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Misjudging Putin
Minsk II On The Brink?

Though the intensity of the fighting appeared to ease up earlier today, tensions remain high in eastern Ukraine, where the fragile Minsk II ceasefire seems on the verge of irreparably breaking down. Over the weekend, separatists in control of Horlivka (just outside of Donetsk) charged government forces with shelling the town center with heavy weapons and killing three, while Ukrainian forces reported at least two civilian deaths from rebel shelling outside of Mariupol. Vladimir Putin, speaking yesterday during a visit to Crimea, blamed the escalation firmly on the Ukrainian side, while Ukrainian leaders have been accusing Russian-backed separatists of using banned heavy artillery in the region for the better part of a week.

In response to all this, an emergency meeting between German, French and Ukrainian leaders has been called for next Monday in Berlin. Reuters:

“Its worrying,” [French Foreign Minister Laurent] Fabius told reporters ahead of the meeting between his president, Francois Hollande, President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“Military operations must stop and arms be withdrawn… Secondly, we need to right conditions for elections in the Donbass (eastern Ukraine),” he said.

“I hope Monday’s meeting will allow us to advance on both points. We hope to have a solution by December at the latest.”

It’s not perfectly clear from the reporting if the Europeans mean to press the Ukrainians on making further concessions to the Russian-backed separatists (as Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland notably did a few weeks back, when the Ukrainian parliament grudgingly passed amendments to the country’s constitution mandated by the Minsk II)—but it’s probably a reasonably safe bet to assume so. The FT noted earlier today that “most Western diplomats believe the Kremlin is genuinely seeking to de-escalate tensions”, and Fabius’ careful avoidance of assigning blame, and his allusion to December (a deadline set at Minsk by which Russia must return control over the border to Ukrainian forces) suggests that he wants to make sure that the Ukrainians fulfill all of their commitments, no matter how much the rebels may try to goad them into war.

But if recent history is any guide, “most Western diplomats” may soon find that they have misjudged the Kremlin’s strategy and intent yet again. And that can only mean one thing: expect more—and more serious—provocations from Putin’s proxies in the coming weeks and months.

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