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A Window of Opportunity Is Closing in Ukraine

3 MINS READOct 8, 2016 | 13:00 GMT
A Window of Opportunity Is Closing in Ukraine
Pro-Russia separatists withdraw from the village of Petrovske on Oct. 3.
(ALEKSEY FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Talks between the United States and Russia over the Ukrainian conflict seem more and more unlikely to make any meaningful headway as Barack Obama's last presidential term comes to a close. Cease-fire violations are a daily occurrence along the line of contact in eastern Ukraine — Kiev reported 30 made by pro-Russia separatists on Oct. 7 alone — and plans to withdraw troops and weaponry in certain locations have had mixed results. After an Oct. 5 meeting between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Russian officials in Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said he had "no expectations of a breakthrough."

The two countries have a brief window of opportunity to reach an understanding, but it is rapidly closing. The end of the Obama administration will coincide with the European Union's decision over whether to extend sanctions against Russia, giving Moscow added impetus to reach an understanding with Washington sooner than later. A month ago, movement toward some sort of deal seemed possible as cease-fire agreements were struck in Syria and Ukraine. But in the end, neither held up. The Syrian accord has unraveled completely, and talks between the United States and Russia over the Middle Eastern conflict have been suspended. Meanwhile, fighting in Ukraine has flared up again, despite an initial period of relative peace. Though Kiev and the separatists agreed Sept. 21 to pull back their people and arms from three areas along the front line, cease-fire violations have crept back up in the past few days. Now, anywhere from 30 to 50 violations occur each day, and withdrawals from Zolotoe and Petrovskoe are progressing slowly. Thanks to ongoing gunfire, no moves to vacate Luganskaya have been made at all.

On the political front, the United States and Russia have had little more success. The Kremlin and the separatists it backs have made it clear that they will not make any substantial concessions on the battlefield without political compromise on Donbas — namely, Kiev's agreement to recognize and grant greater autonomy to the separatist territory. However, a recent opinion poll conducted by the independent Gorshenin Institute showed that over 63 percent of Ukrainian lawmakers oppose the idea of giving Donbas special status. Since any deal on the region's autonomy would require at least two-thirds of the Ukrainian parliament's approval, there is little chance an agreement would survive a vote. Moscow, meanwhile, announced Oct. 5 that it plans to suspend its arrangement with Washington to conduct joint research on uranium and nuclear physics — a decision the Kremlin attributed to U.S. sanctions against Russia for its activities in Ukraine.

For now, Ukrainian and separatist forces — and by extension, their powerful Western and Russian patrons — appear to be unable or unwilling to take any concrete steps toward a settlement. Though there is still time for either side to make tactical advances in Ukraine, any substantial strategic gains are unlikely, barring a last-minute diplomatic breakthrough. Instead, the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts seem certain to go unresolved as Obama wraps up his final days in office, leaving both to be dealt with by whoever takes his place in January. 

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