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Ukraine ceasefires: Why the mediators matter

The latest attempt at a Ukraine ceasefire was mediated by the EU's top leaders. The first one was mediated by the 57-nation OSCE. These supranational bodies are a good answer to Russia's super-nationalism 

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Leaders of Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine gather Feb. 11 to hammer out a new ceasefire in Ukraine: Left to right, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

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It may be too easy to view the Ukraine-Russia conflict as simply another clash of nations, one to be settled either by force or a rebalancing of each side’s interests. But the 10-month conflict now requires an alternative view, one best represented in the type of mediators who negotiated the two different cease-fire agreements aimed at ending this war.

The first cease-fire agreement, cemented in September but which quickly fell apart, was mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Based on shared principles between the West and the then-Soviet Union,this 57-nation body was established during the cold war. It has been the on-the-ground monitor in Ukraine between the contending forces. But it is also an icon of the universal ideals that transcend nationalism.

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A second cease-fire pact, agreed to on Thursday, was mediated by the two main leaders of the European Union, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President François Hollande of France. The EU, ever since the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, has represented an attempt to rise above the continent’s historical geopolitical struggles and create a supranational body. It has tried to go beyond the 17th-century agreement known as Westphalia that set down a template for noninterference between nation-states. The EU’s aim is more positive, seeking to bond nations by common convictions, and even a common currency and open borders.

The real clash over Ukraine is between the old view of geopolitics as a power struggle between nations and a newer view of nations steadily binding their people in shared ideals. While many multinational organizations have been created in recent decades, the EU remains a crucible for a grand experiment in the practical details of 320 million people living by universal goals even as they live in  distinct nation-states. Ukraine’s request to join the EU, which so enraged Russia that it took a piece of Ukraine (Crimea), should be seen through this lens.

A grand strategist of geopolitics, Henry Kissinger, gives some respect to such noble aims in his latest book: “Our age is insistently, at times almost desperately, in pursuit of a concept of world order.” That order, he says, can consist of states cooperating in affirming individual dignity and participatory governance.

Yet even as the world now has unprecedented interdependence, it still faces the forces of chaos, he warns, such weapons of mass destruction and the disintegration of states. Then he asks: “Are we facing a period in which forces beyond the restraints of any order determine the future?”

Whether this latest cease-fire in Ukraine holds may depend on whether a very nationalistic leader, Vladimir Putin of Russia, sees a future for his country in following the ideals of organizations like the EU and OSCE. The fact that he accepts them as mediators indicates he may be so inclined.

With the ink still wet on the cease-fire agreement, Mr. Hollande offered this prospect: “Everything is not yet accomplished, but this is a serious hope for Ukraine and a relief for Europe.”