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It was late August and Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, was running out of time: separatist rebels backed by thousands of Russian troops were pounding Ukrainian forces in the east of his country. He needed Vladimir Putin to agree to a ceasefire — and fast. So he played what he thought was his trump card.
Mr Poroshenko told the Russian president that if there were no ceasefire, his staff would post on the internet hundreds of dog tags seized from Russian soldiers captured or killed in Ukraine. They would also contact the Russians’ wives and mothers to explain where their husbands and sons were.
It was a potent threat in the east-west propaganda war. Mr Putin was denying to the world that regular Russian soldiers had ever set foot in Ukraine. The Russian leader then began to shift position. A few days later, Mr Poroshenko arrived at a Nato summit in Wales with a draft ceasefire deal, which would be signed within 24 hours.
Mr Poroshenko has told the dog tag story to several senior western officials, though Russian officials do not confirm it. Some suspect it reflects a certain bravado on the part of a billionaire politician desperate to save his country from being torn apart.
The Minsk accord, which was signed in the Belarusian capital on September 5, allowed all sides to pretend for a while that diplomacy could solve the Ukraine crisis. But with deadly fighting flaring up again in recent weeks, the document has come to represent another failure to check Russia’s ambitions in Ukraine.
In the struggle for the country, Mr Poroshenko is the man in the middle — caught between Russia’s aggression and the west’s refusal to help him to counterpunch. Nicknamed Ukraine’s “Chocolate King” for the $1.3bn fortune he made from his Roshen confectionery business, Mr Poroshenko is not necessarily the warts-free president the protesters who massed in central Kiev last winter against a corrupt, oligarch-dominated system would have envisaged.
Mr Poroshenko was an oligarch himself. But he was the only one to stand with demonstrators on the Maidan, and his Channel 5 television network firmly backed the protesters. He was also a seasoned insider, a former foreign minister and economy minister who served in both the “Orange” government after Ukraine’s 2004 pro-democracy revolution and, briefly, under pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovich.
Mr Poroshenko straddles east and west, with businesses in Russia as well as Ukraine. During his presidential campaign in May, he presented his ties to Russia as an advantage. “Of course I know Putin well,” he said. “I have a lot of experience of talking with him. I can confirm these discussions are not always easy.” Moscow officials say privately Mr Poroshenko is someone they feel they can deal with.
As well as being able to talk to the Kremlin, Mr Poroshenko is the first Ukrainian president to speak English fluently and is comfortable navigating western diplomacy. At times during the crisis, the stocky, smooth-tongued leader has inveigled himself into the heart of European decision-making.
During a summit of EU heads of state, he lingered in an anteroom closed to visitors so he could nab Angela Merkel when she came out to consult advisers. His persistence paid off, persuading the German chancellor to secure tougher language on the Ukraine crisis in the summit communiqué. “There were grumbles, but it’s Merkel, she can do what she wants,” said a European diplomat. “She was trying to bolster him.”
But he has occasionally overplayed his hand. In an emotional address to a joint session of the US Congress in September, he thanked Washington for the non-lethal support it had given Ukraine’s military, including blankets and night-vision goggles. “But,” he added acidly, “one cannot win a war with blankets.” The White House, which has opposed arming Ukraine, was furious. “It was a stupid move on his part,” says a US official.
Mr Poroshenko’s phone conversations with Mr Putin also sometimes left US, German and British officials in the dark. “Reminders have needed to be delivered to Poroshenko’s team: if you want our help, you have to make sure that we have a clear understanding of what is going on,” says a diplomat.
A person close to Mr Poroshenko insists he kept EU and US officials informed. He also bombarded them with calls to “stop them falling asleep” over Ukraine, and to try to persuade them to join him in talks with Russia. One of the most important of those meetings came on August 26, as the fighting raged in eastern Ukraine.
The dinner in Minsk, according to one person present, was “one of the most surrealistic meetings I have ever had”.
Along with Mr Putin, Mr Poroshenko and three European commissioners, the guest list included the ageing authoritarian leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan — Alexander Lukashenko and Nursultan Nazarbayev. A US official quipped it was a “Star Wars bar of international diplomacy”.
The tone was set by Mr Lukashenko, often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator”. Over dinner, he bragged of a new Belarusian bread that caused no weight gain and watermelons as tasty as Spanish ones, but with less sugar.
Yet most surreal was what was left unsaid. Though Russian tanks had begun pouring over Ukraine’s borders, no one wanted to mention the war. Even in earlier plenary meetings when Mr Poroshenko tried to discuss the fighting, Mr Putin steered the talks back to something else: a trade deal.
By now it was easy to forget the Ukraine crisis had been sparked by EU plans for a free-trade agreement with Kiev. For Mr Putin, allowing a land seen as the cradle of Russian civilisation to move into Europe’s orbit was unthinkable. For the EU, the stakes were also high: Ukraine was central to its plans to spread democracy and European standards to more former Soviet states through its “Eastern Partnership” programme.
This, in fact, was the ostensible reason for the Minsk meeting: to discuss how Ukraine’s EU deal could be made compatible with the nascent “Eurasian Union” Mr Putin was forming with Belarus and Kazakhstan. The Russian president had long wooed Kiev to join his group — and saw Ukraine’s revolution not just as a western plot, but also as a serious blow to his economic prospects.
Now Mr Putin would try again to torpedo the deal, which Mr Poroshenko had signed in June, but not ratified. He insisted on renegotiating 2,340 tariff lines, which could delay the trade pact by months or years. Ukraine’s president stood firm: negotiators could talk some more, but nothing would keep the country from ratifying the deal.
As the other guests left, Mr Poroshenko and Mr Putin retired to a separate room — for their first solo face-to-face meeting as presidents. Mr Poroshenko opened by demanding Russian troops leave Ukraine, an official present in Minsk said. Mr Putin made his much-practised denial that any Russian troops were there. Then he added menacingly that if he really wanted to invade, he had 1.2m soldiers armed with the world’s most sophisticated weaponry. They could be in Kiev in two days — or in Tallinn, Vilnius, Riga and Bucharest, all capitals of EU and Nato countries.
Despite the threats, Mr Poroshenko put forward a peace plan. If Mr Putin didn’t like it, he said, the Russian president should suggest his own ideas.
As the carnage in east Ukraine mounted in the coming days, the two leaders continued speaking by phone. According to a western diplomat, Mr Poroshenko feared he could be “gone [from office] in two days” unless he delivered victory, or peace. But Mr Putin was under pressure, too, as news leaked at home of Russian soldiers’ bodies returning from Ukraine — making Mr Poroshenko’s dog-tags threat all the more potent. On September 3, the two men agreed the framework of a deal.
The next morning, Ukraine’s president arrived at a Nato summit in Cardiff, Wales, with a surprise: his draft ceasefire agreement. He unveiled it first to the “Quint”: US president Barack Obama, Ms Merkel, French president François Hollande, British prime minister David Cameron and Italian premier Matteo Renzi. To add pressure on Moscow to comply, Mr Poroshenko told the leaders that the west should go ahead with new sanctions against Russia. But the EU should be more flexible in implementing its trade deal with Ukraine — including renegotiating the thousands of tariff lines Mr Putin objected to.
Mr Obama responded first, according to a person in the room. Was this something Ukraine wanted, or Mr Putin wanted? Mr Poroshenko made clear he was the one seeking it. Mr Obama turned to Ms Merkel: if the Ukrainians want it, why not? She agreed.
But when José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president who had fought hard for the trade deal, was told of the plan later, he was incredulous. “Barroso was, like, WTF?” recalls a US official. Did Mr Poroshenko fully understand the consequences of his request? After all, the failure of his predecessor, Mr Yanukovich, to sign the EU deal had brought Ukrainian protesters on to Kiev’s Maidan square. If it was not ratified as planned, “[we feared] he would be defenestrated like Yanukovich was,” said an official who discussed the issue with Mr Barroso in Wales.
To many observers, it was clear Mr Obama wanted a peace deal at any cost. Domestic pressure was mounting over the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. US officials had been ringing other capitals even before the summit to search for something that could placate the Kremlin so Mr Obama could focus on Isis at the Nato meeting. “I got a phone call from the Americans as well: can’t we offer something, a symbol for the Russians,” said one European summit insider. “I told them there’s no such thing as a symbol. It’s a really big gift.”
Mr Barroso held his ground — and a compromise plan emerged. The European Parliament and Ukraine’s Rada (parliament) would ratify the trade deal on September 16. But measures allowing EU goods open access to Ukraine’s markets, the substantive issue behind Mr Putin’s request to amend 2,340 tariff lines, would be suspended until 2016. (A Russian minister accepted this compromise, later earning a stern reprimand from the Kremlin.)
All the elements were in place for the ceasefire to be signed. As Nato leaders held the second day of their summit on September 5, a thousand miles away in Minsk, representatives of Kiev, Moscow, and eastern Ukraine’s two rebel “people’s republics” signed the 12-point deal.
It was supposed to provide considerable autonomy for the rebel republics — while allowing Mr Poroshenko to claim he had preserved Ukraine’s borders. Within hours, the fighting began to lessen. But it never stopped.
Any optimism about the Minsk deal would be shortlived. Russia failed to implement key provisions allowing Ukraine to secure its borders, and Russian military support continues to flow across it today. Face-to-face attempts in Brisbane and Milan by Ms Merkel and other leaders to persuade Mr Putin to comply with the deal have failed.
Dozens of civilians have been killed by heavy shelling since mid-January in east Ukraine, and with the fighting back near the levels of last August, the Minsk accord is all but dead.
The escalation has left western capitals baffled once again about Mr Putin’s motives. Is he seeking to force the west into broader negotiations on issues such as his demand for guarantees that Ukraine will not join Nato? Or is he seeking to create a “frozen conflict” in the east as a way of destabilising the Kiev government? It has also revived the debate about providing arms to Ukraine — one which could yet undermine the unity between the EU and the US.
Meanwhile, Russia’s economy has gone into a tailspin, hurt by falling oil prices and sanctions. Over time, this could hinder Mr Putin’s ability to keep financing military action in Ukraine. But it might also persuade him to up the ante militarily, just as after the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, and use patriotic fervour to distract Russians from their falling living standards.
From Berlin to Washington, western leaders are concluding that the rupture with Russia marks a fundamental shift. In echoes of the cold war, diplomats once again talk of “containment”.
The failure of diplomacy so far to resolve the crisis has led to concerns that Mr Putin may simply not want a resolution. A former German ambassador says that after months of contacts with the Russian leader, Ms Merkel has come to an unhappy conclusion.
“Maybe he’s not interested in restoring order,” he says. “Maybe his advisers are telling him that Russia is better off in a world without order.”
Reporting team: Neil Buckley, Peter Spiegel, Roman Olearchyk, Sam Jones, Stefan Wagstyl, Geoff Dyer and Roula Khalaf
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