republics, despite inroads by Western capital.
The corrupt elite sought to balance Russian and Western influence, playing both rivals off against each other.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, living standards fell dramatically. The Ukraine's industrial base was backward and uncompetitive compared with Western industry and weakened by wholesale economic looting by the elite.
The Maidan uprising that overthrew Yanukovich was sparked by this corruption. The catalyst came from the government's movers to sell Ukraine to the highest bidder.
After years of promoting a free trade agreement with the EU, Yanukovich suddenly accepted an agreement to enter a Russian-led economic zone.
Illusions in the EU agreement were high in the centre and west of the country, where illegal labour migration to the EU had become economically important. This is despite the fact that the agreement would not have legalised migration to EU countries.
The uprising grew in response to police brutality and Yanukovich fled. Although the role of far-right nationalist and Neo-Nazi groups was exaggerated in Russian propaganda, they played a key role in the uprising.
The uprising was not simply the result of a US conspiracy, but there is no doubt the US affected its outcome. On February 6 last year, a YouTube video appeared featuring a conversation between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt discussing US plans for Ukraine's new government.
The protests may have begun with calling for Ukrainian integration into the EU, but the EU was surprised by Yanukovich’s sudden rejection of the agreement they had been negotiating for seven years.
In the industrial east, opposition to the new pro-Western regime was strong among both the elite and working classes. Both stood to lose considerably from severing economic ties with Russia. They were also unnerved by the anti-Russian ethnic nationalism of far-right elements in the new regime.
There were Russian state-supported volunteers involved. The armed militias that created the breakaway republics in the Donbass were mainly based on sections of the Ukrainian state apparatus hostile to the new regime.
A February 6 UN report said 5486 people had been killed since the conflict became a full-scale war in April last year, about half of whom were civilians. Also, 978,482 civilians had been internally displaced people, including 119,832 children.
Most civilian casualties have been caused by the land and air bombardment of populated areas in the east by Kyiv government forces. These war crimes have fuelled support for the breakaway republics.
In the country's west, war weariness has set in. The February 6 Guardian reported that corruption remained rife.
The February 9 Kiev Post reported that journalist Ruslan Kotsaba had been arrested for treason after calling for Ukrainians to resist conscription and avoid killing “fellow citizens who live in the east”.
Rates of draft avoidance are high. Difficulties in enforcing conscription has meant that Kyiv's fighting forces are heavily reliant on far-right nationalist and neo-Nazi militias. This is one of the threats to the ceasefire agreement holding.
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