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Where was Kerry?

Conor DillonFebruary 22, 2014

In allowing the EU to mediate Ukraine's peace accord, the US achieved its objectives and lightened its own burden. Whether it can stay in the shadows depends on the likelihood of a Ukrainian financial crisis.

Politicians are surrounded by cameras, microphones and people
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The US had two priorities in Kyiv, says Charles A. Kupchan, who under the first Clinton administration directed the National Security Council's (NSC) European affairs.

"Number one, to stop the killing and the loss of life. And number two, to bring to an end a political stalemate and find a way forward for Ukraine," he told DW.

To that end, says the senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank and current professor at Georgetown University, the US has found success in the new peace accord.

Indirectly, it may have also accomplished another objective. The accord reached on Friday (21.02.2014) was signed by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the three leaders of Ukraine's opposition movement and the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland - and not by an American official. Though US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Paris on Wednesday and Thursday for dual two-hour talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he never made the flight to Kyiv.

Charles Kupchan smiles at the camera
Charles Kupchan: 'Make the agreement stick'Image: Kaveh Sardari/Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

"From the perspective of Washington, it's important that the Atlantic community move to a new division of responsibility in which Europe shoulders a greater burden," Kupchan said. "And in the first instance, those burdens should be in Europe."

Russia's special envoy, Vladimir Lukin, helped mediate the agreement but returned early to Russia - in objection, some experts say, to a demand for early Ukrainian elections no later than December 2014.

A bitter pill to swallow?

In the months leading up to new Ukrainian elections, the US' task will be making the compromise come to life, Kupchan says. "This is not just about getting Yanukovych and his governing apparatus to implement the agreement, it's also about the ability of Klitschko and other opposition leaders to shepherd an unwieldy, fragmented opposition that includes radical elements to abide by the agreement." One of those, Pravy Sektor, has called the agreement "eye-wash."

Andrew Weiss, who directed the SNC's Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs and served under Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, told DW there's a financial risk as well.

Andrew Weiss smiles at the camera
Watch Ukraine's finances, says Andrew Weiss.Image: Kaveh Sardari/Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

"Will the EU and US governments face a financial crisis in Ukraine," he asks, "if, as seems quite possible, the Russians withdraw their emergency $22-billion package of financial support and discounts on gas prices?"

Were it to do so, the US and EU, says the current vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, would try to steer the issue back into the International Monetary Fund's hands - something intolerable to Ukraine's politicians.

"Ukraine has a currency pegged to benefit tycoons. They would need to remove that immediately," Weiss said. Subsidies for household gas prices would follow, hitting consumers hard, as would business subsidies benefitting well-connected tycoons. "For any Ukrainian leader who hopes to be competitive in presidential elections, [an IMF loan] involves swallowing several poison pills," he said.

On Friday, the S&P credit rating company downgraded the country's rating from CCC+ to CCC.

A supporting role

Generally, the US has remained relatively "hands-off" throughout the Ukrainian crisis, says Jeff Mankoff, who formerly advised the US State Department on US-Russia relations and is now the deputy director of Russia and Eurasia at the Center for International and Strategic Studies.

Beyond limited leverage and relatively toothless sanctions, however, there's another issue adding to US reluctance to behave boldly in Ukraine: the state of US-Russian relations.

"We've seen from this administration a reluctance to get into confrontations in areas that Russia considers to be high priorities, out of a kind of concern that the effects would spill over into areas where the US is trying to win more Russian cooperation," he told DW. In this case, that means Syria talks in Geneva and negotiations on Iran's nuclear program.

John Kerry prepares to shake hands with Sergei Lavrov
Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, still have a lot of work to doImage: Reuters

Still, the US managed to influence events in Ukraine in other ways. US Vice President Joe Biden has been in regular contact with Ukrainian authorities. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, in spite of her gaffe, has been a regular presence in Kyiv. Prior to the accord, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had tried and failed to establish contact with his Ukrainian counterpart to avoid the potential domestic use of Ukraine's military. And US President Barack Obama has been making regular references to events in Ukraine during speeches.

The US will likely continue this "advisable" policy, says Weiss, who added it was essential that talks were led not by Kerry but by the German minister Steinmeier, France's Fabius and Poland's Sikorski, as it sent Russia and Ukraine a message:

"The core of the EU now saw events in Kyiv as very dangerous and spiralling out of control. And that was key," he said. "Having the EU take the lead here was wise."