Putin compromises over Poroshenko

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The past props up the present in a most unexpected fashion with the West, Kiev and Moscow working out a tentative peace in France on the 70th anniversary of the Allied landing in Normandy on Friday.

The Russian-speakers of eastern Ukraine cannot be driven back into the catacombs by those who stalk the corridors of power in Kiev. Western Ukraine voted overwhelmingly to elect the so-called “Chocolate King”, billionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko, but secessionists in eastern Ukraine are not going to back down on reunification with Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s gesture of meeting with both United States President Barack Obama and President-elect Poroshenko in Chateau de Benouville, Normandy, France. Russia’s relations with the Western powers faced its sternest test since the end of the Cold War over Ukraine.

The pro-West Ukrainian political establishment in Kiev has cast its country’s lot with the Western powers and it now appears that a compromise has been worked out.

Putin, it seems, has accepted Poroshenko as Ukraine’s President-elect. In return, the Chocolate King of Ukraine has pledged to ease tensions in eastern Ukraine. How he intends to do so is not clear. Nevertheless, what is certain is that Poroshenko cannot proceed without consulting Putin. The next few days may well witness a ceasefire between the pro-Russia insurrectionists and the new government in Kiev.

Putin met separately with his host French President Francois Hollande, with British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. There were no recriminations and no threats, at least not in public. Yet, Hollande was obliged to have two separate dinner receptions for Obama and Putin. We need not read too much into this faux pas. Putin came across on camera as affable to a Western audience, but he has not lost his aura of invincibility.

Under the glare of the television razzmatazz and the blubbering of the paparazzi, Putin marched proudly ahead alongside his host Hollande at the D-Day celebration. A somewhat solemn Obama followed a few steps behind in the company of Queen Elisabeth II of Britain. What one makes of this symbolic pecking order, so to speak, is a matter for conjecture.

Even so, the symbolic significance of Putin eventually meeting with Obama and Poroshenko cannot be downplayed. Even more significant is the fact that Western powers, for the time being, have decided to hold off sanctions against Russia. The celebration marking the 70th anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy that paved the way for the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi rule and practically brought to an end World War II was the setting for the mending of fences between Russia and the West this week. What is of critical importance is that analysts are no longer bracing themselves for the likelihood that Ukraine will remain for long in a political maelstrom.

After appearing caught off guard, the leaders of the pro-Russia insurrectionists in southeastern Ukraine are contemplating a compromise with Kiev. Autonomy is on the cards, and Moscow has also sought to turn up the pressure on Kiev to give in to, at least, some of the demands of the pro-Russia insurrectionists in the southeastern provinces of Ukraine.

Only then will international concerns about Ukraine’s political polarisation ease. Poroshenko is key, but then so is Putin. Yet hopes are fast rising for an eventual peace. Ukraine has tremendous economic potential, but it needs the close cooperation of both Moscow and the Western powers to pull it out of the political morass it has sunk into.

The West cannot afford to severe its trade ties with Russia. And, Moscow too cannot relinquish a lucrative economic and commercial relationship with the West. Kiev would have loved to follow in its neighbour Poland’s footsteps and join both the European Union and NATO.

Instead, Kiev is now obliged to grudgingly accept a rambling discourse of rather impertinent paternalism on the part of Putin. But, make no mistake, Kiev has not quite been brought to heel by Moscow.

With his billions and with Western backing, Poroshenko does not face a fight for political survival in Kiev. Indeed, it is Putin who now has to accede to several key demands of Kiev. The Russian president is in no mood to compromise over Crimea. That matter is settled. Crimea is Russian territory as confirmed in a referendum on 16 March 2014 in which over 97 per cent of the peninsula’s population voted to become part of Russia. However, whether other parts of southeastern Ukraine would be permitted to follow suit is an enigma.

Reneging on Crimea would be politically unacceptable loss of face for Putin and Russia. And, it now appears that earlier protests by Western powers about Ukraine will die out quietly. Economic and commercial links with Russia are a far more serious consideration than Crimea.

There is a silver lining, at last, on the horizon and the Ukrainian crisis could be resolved in a matter of months, if not weeks. World leaders gathered in Normandy, France, have called for the cessation in fighting in eastern Ukraine. But, there is still some way to go before lasting peace.

Gamal Nkrumah is a Cairo-based African and international affairs expert.