A woman pushes her bicycle past a non-exploded rocket in Ilovaisk, 50km southeast of Donetsk, 4 September. Photo: Getty
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When one mistake can lead to catastrophe: what next for Ukraine?

A ceasefire has been agreed but it remains in doubt whether Russia plans to conquer eastern Ukraine or establish a quasi-autonomous state there. 

Just when you thought an all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine had begun, a “ceasefire process” was agreed between the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia on 3 September. There was no immediate response from the rebel forces, who have been fighting the Ukrainian army since April and are likely to continue doing so – with Russian help – no matter what is agreed.

The news followed weeks of mounting tension, as recently released satellite imagery appeared to show Russian armoured vehicles and soldiers in battle formations travelling through the east of Ukraine. On 31 August the EU gave Russia a week to reverse its course or face new sanctions. A few days later, Nato announced that it was considering sending troops to eastern Europe as a counterweight to what it perceives as increasing Russian belligerence.

As ever, the Kremlin denied that an incursion of any kind was taking place, although a leak revealed Putin boasting that he could take Kyiv in two weeks if he wanted.

Over the past few months Ukrainian fears of a Russian invasion have peaked and receded almost by the week. As long ago as May, Ukrainians were telling me that Russian troops would be in Kyiv “within days”, only to backtrack when their claims never materialised, informing me (with who knows what sort of “inside info”) that the plan had been “abandoned for the time being”.

This perennial feeling of uncertainty – which on occasion spills over into paranoia – has played directly into Russia’s hands. As long as there is chaos in the east, Ukraine cannot move forward. The country elected a new president in May but the crisis has prevented him from pushing through domestic reforms necessary to combat the corruption that threatens Ukraine’s viability as a functioning state. Rhetoric aside, little progress has been made to fulfil Kyiv’s desires for EU and Nato membership, requests that enraged Moscow.

As the New Statesman went to press, few details had emerged of the terms of the ceasefire and it was not clear if it would hold. It remains in doubt whether Russia plans to conquer eastern Ukraine or establish a quasi-autonomous state there. A cost-benefit analysis would argue against both. The EU and US have already placed a host of sanctions on Russia, hindering its banks from getting access to international finance as well as targeting leading figures around Putin. The Russian economy is largely dependent on the price of oil (which has fallen recently) and further sanctions would be imposed if Putin attempted to annex the region, dealing another blow to Russia’s economic well-being.

The first question is: is Putin thinking rationally? Russia’s actions over recent months indicate that all may not be going to plan, if indeed there is a plan. Putin has alternately intensified and softened his public pronouncements as fighting between the separatists and government forces has increased, along with the death toll. There seemed to be a line Putin did not want to cross. Rebel leaders have at times lambasted Moscow for insufficient support.

The second question is: if Putin is not thinking rationally and is determined to increase the aggression, what can stop him? Many experts are gloomy about the options. “If we are not prepared to commit militarily, there is little we can do to change Putin’s mind,” says Peter Pomerantsev, the author of a forthcoming book on Russia, Nothing is True and Everything Is Possible.

In the days leading up to the supposed ceasefire, Ukrainian national forces were more prepared than ever for war. I spoke on Skype recently to Anton Skiba, a fixer I’ve worked with in the past, who spent late August travelling across eastern Ukraine. He told me that the main military action was concentrated on the Russian border, with security officials mobilised to protect strategic positions such as bridges and railways. “People are worried about invasion – and patriotism is growing as a result,” he said. “There are far more national symbols like flags in the eastern cities controlled by the army than ever before.

“Both the people and politicians are in almost total agreement: Russia has begun open war with Ukraine.”

In such a militarised atmosphere, the longer the uncertainty continues, the greater the chance of a miscalculation or miscommunication by either side, which would have devastating consequences. In the meantime, President Putin is destroying European stability, and with it the post-cold-war order that has ensured peace on our continent for the past 25 years. 

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.