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Will the Ukraine-Russia deal stick?

February 12, 2015 at 6:40 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Following the Ukraine cease-fire agreement announcement, many are asking today if this deal can actually stick.

We explore the chances of success with former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. He’s now a professor at Stanford University. And Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the U.S. and Europe at the Brookings Institution and author of “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.”

Welcome to you both.

So was this, Fiona Hill, today a breakthrough agreement or a work in progress?

FIONA HILL, Brookings Institution: I think it’s better described as a work in progress, Gwen.

I mean, we have a long way to go before we find any kind of final resolution for the conflict that’s unfolding as we still speak on the ground in Ukraine. But it is also, it has to be said, a significant step.

As we saw from the introduction to this piece, if this stops the fighting for a prolonged period of time, and it stops the killing of people on the ground in Ukraine, that in and of itself is something of an achievement. The most difficult pieces are all the things that we heard about what happens to the final status of these disputed territories inside of Ukraine and of Ukraine itself.

And I think there was actually a significant breakthrough for Ukraine in avoiding the — any kind of agreement right now about the final configuration of Ukraine itself, avoiding the use of the term federalism, and really pushing out some of these discussions to the future.

We don’t want too much loaded on this cease-fire at this particular juncture.

GWEN IFILL: How about that?  How much should be — Ambassador McFaul, how much should be loaded on this cease-fire?  How much should be hanging on that?  What was sacrificed in the name of unity or trying to get to unity?

MICHAEL MCFAUL, Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia: Well, a lot of ambiguity about the future of Ukraine and its territorial integrity.

In particular, they didn’t resolve what the special status of the Donbass will be. And until that is done and until the elections are held there, according to the agreement, the border between the rebel-held territory in Russia will remain open and not controlled by the Ukrainian government.

But all that said, I do agree with Fiona. Is it a flawed deal?  Absolutely. Is it likely to fail?  Yes. That would be my probability statement. Is it better than the alternative, which would be more war?  My answer also to that is yes.

And, ultimately, you know, I’m not going to judge President Poroshenko sitting here in Palo Alto, California, and decide what is better for Ukraine than what he decided. I think he determined that in the short-term this is a good deal for Ukraine. They will try to get stronger. They will try to get their economy stronger. And the IMF deal is a very important stage. And then they will live to fight — hopefully not fight, but live to try to settle a better term down the road.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Fiona Hill, what does Vladimir Putin get out of showing up for these agreements, for these negotiations or actually agreeing to anything at all?  What does he get out of this?

FIONA HILL: Well, right now, it appears that he got quite a lot, at least symbolically. He was able to present himself, as he actually did somewhat earlier in the case of Syria and chemical weapons, as a diplomat, a world leader who is trying to present himself as a peacemaker.

And he seemed to succeed that by sharing the stage.

GWEN IFILL: And he agrees to withdraw heavy weaponry which they never conceded was there.

FIONA HILL: Well, that’s absolutely right. He hasn’t really conceded anything. He hasn’t stated that Russia was involved in this conflict in any way.

All of the onus is being put, in fact, on Kiev, the government in Kiev, on Poroshenko, and then also the rebels to work it out between themselves. So he really has come out of this, at least at this particular stage, looking rather good, at least from his perspective.

GWEN IFILL: Michael McFaul, what does Ukraine do about the border?  It is a pretty porous border. It was before. It remains so. What does this agreement do to fix that or address that?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Well, it holds out the promise that they will be able to control that border some time in the future.

But the agreement states very specifically that there have to be new elections, local elections and constitutional changes to recognize the special status of Donbass before that. So I’m not optimistic that that’s going to happen. I think that in large — if you look at the whole thing, the agreement, I think that is actually the weakest part of the agreement that was agreed to today in Minsk.

GWEN IFILL: What’s, Fiona Hill, the alternative to something like this, an agreement like this?  What’s to stop this cease-fire from going in the way of the last cease-fire?

FIONA HILL: I think we have to do is to recognize that this is an interim step, that, just as you said, it’s a cease-fire. It’s not the final resolution of this conflict, by any means.

It’s a very important step forward. And we have to keep really engaged on this and also think about other formats. One of the other aspects of this, of course, was it just concluded between or among a handful of world leaders.

GWEN IFILL: Without the U.S. at the table.

FIONA HILL: Without the U.S. at the table.

So it gives us the opportunity, if this falls apart, to push forward with other initiatives of course in lockstep with our European allies. So, this is not the last word, by any means. It’s just another interim step. And I think if we focus on it in that perspective, and we keep on trying to help bolster up the Ukrainians and look at the situation on the ground with a very clear head, we can actually make this a step forward.

And, again, the important thing is, it’s a cease-fire, as long as we see that implemented in the next several days.

GWEN IFILL: Not so far today, as far as we know.

FIONA HILL: Not so far yet, no.

GWEN IFILL: Michael McFaul, what about the U.S. role?  There has been much discussion about that the U.S. should be arming the Ukrainian government and helping them by sending lethal weapons to hold that line. Did the prospect of that perhaps force some sort of tentative agreement here?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: I do think the specter of new arms to Ukraine helped accelerate the negotiations and focus the minds and get all those leaders together in Minsk. I do believe that is true.

I also believe it is true that Putin is the big winner here. Let’s be clear about that. Both sides are better off today because of this agreement than they were yesterday, but Putin is a lot better off. Now his proxies have consolidated their gains. They have given up very little, and we could be replaying this game all over again in six months’ time after some military offensive.

That’s what’s happened between the first Minsk accord and the second Minsk accord. So it’s better than the alternatives, but I still think Putin gains very concretely to his ultimate objective, which is to weaken and ultimately destroy the government in Kiev. That’s what he really wants to do.

Holding Donbass or not, bringing in part of Russia or not, I think, is secondary. His chief aim is to do that. This agreement helps him achieve that end.

GWEN IFILL: What about the potential or the threat of sanctions?  Wouldn’t that be enough to hold Putin’s feet to the fire, Fiona Hill?

FIONA HILL: Not in and of itself, no.

We have already seen that, of course, the sanctions have had a big impact on the Russian economy, although one of the stories that we have already had in the news roundup is the markets have rallied again because oil prices have gone back up somewhat, and this kind of prospect perhaps of a peace agreement has also had a boost here.

And I think we have to bear in mind that Putin actually is playing somewhat with the economic aspects with this. Russia actually has to roll over itself quite a lot of debt. There was a payment is actually due tomorrow, Friday the 13th. It’s not just Ukraine that is desperate to get a deal with the IMF. Russia also has to deal with its creditors.

So, Putin is actually playing to a large extent with these economic issues. The larger message is, we have to keep focused on this. We can’t just think we have resolved things with this disagreement.

GWEN IFILL: Friday the 13th.


GWEN IFILL: What timing.

Fiona Hill, Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, and Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and now a professor at Stanford University, thank you both very much.

FIONA HILL: Thank you, Gwen. Thank you.