German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande brokered a truce between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Feb. 12 in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to subdue the bloodshed in eastern Ukraine. After intense and acrimonious negotiations, the four leaders agreed on a deal that came into effect in the early hours of Feb. 15.
The earlier Minsk Protocol, signed on Sept. 5, 2014, and not honored by either side, also formed the basis of the new, 13-point deal. Even this points to a shaky future, considering the outcomes of the previous ill-fated truces in June and September last year. The ongoing struggle, despite a cease-fire, to control Debaltseve, a crucial transit hub connecting two important strongholds of pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk, has already overshadowed the prospects.
While the situation in other conflict zones has been quiet in general, both government forces and pro-Russian rebels are still reinforcing their positions in Debaltseve in the widespread anticipation that the cease-fire will fail. This has already delayed the second and third phases of the agreement, which required the withdrawal of heavy weapons on the second day of the cease-fire to create a 50- to 140-km-wide buffer zone, and monitoring of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) from the first day. The struggle for Debaltseve will define the outcome of the cease-fire.
Other parts of the deal, such as ending the economic blockade of the areas controlled by the separatists, conducting a constitutional referendum to decentralize power and beginning dialogue on the local elections, will also no doubt prove difficult to implement without the overall political support from all the involved parties, which is clearly lacking at the moment.
Besides, the deal envisioned that the Ukrainian government will be able to acquire full control of its borders only by the end of 2015; even then, though, that will depend on the results of the local elections and constitutional reform.
Finally, the free flow of military equipment to the pro-Russian separatists from Russia has not abated either.
Beyond Ukraine, the international ramifications of the crisis are still precarious with possible grave repercussions for Russian-Western relations. Russia has, for some time, been testing the limits of the Western resolve and unity with strong-arm tactics in Ukraine, large-scale maneuvers over the Atlantic, Pacific, Baltic, North and Black Seas, and attempts to impose economic dominance over Eurasia despite its suffering budget stemming from heavy sanctions and a sharp fall in oil prices.
So far, the West has tried to prevent further Russian aggression in Ukraine through economic sanctions. Although alternative military options under the NATO umbrella have been considered tentatively, nothing serious has yet been implemented. The widening gap over direct military assistance to Ukraine between the United States and some of its European allies prompted Merkel to take the initiative for a diplomatic solution and forced the military assistance debate to be put on the back burner for the moment.
Though the last-ditch efforts by the German and French leaders have so far prevented a further escalation of the conflict around Ukraine, the West still lacks a Plan B in the event of failure.
To put it bluntly, the unwillingness of Western leaders to have a head-on collision with Russia today over Ukraine undermines their current unity and future ability to do so. Russia has already helped Abkhazia and South Ossetia break away from Georgia, annexed Crimea and ensured a secure base area in eastern Ukraine for later expansion plans.
The West, in contrast, is still considering how to best respond to this clear challenge to the international system. Good luck, I say.