When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov emerged after negotiations in Berlin on January 21, he had a simple message for the media: there may be thousands of people killed in the ongoing war in Ukraine, but you have no proof that it is done by Russian troops or Russian weapons.
“I say every time: if you’re so sure to say it, show us the facts. But nobody can or wants to produce the facts. So, before demanding that we stop doing something, please present proof that we actually did it,” Lavrov said.
He did not deny the presence of Russian tanks and regular army in eastern Ukraine. He simply said that the West has no solid proof that thousands of soldiers have been crossing the border of a sovereign country, bringing death and destruction.
As he was speaking in western Europe, Ukraine’s eastern provinces were drowning in blood. Human Rights Watch says 341 people, including 71 women and 6 children, had died in the Donetsk region in January alone. Some of the children were as young as 2.
By Febuary 4, the situation escalated to the point that the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called for a truce in the region to last for at least three days. “The fighting provoked by the continued separatist offensive, notably around Debaltseve, is causing great human suffering and undermines all efforts aimed at a political solution. The shelling of civilians, wherever it happens, is a grave violation of international humanitarian law. Artillery should immediately be withdrawn from residential areas,” she said.
Once again, the real perpetrator of these crimes remained veiled behind the diplomatic language.
In the meantime, NATO announced that it would set up command centers at its eastern limits in the next few months. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia had been chosen as centers’ locations. This January 30 announcement comes after an earlier statement saying that 5,000 rapid response troops were to be deployed in the area.
What diplomacy fails to admit, NATO is prepared to face: the fact that Russia is an aggressor in Ukraine and a threat to the rest of Europe.
And yet on the diplomatic front, a geopolitical game of hide-and-seek continues. Russia is only pretending to hide, though, because the West is so reluctant to seek ways to call the Kremlin’s bluff.
The prospect of recognizing Russia as an aggressor is too scary. It means that a country that was a founding or key member for setting up the world’s post-World War II security and diplomatic institutions has undermined those institutions and deemed them redundant. The world has no ideas how to deal with this massive shift in Russia’s international relations.
Paradoxically, for as long as the world fails to admit the problem, a diplomatic solution remains impossible. Modern diplomacy presumes that everyone plays by the same rules, which include at least some political will to negotiate once you sit at the round table, and the readiness to implement agreements once they are signed. This has not been true for Russia since its annexation of Crimea in March.
Since then, the Kremlin has blatantly breached a whole number of international agreements, such as the 1975 Helsinki Accord, which spells out the sanctity of sovereign territory and the 1998 Budapest memorandum in which Ukraine received guarantees from the USA, the UK and Russia regarding security and territorial integrity. In exchange, Ukraine gave up its massive arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Most recently, Russia has been violating the so-called Trilateral Agreement signed in Minsk in September last year that established a cease-fire in Ukraine’s east. The Agreement and its follow-up protocol set up a step-by-step plan for the withdrawal of troops and artillery and for the sealing off of the Russian-Ukrainian border under the supervision of the OSCE.
To call the group that worked out the solution ‘trilateral’ was probably the misnomer of the year 2014. It officially included representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE. Russia was part of the peace negotiations despite continuing to insist that it was not party to conflict.
But the agreement signed by the Trilateral Group actually has five signatures. The other two, located slightly lower on the page, belong to Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitskiy, leaders of the self-proclaimed republics in Ukraine’s east. They were not part of the diplomatic effort, and yet the signed the deal, which they have since broken hundreds of times by taking over more Ukrainian territory and killing hundreds of people including civilians.
These quasi-states have not been recognized by anyone, including Russia, and Ukraine considers them terrorist organizations. And yet, at the latest meeting in Minsk on January 31 they sabotaged negotiations and threatened full-scale war, according to former President Leonid Kuchma, who represented Ukraine.
The Trilateral Group’s failure to even sit together at the same table during the latest round of negotiations in Minsk was a stark reminder that all sides of this conflict have very different often mutually exclusive interests, that leave very little room for diplomacy at the moment. But what matters most of all is Russia’s interest: it wants to see Ukraine unstable and failing on its European path.
This will be achieved by more warfare and possibly a long, frozen conflict in the east in the mid-term. Diplomacy will have to wait until the war is over.
Katya Gorchinskaya is deputy chief editor of the Kyiv Post, an award-winning English-language newspaper in Ukraine. In January 2015, she was a Milena Jesenská Fellow at the IWM. A German translation of this article was published by the Austrian daily Der Standard on February 5, 2015.