Ukraine Cease-Fire: Putin Holds All the Cards

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The cease-fire in Eastern Ukraine is no done deal. The last truce lasted just 10 days and became "unilateral" because pro-Russian rebels never abided by it. But assuming this one does hold, it will give Kiev, Moscow, pro-Russian separatist representatives and OSCE mediators some space to negotiate a peace.


Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's representatives came to the talks in Minsk with a proverbial knife to their throats. Poroshenko just witnessed the defeat of his armed forces and militias, outgunned and beaten back this past week as pro-Russian rebels — reinforced by Russian heavy weapons and commandos — took key towns and opened a new front. Today, separatists claim to have entered Mariupol, Ukraine’s strategic sea port. And after more than five months of exhaustive fighting — in which at least 2,600 people have died, according to UN figures — a real cease-fire may be prize enough for the battered Ukrainian leadership to offer up a compromise.

The rebels, on the other hand, would he holding their fire at a time when they effectively control the major cities of Donetsk and Lugansk, as well as much of a land corridor to the Azov Sea. In order words, their "New Russia," as they now call it, is already a viable, breakaway entity. A fact on the ground.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, can well proclaim his seven-point peace plan is proof of his good intentions in Ukraine. He knows he’s already attained his immediate military goal: "to let Poroshenko know that the war is unwinnable for him," as prominent Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov recently told NBC News.

And now the heavy lifting begins. While Putin’s plan is comprehensive — dealing as it does with a prisoner exchanges, a humanitarian corridor in rebel-controlled areas for movement of aid and displaced people, as well as the rebuilding of infrastructure and the deployment of peace monitors — the plan doesn’t deal with Ukraine’s political future. Experts tell NBC News that, in return for offering Poroshenko a permanent peace, Putin has two conditions that have driven his Ukraine policy from the start: First, a pledge that Ukraine will never join NATO, which some have called Putin’s living nightmare; and second, giving the separatists in "New Russia’ enough autonomy to effectively control their homeland, while remaining, technically, part of Ukraine.

And that’s where the devil emerges from the details. Putin doesn’t need to grandfather an independent "New Russia" in Ukraine at a time when economic sanctions are beginning to hurt. The rebels themselves — no doubt under strong pressure from Moscow — have recently dropped independence as one of their key demands. But an autonomous, pro-Russian, Eastern Ukraine would give Putin a permanent "vote" in Ukraine’s future, and the kind of influence he’s sought throughout the former Soviet space.

Giving up that much political power to the rebels has, so far, been a red line for Kiev. But, with Putin holding so many of the cards, he may get what he wants in Ukraine without his proxies having to fire another shot.