Embattled Ukraine leader to seek US support

President Poroshenko arrives in Washington on Thursday with money and military aid on his mind, analysts say.

A Ukrainian soldier on an armored military vehicle in Kramatorsk town, near Slaviansk, Ukraine [EPA]

New York City, United States – When Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko touches down in Washington on Thursday, he may need more than the publicity dividend of a White House photo opportunity: money, military gear, and other signals of US support would help the embattled leader.

Some 3,000 Ukrainians have died in fighting so far; the economy will shrink by six percent this year; Crimea is gone; and a shaky ceasefire has failed to convince some rebels to submit to Kiev’s rule, while some Ukrainian nationalists see it as shameful capitulation to Moscow.

“He’s anxious to put the war behind him and address the problems facing Ukraine, including a cratering economy,” William Pomeranz, from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told Al Jazeera. “No other Ukrainian leader can match his level of support with the EU and the US president.”

Poroshenko is expected to call for more US help against eastern separatists and Moscow, which is accused of backing the rebellion, during his meetings with US President Barack Obama and in an address to the US Congress on Thursday. This may include financial aid and more military communication gear.  

In Ottawa on Wednesday, he called for more cooperation in “energy, trade, investment” with Canada.

Speaking with the media in Kiev ahead of the three-day trip, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin criticised Western leaders for “not doing enough to support” a country that is engaged in a “real fight for European values”.

No military solution

Washington has condemned Russia, slapped sanctions on Moscow and offered Ukraine nearly $70m for body armour, field rations, and communications gear. But Obama refuses to supply lethal weapons, saying a military solution “is not going to be forthcoming”.

Some US lawmakers disagree. Republican congressman and now Democrats, including Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, call for arming Kiev with lethal military gear.

Poroshenko had to strike a bargain with separatists on September 5 once it became clear that government forces could not win on the battlefield. Kiev and NATO say an incursion by Russian forces had tipped the balance in the rebels’ favour; Moscow denies this.

Under the deal, Kiev granted three years of self-rule to the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and an amnesty to pro-Russian rebels there. Poroshenko said this secures Ukraine’s “sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence”.

Imprisoned pro-Russian rebels should now be released – if they stick to the deal. Separatists are obliged to vacate seized government buildings, hand over captured Ukrainian soldiers, and put down their guns. Ukrainian nationalists blasted the deal as a “capitulation”.

“Poroshenko is caught between a rock and a hard place,” Kadri Liik, from the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, told Al Jazeera. “If he cannot find the leadership skills to convince his people of the need to cut an unpalatable deal, or ways to persuade Moscow to accept his terms, then he faces an impossible choice between his own people and Moscow’s tanks.”

An October 26 parliamentary ballot, in which nationalists and extremists are set to make gains, will “translate into a more contentious election that serves as a referendum on how far Ukraine is willing to go for peace”, added Pomeranz.

Moscow is basically saying that Ukraine and Georgia are on our border, and there's no way we will allow an alliance member to move arms into those countries and threaten us ... This is geopolitics 101.

- John Mearsheimer, Chicago University

The amnesty does not cover the shooting down of the MH17 passenger jet in July, which killed all 298 passengers and crew. Western leaders blame the tragedy on rebels firing a Russian missile, but a provisional Dutch probe did not apportion blame.

Closer EU ties

Many rebels still reject federalism or self-rule within Ukraine and demand full independence, often referring to a new state called Novorossiya – a Czarist-era term meaning New Russia, to describe the Ukraine’s Black Sea region.

On Tuesday, Ukraine also ratified a EU deal that covers human rights and security, and allows Kiev continued privileged access to the EU market. Ukraine will still tax imports from the EU until the end of 2015, amid Russian fears that it would suffer from duty-free EU goods flooding through Ukraine to its market.

Poroshenko’s predecessor, Viktor Yanukovich, rejected the EU pact last November in favour of a Russian deal, precipitating massive street protests that led to Yanukovich’s ouster, and what Moscow branded a pro-Western “coup” in Kiev.

Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in March and backed armed separatists in eastern regions, leading to successive rounds of Western sanctions on Moscow, and the worst crisis between East and West since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Frozen conflict

Speaking in Washington this week, NATO’s supreme allied commander, General Philip Breedlove, warned that four battalions of “very capable and tailored” Russian task groups remained in Ukraine to retain influence on the shaky truce.

“We see now some of the Russian force that is bringing great pressure on [the Black Sea port of] Mariupol, and you can look at it in two ways. It is either a coercive force to say: ‘Meet our terms in these negotiations, or else’; or it is a force that is well-suited for taking that port,” he said.

“This ceasefire, while it has done many good things, like stop the loss of life … is allowing a situation to be built in eastern Ukraine that could very easily slip into another frozen conflict – and that worries me greatly.”

A “frozen conflict” in eastern Ukraine echoes other post-Soviet separatist movements that reject central rule, such as Moldova’s Transnistria and Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia; where Moscow can leverage Russian-speaking populations to curb EU and NATO expansion.

“Moscow is basically saying that Ukraine and Georgia are on our border and there’s no way we will allow an alliance member to move arms into those countries and threaten us. This should be understandable to the West, but they just don’t get it. This is geopolitics 101,” John Mearsheimer, a Chicago University political scientist, told Al Jazeera.

Other analysts back Obama and his European counterparts, rejecting Russia’s use of military force to alter Ukraine’s borders and asserting Kiev’s right to choose Brussels and Washington over Moscow.

“The world is becoming less stable and this is having repercussions. Russia has historically been obsessed with buffer zones and territory and it is Russia’s instinct – and not a noble instinct – to answer the perceived hard times by gathering control of more territory around it,” said Liik.

Pomeranz also criticised Moscow’s attempt to “renegotiate the end of the Cold War” and win an “imperial right to control” neighbours, but noted that neither side wants to halt sales of Russian oil and gas that meet 30 percent of Europe’s energy needs.

“Russia’s economic success is dependent on the EU still buying its energy; which is the underlying irony of this whole crisis. This divorce really can’t take place. Russia needs the money and the EU needs the energy, and both sides are dancing around that topic,” he told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera

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