DEADLOCK ON UKRAINE
Putin’s success in Syria has helped derail the U.S. attempts to isolate Russia following its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and support for a pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine. But the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the EU have continued to inflict damage to the Russian economy, blocking its access to Western financial markets and denying it access to modern technologies.
Putin would like to see them lifted quickly, even though the Kremlin tries to pretend the damage is limited and claim that the sanctions have played some positive role by encouraging Russia to be more self-reliant. Kerry said after the talks with Putin that Obama could lift the sanctions if Russia fully meets the terms of a peace deal for Ukraine brokered by France and Germany in February 2015. That deal signed in the Belarusian capital Minsk has helped reduce fighting in eastern Ukraine, but its political provisions haven’t been implemented.
The agreement was a political victory for Putin, because it required Ukraine to grant a broad autonomy to the rebellious east, including the right to have its own police, and offer an amnesty to the rebels. The deal also requested the rebels to fully hand over control over the border with Russia to the Ukrainian government, but only after local elections are held. The Minsk agreement has placed Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in a difficult position, as it amounted to an effective recognition of the rebel self-rule, something that the fiercely patriotic domestic audience would see as betrayal.
Because of that, Poroshenko has dragged its feet on fulfilling the Minsk deal, trying to shift the blame to Russia. That has worked with domestic audience, but has caused a growing irritation in France and Germany. The United States, however, has continued to firmly back Poroshenko and insisted that the blame for the failure to implement the Minsk deal lies with Russia. Poroshenko and his backers in Washington and the EU has tried to use the case of Nadezhda Savchenko, a Ukrainian air force officer who was captured by the rebels while fighting with a Ukrainian volunteer infantry battalion in the east in June 2014.
Savchenko was whisked into Russia and a Russian court this week sentenced her to 22 years in prison after convicting her on charges of involvement in the killing of two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine while directing the Ukrainian artillery fire in the area. Poroshenko said he was willing to exchange Savchenko for two Russians captured in eastern Ukraine, but the Kremlin so far has remained non-committal.
The United States and the EU has insisted that Russia must release Savchenko under the Minsk agreement that called for freeing prisoners of war, and her case has contributed to tensions. The deadlock over Ukraine makes any quick lifting of the U.S. and the EU sanctions against Russia unlikely.
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