The Civil War in Ukraine and the Failure of International Politics

11 October 2014

The Civil War in Ukraine and the Failure of International Politics

In the course of 2014 a civil war has broken out in Ukraine, a war which has led, in addition to three thousands deaths, six thousand woundings and a million refugees, to a situation in which relations between Russia on the one side and the European Union and United States on the other are on a knife edge. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall the two blocks once again face each other as opponents across a political, economic and military divide, with Europe running into danger. SP Senator Tiny Kox, active in the Council of Europe, was witness to part of this and reports below.

By Tiny Kox

When, on 25th May, Petro Poroshenko was elected as the new president of Ukraine, the expectation was that he was likely to be able to put an end to the civil war in his country. As one of the state’s ultra-rich oligarchs, he had previously served in several governments. It was expected that he would come to an agreement with the rebels in the eastern provinces, as well as with their allies in Russia. Days after Poroshenko’s election I spoke in Moscow, in my capacity as leader of the United European Left group in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), with Sergey Naryshkin, president of the Duma - the Russian Parliament – and confidant of President Putin. The conflict in Ukraine has badly clouded relations between Russia and Europe, and Naryshkin himself has been declared persona non grata in both the EU and the United States. And as a result of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea earlier this year, the Russian delegation’s voting rights in PACE have been suspended, which threatens to lead to the loss of one of the last remaining pan-European diplomatic platforms. The less we speak to each other, the greater the threat, which is why, with the full knowledge of my fellow political group leaders in the Parliamentary Assembly, I was in Moscow at the end of May to see how the land lay there.

Discussions on the Crimea

The president of the parliament told me that he felt reasonably positive about the newly-elected president in Kiev, even though by far the biggest proportion of residents of the eastern provinces was not prepared to vote in his support, and even though he continued to refer to the removal of Poroshenko’s predecessor Viktor Yanukovych an unlawful coup d’état led by the right-wing extremists of Right Sector and Svoboda. Naryshkin gave me to understand that the accession of the Crimea to the Russian Federation was irreversible. In his opinion, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Crimea was added against the will of its inhabitants to an independent Ukraine and this historic blunder had now been put to rights. I told him that I understood the reasoning but did not share his conclusion. The current Russian government is the legal successor of the Soviet Union and is therefore also responsible for what occurred in the Crimea in 1991. The Crimean referendum and the annexation by Russia which ensued were in conflict with national and international law, according to recognised Council of Europe legal experts, and Russia must bear the consequences of this.

We agreed, however, on the insurgent regions in eastern Ukraine. They had in the weeks before our meeting in Moscow organised their referenda, in which a large majority voted in favour of independence. Naryshkin sees this as no reason to speak in terms of these regions joining Russia. Russia will also make no attempt to restore order by military intervention in the region of Donetsk and Loehansk, he assured me; but, he insisted, an end must be put to the military violence of the Ukrainian army and the extreme right private militias in the country’s east, where a humanitarian catastrophe is taking place. He rejects the reproach that Russia has too many troops on the Ukrainian border, adding with a degree of cynicism that ‘They are in any case on our territory, something that as a rule cannot be said of American troops.’ Following the line of President Putin he advocates direct negotiations with the rebels in order to seek an agreement. And he points out to me that the Ukrainian government has broken its own laws by bombing its citizens, muzzling the media, maintaining fascist parties in its coalition and banning opposition parties. How come there’s no attention paid to this in the West? I said that I would relay his words to my colleagues in PACE and invite him to further consultations with the Assembly’s praesidium. Naryshkin reacted positively to this and announced it himself, days after my departure, in an open letter to the Russia media.

More than a million refugees

By the time President Poroshenko came to Strasbourg in order to deliver his biggest ever international speech, the war had flared up further. Yet he spoke reassuring words about the military confrontation, explaining that he was seeking the restoration of peace and was prepared to look into the question of how regional autonomy might be strengthened in his country. During lunch with him and my fellow group leaders, I wished him luck with the realisation of his plans.

That didn’t really help. Shortly after Poroshenko’s visit to Strasbourg, the conflict escalated further. The army bombarded Luhansk and Donetsk and the rebels showed little mercy either to Ukrainian soldiers or to the observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE. Time and again war crimes were committed, as Amnesty International would later document. Frontlines surged back and forth and put ever more inhabitants to flight. The United Nations estimated them at a given moment to number more than a million, in Ukraine and also in Russia.

Internationally, threats are mounting. Repeatedly, ever harsher economic and personal sanctions are announced The US, NATO, the EU and Russia accuse each other in bitter terms of being responsible for the civil war and the growing international tensions. At any moment, analysts write, the flames could spread, to Moldavia for instance, or even to the Baltic states, with large Russian minorities.

The tragedy of MH17

Then came 17th July. That day I spent with SP leader Emile Roemer and my former colleague from the Senate, Kees Slager, walking through the First World War trenches in West Flanders. Then the news arrived that Flight MH17 had been brought down above Ukraine probably by an attack from below. On board were 298 people, 200 of them Dutch. In the media we had immediate speculation as to the culprits. Russia, Ukraine and the rebels in the latter’s east pointed the finger of guilt at each other. When the next day I was asked to give my reaction on the radio, I called for restraint and said that I shared the Dutch government’s opinion that bringing the victims back to the Netherlands and establishing an enquiry into the causes should have priority. Adding more fuel to the fire would be in nobody’s interest. It was bad enough that two hundred compatriots appeared to have lost their lives in an instant, victims of a war which would never have been taking place if politicians had put their powers of reason to better use.

Pictures of the disaster area led to the suspicion that repatriation of the dead could be a problem. The plane came down in the middle of a region at war. I contacted the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe and the president of the Parliamentary Assembly to ask them to use their influence to bring about a speedy repatriation of all of the victims. I asked the same of my contacts in both the Russian and Ukrainian parliaments. Each of them promised to do their best, for which I was grateful. Meanwhile I was seeing tendentious reports of the alleged dragging around of the victims’ bodies and possessions. This persuaded even Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans who, in an otherwise impressive speech to the UN Security Council, called the unworthy behaviour of the Ukrainian relief workers shameful. The allegations, however, later turned out to have been false. The Netherlands was in shock, the world offered sympathy, but the civil war continued.

NATO membership for Ukraine?

A few days later Emile Roemer and I – in the name of the SP political groups which we respectively lead in the two houses of parliament - signed the condolence register at the Ministry of Justice. And a few days after that we were both at the air force base, along with the king and queen, the government, fellow members of the two houses of parliament and around a thousand grieving relations of the dead, in order to receive the victims’ bodies in a dignified fashion. This day was declared by the government a day of national mourning, and so it was also marked throughout the country and even beyond, a moment of civilisation in an increasingly brutal world. I received expressions of condolence from Strasbourg, from Kiev, and from Moscow, but the war continued.

At the end of August the situation in Ukraine seemed increasingly hopeless and there was no more talk of a truce. The army, originally on the attack, was losing terrain to the rebels, according to many because the latter were being illegally supplied with arms by the Russians. Russia denied, as they have repeatedly done during this conflict, that they were in reality supporting the rebels. The Americans in particular claimed to have proof of a Russian military presence. The possibility of Western armed support was mooted. Sanctions were intensified. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen called for Ukraine to be admitted to the North Atlantic military alliance. This was evidently the result of an agreement, because just as Rasmussen was issuing his call, the Kiev government brought forward a legislative proposal to remove the neutral status which the country had had since it achieved independence, in order to clear the way for accession to NATO as well as to the EU. At the NATO summit in Wales at the beginning of September, President Poroshenko was a special guest. In Moscow this was viewed with sorrow. An abyss of distrust grew between the blocs, which had until recently referred to each other as partners. We live once more in a dangerous world.

While the NATO summit dominated the headlines, I was meeting for the third time this summer with the President of the Duma, this time in Paris, where he will be the official guest of the PACE Praesidium. This meeting is possible because France is the official seat of the Council of Europe and is therefore obliged to admit all its invitees. The conversation is sufficiently constructive to make it worth continuing. Naryshkin proposed that we meet soon again, in Moscow or elsewhere, and we left in a good atmosphere.

There were few signs of a good atmosphere in the various committee meetings with colleagues from Council of Europe member states in the rest of the week in Paris. Ukraine dominated the agendas. Harsh words were levelled at Russia, especially by MPs from Scandinavian, Baltic and Caucasian states. When I expressed my concerns about the civil war in Ukraine, I was instructed by fellow members from Estonia and Georgia that this was in no way a civil war, but a war directly between Europe and Russia fought on Ukrainian soil. At a moment like that, the Cold War is back with us.

Hopes of a lasting ceasefire

Much better news arrived at the end of the week, when we heard that Poroshenko and Putin had agreed that a ceasefire must quickly be put into place in eastern Ukraine. While some of my fellow PACE members spoke bitterly of a new trick by Putin, I was at least pleased that the violence in the disunited country was going to stop, after three thousand deaths and six thousand woundings and a million people put to flight. Later that day more clarity emerged regarding the agreements made in the Belorussian capital of Minsk between representatives of the Ukrainian government and the eastern rebels, under the supervision of the OSCE, which had charged its top diplomat, the Swiss Heidi Tagliavini, with the complicated task.

After a number of days of tension it seemed that the truce would hold. More points from the OSCE-mediated Minsk accord became known. The Ukrainian government has promised to give more autonomy to the regions, while the rebel provinces have moderated their demand for complete independence from Ukraine. Several times prisoners have been exchanged and material aid can now reach the beleaguered regions in the east in order after months of war to tackle a humanitarian catastrophe. The Council of Europe Secretary-General is visiting Kiev and Moscow in order to give diplomacy a fresh chance. NATO has for the moment foresworn its promise of membership for Ukraine, and the European Union too is keeping quiet about accession. This is also being observed in Moscow. Hesitantly, the world is beginning to relax. Nobody knows if this will endure.

Then the parliamentary summer was over. Meetings in the Senate resumed, in the presence of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, with a commemoration of the victims of MH17, and in particular of my fellow Senator, Labour’s Willem Witteveen. On the same day the Nederlandse Onderzoeksraad (Netherlands Council of Enquiry) confirmed that MH17 had been hit from outside by a projectile. Who was responsible is yet to emerge. That the total responsibility for the fact that the Ukraine conflict has run appallingly out of control lies with numerous politicians who this year have played the pyromaniac rather than the firefighter is for me a certainty, a certainty which gives one a bad feeling.

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