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A divided Western front is playing into Putin’s endgame

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his annual news conference in Moscow on Dec. 18, 2014.

PAVEL GOLOVKIN/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Since Russia's annexation of Crimea last March, the European Union, Canada and the United States have sought to maintain a united front aimed at pressuring the Kremlin to reverse course in Ukraine.

Over those eleven months, Russian President Vladimir Putin has refused to blink, despite the widening range of economic sanctions aimed at Moscow as more and more evidence emerged that Russia was providing direct military aid to separatists fighting in the Donetsk and Lugansk region of southeastern Ukraine.

Now, with the pro-Russian rebels again on the advance in the east – and the Ukrainian economic free fall exceeding even Russia's own economic troubles – there appear to be cracks in that Western unity, with European leaders seeking a peace that many in Ukraine might find difficult to accept. The United States, meanwhile, is considering arming the Ukrainian army in apparent anticipation of a longer and bloodier conflict.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande flew to Kiev on Thursday and will continue on to Moscow Friday for a meeting with Mr. Putin, hoping to get him to agree to a new peace plan that would reportedly include the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine.

It's the first trip to Moscow by Ms. Merkel since the Crimea annexation; she was previously friendly with the Russian leader. Mr. Hollande made a surprise trip to see Mr. Putin in December.

If the reports carried on Russian news services are accurate, it's a deal – while theoretically based on the concept of the territorial integrity of Ukraine – that offers the Kremlin much of what it is believed to be seeking in Ukraine: primarily a "frozen conflict" in the Donbass. That would protect Russian influence over that region, and by extension over Kiev.

The idea of Ukraine ever joining NATO is banished for as long as the conflict remains on ice, and Russia has managed to freeze similar conflicts in Moldova and Georgia for two decades and counting. Russia is also believed to be demanding that the government in Kiev continue to fund social services in Donetsk and Lugansk, even if those regions would be left effectively outside the Ukrainian government's control.

Europe, anxious to get its own economy restarted, could be expected to start lowering sanctions against Russia at the first signs of compliance from Moscow. Meanwhile, no one seems to be talking about Crimea any more.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was also in Kiev Thursday, but had no plans to join the Merkel-Hollande mission to Moscow. Instead, he appeared to cast doubt on the effort, noting that Russia had agreed to a ceasefire last fall in Minsk that was quickly violated.

"Let there be no doubt about who is blocking the prospect of peace here," Mr. Kerry said at a news conference alongside Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk. He accused Russia of escalating its military involvement in Ukraine even after the Minsk deal was signed in September.

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Mr. Yatseniuk pointedly said that Ukraine "will never consider anything that undermines the territorial integrity of Ukraine, its sovereignty and its European future."

While Ms. Merkel and Mr. Hollande are scrambling to try and make peace, U.S. President Barack Obama is said to now be considering providing the Ukrainian army with weapons such as anti-tank missiles, battlefield radars and reconnaissance drones to combat the Russian-backed insurgency.

The United States, like Canada, has until now provided only non-lethal gear such as uniforms, winter blankets, medical kits and night-vision goggles to the Ukrainian army. Defence Minister Rob Nicholson said Thursday that Canada had no plans to change its policy.

"We've been very clear in our support for Ukraine," he said at a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels. "We have been sending considerable non-lethal aid to Ukraine over the last number of months, as well as assistance in other forms, and that's what we're going to continue."

Russia, in contrast, stands accused of sending modern tanks and multiple-launch rocket systems into eastern Ukraine. Russian troops are also known to have died in the fighting there, though the Kremlin claims these were "volunteers."

The Kremlin has warned that any move by the United States to supply the Ukrainian army with weapons would be considered a "strategic threat" and lead to further worsening of the relationship between Moscow and Washington. A Kremlin spokesperson told CNN that Mr. Kerry's stance "shows the unwillingness and inability of the United States to participate in the solution to the Ukrainian crisis."

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The spokesman also denied again that Russian troops and military vehicles were operating inside Ukraine. Experts quoted on Kremlin-owned media suggested Mr. Hollande and Ms. Merkel were on their way to Moscow because the two leaders were worried about the U.S. plan to arm the Ukrainian army.

Mr. Kerry said the United States wasn't interested in escalating the conflict. "We have no illusions that there is a military solution," he said. But, he added, "you cannot have a one-sided peace."

Mr. Putin – who appears to be getting closer to the endgame he seeks – almost certainly disagrees.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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