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Trade deal locks Poroshenko and Russia in standoff

In a move that angered Moscow, Ukraine’s new leader signed a trade deal to bring his country closer to Europe. Jeffrey Brown talks to Matthew Rojansky of the Wilson Center and Nikolas Gvosdev of the U.S. Naval War College about the challenges of implementing the deal, as well as the dilemma now facing Russian interests in seeking to stave off further western sanctions.

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    And for more, we're joined by Matthew Rojansky director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, where he focuses on U.S. relations with former Soviet states. And Nikolas Gvosdev is professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. He's written extensively about Russia.

    Welcome to both of you.

    Matt Rojansky, let me start with you.

    This trade agreement was the trigger for so much last November. Now it's signed. How important is it, and what impact will it have?

  • MATTHEW ROJANSKY, Wilson Center:

    There's no question it's important, but actually its role as a trigger is probably the less important role.

    I would say much more important is what it means now. It's a massively important symbol that Poroshenko was able to accomplish something that Yanukovych, his predecessor, was unable to accomplish. But the real test comes in the implementation.

    In fact, Yanukovych could always have signed the agreement, and simply failed to implement it. And I think that's what most Ukrainians and, by the way, the Russians, expected. It was a surprise that Yanukovych walked away from the signing the way he did.

    So, the real question is, Poroshenko now has signed the piece of paper. He has to do extremely painful, costly and difficult things in order to make Ukraine a competitive economy that, rather than drowning in the deep end of the European pool, can actually succeed.


    And Nikolas Gvosdev, how do you see it? And from the Russian side, is it likely to cause President Putin to take any action?

  • NIKOLAS GVOSDEV, U.S. Naval War College:

    Well, first, let me agree with Matt that this is only the beginning of a process, not the end.

    And it's not simply the Ukrainians that will have to move forward. European countries, having taken on this agreement, will decide how much they plan to fund Ukraine, what they plan to do in terms of offering concrete mechanisms. It does pale to remember that Turkey has had an accession agreement with the European Union for decades, and Turkey has not advanced any further.

    The Russian side is very interesting. I think the Russians see this essentially now as a game of geopolitical chicken. They're waiting to see who is going to blink first. Are the Europeans, having gotten Ukraine up to this starting point of signing this agreement, are they going to do more to actually help Ukraine? And we will see in the coming months.

    There's still very contentious talks about the energy flow. Ukraine right now is not receiving natural gas from Russia. The Russians have also threatened that they're going to, from this point onward, treat Ukrainian imports on a much different way than they were done before. Before, they had preferential trading relations with Russia. And I think some of the Russian calculation is that, in addition to Ukrainian problems with implementing the E.U. agreement, they're going to have some sectors in Ukraine that find that they don't like having access to the Russian markets cut off.

    And that could lead to political pressure down the road.


    Well, Matt Rojansky, how do you read the Russian — in all of it, but especially events on the ground right now? Because we refer to a cease-fire that is not really a cease-fire. How much control does Russia have over events on the ground?


    I have to believe that Russia has more control than thus far it has exercised.

    That doesn't necessarily mean that Mr. Putin is orchestrating the action, that, for example, he makes a phone call and a Ukrainian airplane or helicopter gets shot down. I think, actually, that's very unlikely.

    What he has done is he has sent plenty of weapons into the region. Or he has allowed that to happen. He has allowed Russian volunteers to go into the region. He has not hermetically sealed the border between Russia and Ukraine, which would, if nothing else, limit the theater of operations, so that the Ukrainian forces could in fact surround the separatists.

    He hasn't done that yet. If he were to do that, though, and this is the key, it might be necessary, but it's not sufficient to end the conflict. And this is where we have the problem with the Western position.

    The Western position judges Mr. Putin's compliance based on the results in the conflict. Does the conflict end? Is peace restored? And that depends on much more at this point even than Mr. Putin.


    You're saying he may not control that.


    It's a genie out of a bottle problem.

    He has done things at this point which now potentially put local leaders beyond his ability to reel them back in.


    Well, Nikolas Gvosdev, what about that? Where there were supposed to be talks going on, they don't seem to be happening, or at least there's not a real cease-fire yet. What is happening?


    Well, the problem from the Ukrainian government side is they really don't want to have to deal with the separatist leaders as if they represent real political constituencies in East Ukraine.

    They don't want to give them a legitimacy of sitting at the same table as Ukrainian government representatives. So, the Ukrainian government has been for months trying to avoid that scenario. From the Russian side, the Russians realize that there's pressure coming in from Europe.

    And they have been calibrating what they do on the border with Ukraine, what would be most likely to tip sanctions from — new sanctions from being imposed on Ukraine, but they don't want to give up the advantages that the separatist movement give them, because as long as there's a viable separatist movement in the east, it means there can't be a political settlement unless the Russians are dealt in and unless Russian interests are considered.

    So the Russians are in this odd position of, they need to do enough compliance with these requests to stave off further sanctions from the West, but they can't, as Matt has already indicated, hermetically seal off the border, for fear that they might lose some of the influence that they currently possess.


    Well, so that suggests, Matt Rojansky, both sides are in a strange position, both Russia and Poroshenko.


    Yes, this is kind of the mutual annihilation standoff, right, where on the one hand Poroshenko has to continue with European integration, which he knows is the pathway that undermines Putin's vision of Eurasians integration, right?

    Ukraine is the big prize in the former Soviet space, and by taking Ukraine to Europe, he really damages Putin's position. Putin, at the same time, if he gives up, as Nick said, the influence that he has in the Donbass and Southeastern Ukraine, then his leverage against Poroshenko really atrophies.

    And this is not a trust-based negotiation. This is like a mafia negotiation. You keep your gun on the table while you talk about how to carve up the turf.


    And what about — Nikolas Gvosdev, you brought up the sanctions we have talked about a little bit here. But what about the prospect for new sanctions from Europe, from the U.S.? Would they be effective at this point?


    It depends what those sanctions are.

    And it was very interesting that the Europeans today again delayed a unified sanctions response. They have put it off now until next week, and again it's based on these vague compliance indicators. It gives those countries in Europe which really don't want to see further sanctions placed on Russia enough room that if they can show that Russia has made some steps, then they can argue a process is in place and we don't need to impose new sanctions.


    All right, Nikolas Gvosdev, Matthew Rojansky, thank you both very much.


    Thank you.


    Thank you.

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