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Showdown in Minsk

Ingo Mannteufel/ cbAugust 20, 2014

The conflict in eastern Ukraine is entering a critical stage. An all-out war between Russia and Ukraine cannot be ruled out anymore, writes DW's Ingo Mannteufel.

Wladimir Putin and Petro Poroschenko. (Photo: Aleksey Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The foreign ministers of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine are in negotiations about a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine - but without any results so far. Meanwhile, fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk is becoming more intense.

But now, a meeting between Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko and Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Minsk has been announced. The conflict has arrived at a crossroads: Over the next few days, it will likely be decided whether the de-facto Russian-Ukrainian war turns into an official war between the two nations.

Kyiv puts its trust in a military solution

The public has trouble figuring out the basic fault lines these days as both parties to the conflict spread misinformation and diplomatic verbiage obfuscates what is going on. The facts: At the end of June, the Ukrainian government decided on a military solution to end the conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk. Poroshenko hardly had a choice in the matter after many other attempts to resolve the situation had failed. The crash of Malaysian passenger aircraft MH17 - which was likely shot down by pro-Russian separatists - has also raised international understanding for this policy.

Ingo Mannteufel. (Photo: DW)
DW's Ingo MannteufelImage: DW

At this point, Ukrainian politicians aren't interested in a ceasefire if it was simply to freeze the status quo which would buy the separatists time. It seems to be Kyiv's goal to take the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk before August 24 - Ukraine's Independence Day - even if that translates to an even larger humanitarian catastrophe. Kyiv is then likely going to try to gain back control of the entire Russian-Ukrainian border.

Moscow's been counting on hidden destabilization

There's a steady flow of soldiers and weapons from Russia that crosses into Ukraine through border posts controlled by the separatists. So far, Russia has tried everything to destabilize eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin wants to prevent Ukraine from regaining full control of the Donbas. With this strategy, Moscow is pursuing numerous goals: weakening the new government in Kyiv and forming a separatist construct between Ukraine and Russia. This construct could then work as a buffer between Moscow and a West-leaning Ukraine, but also as a bargaining chip in future negotiations.

But after the downing of MH17, Russia's policy has turned out to be a high-risk venture. The US and the European Union have agreed on sanctions that will significantly impact Russia in the long term and have thus reacted more fiercely than the Kremlin had calculated. Hastily, Moscow has replied with its own sanctions, but in the end, these will hit the Russian population harder than European food producers. The fact that Belarus and Kazakhstan, which are in a customs union with Russia, have not joined the sanctions, shows how little thought went into the Russian policy.

War or peace - it's in Putin's hands

The Kremlin now faces a decision. It can advance the escalation by further supporting the separatists and by using the humanitarian disaster in eastern Ukraine as an excuse for a military intervention if the separatists lose ground.

This direction does have supporters among the Russian political elite, especially among the military-industrial and the nationalist circles. They hope that by closing Russia off from the world market, the country can be re-industrialized with the currency reserves that have been stashed away for years.

The alternative for Putin would be a policy of de-escalation by putting an end to supporting the separatists. He will only do this, however, if Ukraine and the EU allow him to safe face. After all, the domestic implications of an obvious loss would be extremely dangerous for Putin - even more dangerous than an open Russian-Ukrainian war, which Kremlin propaganda would sell as a peace mission.

The announced meeting next Tuesday between Putin and Poroshenko - together with leading EU-representatives - is a ray of hope for a diplomatic solution. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is traveling to Kyiv for the first time since the Ukraine crisis broke out to meet Poroshenko before the showdown in Minsk. This shows that the chancellor, too, is well aware of what is on the line right now.