The chilly reception that Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly received at this weekend’s G-20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, could have been predicted a month ago, when Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced his plan to “shirtfront” (Australian rules football slang for roughing an opponent up) Putin regarding July’s downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 near the separatist-controlled Ukrainian city of Donetsk. Abbott said then that “I am going to shirtfront Mr. Putin – you bet I am – I am going to be saying to Mr. Putin ‘Australians were murdered, they were murdered by Russian backed rebels’” (allegedly; the investigation into the incident is still ongoing, in part because Donetsk separatists have made it difficult for investigators to access the crash site).
As it turns out, when the G-20 actually got to Brisbane, Abbott had to take a number to get a crack at Putin. When the world leaders met on Saturday for handshakes, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper reportedly told Putin, “I guess I’ll shake your hand, but I have only one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine.” Putin’s spokesman said that Putin responded by saying that “this is impossible because they [Russia] are not there.” Later that day, Barack Obama told an audience at the University of Queensland that the United States is “leading the international community…in opposing Russia’s aggression against Ukraine – which is a threat to the world as we saw in the appalling shoot-down of MH17.” After a difficult meeting with British PM David Cameron, during which Cameron threatened additional sanctions against Russian interests, Putin decided he’d had enough and left the summit early because he, ah, needed to sleep. Because, you know, it’s much easier to sleep on an airplane than in an extravagant Australian hotel. I’m sure Putin’s airplane is very luxurious as these things go, but come on.
It should be noted that Putin engaged in his own provocative behavior around the G-20 summit. Prior to his arrival in Brisbane, the Russian navy sent a small fleet of warships into international waters around Australia in an apparent show of force. Despite Russian claims that the ships were there to test their range in advance of conducting climate research in the Arctic Sea, the Australian navy sent three of its own warships to monitor their activities. In addition, Russian defense officials announced last week that they would begin long-range bomber patrols over the Gulf of Mexico, an announcement that was received with some trepidation by American officials, though they acknowledged that Russia has a right to patrol over international waters. Still, for a guy who values his international standing, getting raked over the coals repeatedly at the G-20 and then running away back to Moscow was probably pretty embarrassing.
But hopefully it was a little embarrassing for Harper, Obama, and Cameron, as well, because while they were cathartically whacking Putin around, people are suffering and dying needlessly in eastern Ukraine, and that has at least as much to do with the other Eastern European leader involved in that conflict as it does with Putin.
Fighting between Ukrainian government and Donbas separatist forces has continued despite the ceasefire agreement that was reached between the two sides in Minsk on September 6. A report from the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on October 6 said that 331 people were reported killed in the month after the ceasefire was reached, though it allowed that some of those deaths may have occurred prior to the agreement and only been reported later. Considerable fighting has taken place around Donetsk’s airport, which both government and separatist forces claim to control. Government forces have been holding out for several weeks against a sustained rebel effort to capture the entire airport.
Recent elections held on back-to-back weekends only added fuel to the simmering fire. Parliamentary elections held on October 26 resulted in a big victory for Ukraine’s two largest pro-Europe parties, the party of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (called, inscrutably, the “Petro Poroshenko Bloc”), which won 132 seats, and the People’s Front, led by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk (who is expected to continue in that role in the new parliament), which won 82 seats. However, these results were tempered by the fact that the rebel-held portions of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts were excluded from the voting, and the rebel leaders refused to recognize the results. These regions, which the separatists refer to as the “Donetsk Peoples Republic” and the “Luhansk People’s Republic,” held separate elections for their own chief executives and parliaments on November 2. This vote, which violated the Minsk agreement and naturally seems to have deepened the separation between the two eastern provinces and Kiev, received Russian backing but was condemned by Kiev, the United States, and the European Union.
The fighting has picked up in intensity in the days since the November 2 vote. AFP reported last week that, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), escalation violence in Donetsk and Luhansk was threatening to “tip the region back into all-out conflict,” and the UN has warned that the ceasefire is being put under “continuous, serious strain.” The OSCE also reported that a convoy of unmarked trucks was seen towing heavy weaponry into Donetsk. This brings the story back to Putin’s Russia, since NATO officials are accusing the Russians of supplying the Donetsk and Luhansk rebels with troops, tanks, artillery, and anti-aircraft systems. Russia denied these accusations and countered by warning that Kiev is “planning an offensive operation” against the separatists, a “catastrophic” violation of the Minsk agreement.
It goes without saying that the longer the fighting in eastern Ukraine continues, the harder it is to imagine the breakaway “republics” ever fully reconciling with Kiev, and Poroshenko bears as much responsibility here as does Putin. On Saturday, Poroshenko announced plans to cut all social services to areas under rebel control, which could impact schools and health care for over 5 million Ukrainian citizens, and this came after Kiev had already stopping pension payments to citizens living in those areas. These hostile acts, being implemented in lieu of any attempt at diplomatic engagement with the separatists, will actually hasten the republics’ separation from Kiev. You can already see it happening, in fact; the UN estimates that nearly a million residents of eastern Ukraine have been displaced by the conflict, about half of them internally and the other half into Russia. Many, both ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians, have come to rely on the rebels to provide their basic needs and have expressed anger and resentment toward Kiev for the violence.
The one bit of good news to come out of the region over the past several weeks has been the October 30 announcement that Russia and Ukraine, with EU help, had reached a deal to provide Ukraine, and by extension the rest of Europe, with Russian natural gas over the winter. At least people throughout Europe won’t be scrambling to heat their homes this winter. But that’s scant comfort to the besieged populace of eastern Ukraine, displaced or just living without the ability to meet their basic human needs. It’s fine that Western leaders want to pressure Putin over his role in extending and deepening the Donbas war, but they need to put the same pressure on Poroshenko to pull off of the self-defeating path he’s on. Ukraine can’t be put back together with guns, bombs, or punitive economic measures; there has to be a real commitment to either get back to the Minsk agreement or negotiate a new one, and to acknowledge and begin to address the legitimate grievances that both sides of this war have.