Ukraine’s Poroshenko: Restoration of sovereignty top priority for 2016

Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, said on Thursday he expected territory in the east held by Russian-backed rebels to return to Ukrainian control before the end of the year. At the same time, he said he hopes to set into motion mechanisms that would lead to the “de-occupation” of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.

Speaking in Kyiv at his first press conference in the new year, Poroshenko said he would use all legal and diplomatic means to resolve the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine.

“Ukrainian sovereignty over the occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions must be restored this year,” he said.

Speaking on the issue of Crimea, Poroshenko said he would propose “setting up an international mechanism for de-occupation of the peninsula” – an effort in which he plans to engage the European Union and the United States.

While he called the restoration of Kyiv’s sovereignty over rebel-held parts of eastern Ukraine a realistic goal for 2016, he conceded that regaining control over Crimea might be a long-term effort.

Poroshenko’s comments came a day after negotiators from Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) agreed to renew efforts on a shaky cease-fire in Ukraine. More than 9,000 people have been killed since pro-Russian rebels seized government buildings in April 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea and fighting broke out.

Ukraine and the Russian-backed rebels agreed Wednesday to exchange 50 prisoners, with most coming from the Ukrainian side, according to an OSCE representative at the talks.

Russia sent its new envoy, Boris Gryzlov, to the Minsk meeting after a rare visit Tuesday to Kyiv.  Poroshenko did not confirm reports that he held direct talks with Gryzlov but said he would be willing to meet anyone in order to bring an end to the conflict.

For Russia, sanctions at issue

Political analysts say the Kremlin’s appointment of Gryzlov, a former parliamentary speaker, shows Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to see some progress on the February Minsk Agreement to get Western sanctions lifted.

“He [Putin] understands the need to soften Russia’s strained relations with the European Union, eventually leading to easing and then lifting of the EU sanctions on Russia and then changing the overall climate in the EU-Russia relationship,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center.  “Now, in order to be able to do that, he needs to have the Minsk process completed by having the agreement implemented.”

The Minsk Agreement failed to meet its original deadline, the end of 2015, because of major sticking points.  Ukrainian politicians disagree on the degree of autonomy for rebel-held areas while the rebels are reluctant to allow open elections and return control of the border with Russia to Ukraine.

John Herbst, head of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, says it’s not clear how far Putin is willing to go to implement the agreement.

“If Minsk is carried out, despite its many flaws, the war in Ukraine’s east will end because Russia will not be able to continue providing all the money, supplies, and troops to sustain it,” he said.  “And Moscow’s been reluctant to implement it.”

Putin has repeatedly denied direct Russian involvement in the conflict, but admitted in December that Russia had “people there who carried out certain tasks including in the military sphere.”

Trenin says Putin first wants full autonomy for eastern Ukraine, known as the Donbas, enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution so the region will have a veto on any future efforts to join NATO, the Western military alliance; but, he says Ukraine’s leaders are unlikely to accept that.

“I think that they [Ukraine’s elites] would prefer to wait, to wait for Russia to crack under U.S. pressure, economic hardships, oil price plunge, so that Ukraine doesn’t have to do much,” he said.

Russia’s economy has been contracting as the price of oil, its major export, drops to record lows.  Western sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine have cut off its banks from international credit.

Looking for a new way out

Herbst says Gryzlov’s appointment shows the Kremlin is looking for a new way out of the current situation.

“Since September, Moscow has moderated the violence in the east.  And, I think Moscow was hoping that by moderating that violence, it would get Europe to ease the sanctions in January, which did not happen,” he said.  “But, I think they realize that their policy to date has not been a success in Ukraine’s east.  And, I think Gryzlov’s presence is one more indication of that.  But, what they decide to do is still very much an open question.”

Herbst agrees with most analysts who say the impasse means the best case scenario would be a frozen conflict.

Trenin believes the Donbas will eventually be negotiated back under a unified Ukraine but only in name but that Russia will never give up Crimea.

In his press conference Thursday, Poroshenko hinted that aside from enlisting help from the EU and the U.S. on the Crimea issue, he might also reach out to the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum.

The Budapest Memorandum was a 1994 agreement Ukraine made with Britain, Russia, and the United States to give up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons – some of them to Moscow – in return for security guarantees, including that its borders would be respected.