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Ceasefire in Ukraine: An Assessment

Dr Rajorshi Roy is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile [+].
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  • October 10, 2014

    Recently, two important agreements known as the Minsk agreements were signed by the governments of Ukraine, Russia, representatives of OSCE and Donbass region on September 5 and 20, 2014. These agreements outlined steps to de-escalate the mounting tensions including cessation of military hostilities, exchange of prisoners, protection of Russian language and gradual devolution of power. This key development came against the backdrop of a strong military offensive by the Ukrainian troops against the pro-Russian supporters, while the threat of a Russian military intervention loomed large. It led ‘Verkhovna Rada’, the Ukrainian Parliament, to pass a law sketching the contours of local self-government in south-eastern part the country.

    While the ceasefire is a much needed respite yet it does raise two pertinent questions: What made the key players arrive at such agreements? Can these deals facilitate the initiation of a political dialogue in Ukraine?

    The Agreements and Stakeholders

    As the events in Ukraine unfolded, the agreements involving key protagonists was expected:


    Russia’s stake in the ongoing crisis has been to retain its sphere of influence in the region. Having raised the stakes it would have been detrimental for President Putin to see pro-Russian supporters get defeated by the Ukrainian forces. However, a full scale Russian military intervention may not have been in Kremlin’s long term interest. Ukraine is not Crimea and nationalist sentiments even in the pro-Russian eastern Ukrainian cities run high. An intrusion could have fast-tracked Ukraine’s NATO membership and possibly led Moscow to international political isolation. Russia would also have to bear the cost of restoring the region’s crumbling economy. Therefore, a surge in military support that would allow the rebels to fight back and establish new areas of control seemed to solve the dilemma. This move enabled Russia to leverage its influence for policy decisions in Kiev. As the decision to suspend Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU prove, Moscow retained the decisive strings in this standoff.


    The military setbacks suffered by government troops had left President Poroshenko with few options. There was a real danger of pro-Russian separatists gaining further territorial ground. With the Ukrainian economy in shambles and the core of its industries and natural resource base being in the restive south-east, Kiev could not afford to let go of this strategic region. Moreover, NATO’s refusal to strengthen Ukraine’s military capabilities and inability of the ‘West’ to meet its energy needs against the onset of winter forced the hands of President Poroshenko. The ceasefire paves the way for a modium of stability while preserving the country’s territorial integrity.


    A ceasefire suits both the US and EU since the only way to stop an imminent Russian military intervention would have been to send in NATO troops. But it is unlikely that the ‘West’ retains an appetite for a direct military confrontation with the Kremlin. The ceasefire allows it to continue to provide Ukraine with modest support without taking full responsibility for events there. Moreover, driven by strong economic and energy interdependence with Russia, EU’s backing for the Minsk dialogue reveals an intention to repair ties with Moscow. Interestingly, neither the US nor the EU is a party to the two agreements.

    Consequently, the ceasefire allows all parties to recalibrate their positions while keeping the door open for a political reconciliation in this chess game of Eurasian geo-politics.


    The first impression is that the agreements have the potential to diffuse the volatile atmosphere. Barring a few sporadic cases of violence the ceasefire has held so far. However, as always the devil lies in the details and several issues have started emerging:

    First, with Parliamentary elections around the corner and having previously labelled the pro-Russian separatists as ‘terrorists’, it remains to be seen how much devolution of power is President Poroshenko willing to give in to.

    Second, will the current outline of autonomy be acceptable to the pro-Russian separatists in general and the Kremlin in particular?

    Third, the degree of cooperation with the ‘West’ that Kiev is willing to gamble upon without antagonising Moscow. This is evident from its consistent push for an Association Agreement with the EU. Russia’s core interests in the Ukrainian quagmire remain the same i.e. restore Ukraine’s status as a neutral country, establish federal principles of governance, preserve economic ties with the eastern part of the country and maintain the status of Russian language.

    Fourth, the agreements delineate the positions of Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian supporters on the ground. This is likely to lead to serious complications over the management of a frozen conflict.

    Fifth, the crisis is as much about Russia and Ukraine as it is about the geo-political rivalry between Russia and the ‘West’. The NATO summit has identified Russia as an adversary while President Obama has labelled it as the second biggest threat to global security after the Ebola virus.1 Similarly, the Kremlin has responded by promising to revise Russia’s military doctrine and referring to south-eastern Ukraine as ‘Novorossiya’ during its official engagements with the US.2 And contrary to popular perception, the US may not engage Russia to deal with terrorism in the Middle East despite the very convergence of their interests. Moscow is not expected to oppose an initiative that tackles this scourge since it is also in its interest that it be resolved. Against this backdrop, a rapprochement between Russia and the US looks highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

    Therefore, the Minsk agreements can be the first step towards finding a viable political solution to the Ukrainian crisis. The key challenge lies in balancing Russia’s core interests with that of geopolitical calculations of the ‘West’. Nevertheless, the truce in this region appears fragile as validated by the recent attempts of pro-Russian supporters to capture the Donetsk airport.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India