It’s time for Ukraine combatants to consider asking Nazarbayev to mediate a peace

23 декабря 2014, 11:50

In 1974 and 1975 U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger flew back and forth between Israel, Egypt and Syria to negotiate an end to the Arab-Israeli war of 1973.

News organizations dubbed Kissinger’s mediating “shuttle diplomacy.” That term has applied ever since to a diplomat or head of state jetting between combatant countries to try to negotiate an end to conflict between them.

I thought about shuttle diplomacy when I read a terse announcement last week from Nursultan Nazarbayev’s press service saying that Kazakhstan’s president would be in Kiev on a “working visit” on Monday, December 21.

That’s because I’ve long believed he had the “right stuff” to pull off a negotiated settlement of the Ukraine conflict if the parties involved – Ukraine, Russia and the eastern Ukrainian separatists – would only ask him to try.

As soon as I heard that the president was heading for Kiev, the journalist in me suspected the purpose of his trip was to sound out the Ukrainians about how a settlement could be achieved.

Within hours my hunch was confirmed. News organizations declared that the reason for his journey was to discuss possibilities for ending the conflict.

Any prescient observer would quickly have concluded that President Nazarbayev would share whatever openings toward peace that surfaced in Kiev with Russian President Vladimir Putin the next day – Tuesday, December 23. The two were scheduled to see each other in Moscow that day for meetings of the Collective Security Treaty Organization states and of the Eurasian Economic Union countries.

In fact, it’s likely that President Putin asked the leader of Kazakhstan to go to Kiev before the Moscow gathering.

The president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, announced late last week that he, too, would be talking with Ukrainian leaders in Kiev -- on Sunday, December 21, the day before President Nazarbayev would.

President Lukashenko would be attending the same Moscow meetings as the Kazakhstan leader on December 23 – so it’s likely President Putin also asked him to sound out Ukrainian leaders about peace.

Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus are the three members of the Eurasian Economic Union.

I wondered for months why Russia, Ukraine and the separatists hadn’t asked President Nazarbayev to mediate the conflict.

I thought he would be an excellent choice. He’s close to President Putin. At the same time, the Ukrainians respect him.

And during his tenure Kazakhstan has pursued a policy of achieving cordial relations with all nations.

To be sure, the leadership in Kiev became angry last spring when President Nazarbayev said, after Russian troops had taken over Crimea, that he “understood” Russia’s historical claim to the peninsula and President Putin’s determination to look out for Russian speakers in other countries.

But President Nazarbayev also called for a peaceful settlement of the Crimean dispute and of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where separatists have insisted that Russia-leaning Donetsk and Lugansk provinces be independent.

In fact, he offered to mediate the Ukraine conflict – although he didn’t talk specifically about engaging in shuttle diplomacy. But his offers were ignored.

I became convinced in early fall that the reason neither the Russians, Ukrainians nor separatists had taken President Nazarbayev up on his offer to mediate was that all three sides thought they could achieve their goals by force.

Ukraine thought its could reclaim Donetsk and Lugansk provinces with arms, Russia thought it could attain a “frozen conflict” in those provinces by force, and the separatists thought they could achieve independence by force.

Because none of the sides appeared to want peace, President Nazarbayev, like the rest of the world, had to sit back and watch the conflict get so bad that it posed a threat not just to the region but to the world.

He also had to watch the fallout from the sanctions that the West had slapped on Russia affect Kazakhstan’s economy – although in this instance, he could – and did – do something. He ordered his leadership team to draft a plan to limit the damage.

Ukraine was close to retaking Donetsk and Lugansk provinces until -- Kiev and the West allege -- Russia sent tons of heavy equipment and thousands of regular forces into eastern Ukraine in August. Russia has consistently denied sending troops across the border.

After the separatists regained territory in a counter-offensive that the West says was spearheaded by Russian forces, Russia appeared to have what it wanted in eastern Ukraine – a frozen conflict. That’s a situation in which there’s no longer fighting in the territory that’s in dispute so the territory becomes de-facto independent.

A frozen conflict would have been fine with the separatists in the short run because they could have run their territory the way they wanted. Ultimately they would want true independence – the kind that comes when other countries recognise them as sovereign states. 

Frozen conflicts make it difficult for the country that’s lost the territory to conduct business as usual. It must continually think about, and commit resources to, trying to prevent the conflict from becoming hot again

So it looked as if Ukraine, with a frozen conflict on its hands, would be the loser in the dispute over its eastern territory.

That’s when fate stepped in.

The Russian economy imploded to the point that the Kremlin decided it needed peace with Ukraine.

The implosion was due to a perfect storm of tanking oil prices, a plunging ruble and Western sanctions.

News organizations have reported many signs in the past two weeks that Russia’s elite and middle class have been panicking over the economic tailspin.

One example: Many in the middle class rushed to buy electronics and appliances before the ruble plunged further, which would have made the cost of the goods even higher.

A particularly telling sign of the panic was a comment by Evgeny Gavrilenkov, chief economist of the investment banking arm of Sberbank, Russia’s largest financial institution. He said changes in Russian financial policy were needed to head off a full-blown banking crisis.

Fear of an economic disaster was what many Russia watchers say turned the truce in eastern Ukraine that had been a cease-fire in name only into a real truce the past two weeks.

The truce agreement was achieved in negotiations in the Belarussian capital of Minsk in the fall that were part of a series of discussions that have failed to stop the conflict.

More than 1,000 combatants and civilians have died since the truth was negotiated in September.

Now, for the first time in the Ukraine conflict, it actually looks like the most important sides – Russia and Ukraine -- want a negotiated settlement.

And if Russia wants a settlement, the separatists will have no choice but to bite their lip and go along.

It’s crucial that all three parties either want a settlement or are prepared to accept one -- because as long as any side believes it can attain its objectives by force, the fighting will continue.

That’s where President Nazarbayev comes in.

The Minsk negotiations, which have involved Russia, Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and others, have been unable to achieve a peace and thus are discredited, in my mind. One of the complaints about those negotiations is that there are too many players in them to make them a viable negotiating forum.

I think the time is right for the combatants to ask President Nazarbayev to mediate the Ukraine conflict with the shuttle diplomacy that Henry Kissinger used to achieve a Middle East peace in the mid-1970s.

The president could do the region and the world a great service by helping negotiate a Ukraine peace.

It wouldn’t be easy, which would make the accomplishment even greater.

Achieving peace would raise President Nazarbayev’s – and Kazakhstan’s – stature around the world.

And it would add to the legacy the president has already achieved as a leader who stopped nuclear testing on Kazakhstan’s soil and who got rid of the nuclear weapons the country inherited from the break-up of the Soviet Union.

I hope the three sides in the Ukraine conflict will ask him to see what he can do to try to mediate a peace.

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