Pro-Russian rebels ride an armoured vehicle in Ukraine. Photo by AFP.

Pro-Russian rebels ride an armoured vehicle in Ukraine. Photo by AFP.

A victory for Russia

16 February 2015

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Vladimir Putin will see the Ukraine ceasefire agreement as a reward for his brinkmanship and a vindication of his strategy, writes Mathew Davies.

The agreement in Minsk between Russia and the Ukraine does not deserve the label "peace plan". While the plan may diffuse specific tensions in rebel-held areas, it does nothing to resolve the fundamental issue that has seen ongoing Russian efforts to undermine Ukraine.

Moscow and perhaps most importantly Vladimir Putin himself are dissatisfied with Russia's position in the game of geopolitics, and have chosen the Ukraine as a way to demonstrate their continued relevance. This relevance has two parts; a demand to be seen as an equal great power in the eyes of the West, but also to be seen as a special power with particular rights in their own "near abroad": the states of the former Soviet Union that Moscow has never fully reconciled itself to losing.

The series of crises in the Ukraine over the past year have never been about the Ukraine, or even about territory that Putin thinks should be integrated into Russia. The crises have been about the hurt honour of a country and a leader who want to be considered important. The conflict has been about perception.

As such, we need to see the agreement in the context of ongoing Russian ambitions; not as the end of a process but a stage in an ongoing strategy of pressing the West to pay attention and, where possible, make concessions that expand the ability of Moscow to exercise control over its neighbours.

It may seem strange, then, that Russia would agree to participate in the Minsk dialogue and then even stranger that it come to agreement about ending the conflict. Surely, this would mark the defeat of Russia's ambitions?

Such an argument seems superficially appealing - heavy weaponry will be withdrawn and then, after that, all foreign militias will leave the region. The agreement even apparently confirms Ukraine's right to take possession of the border with Russia from the rebel forces.

The details of the agreement tell a very different story, however, and will serve to show to Putin the rewards of this type of brinkmanship and the apparent soundness of this strategy.

The Ukrainian government in Kiev may only take over full responsibility for the border with Russia at the agreement of the rebels themselves, the very people who until the ceasefire were fighting to keep that border under their own authority. Second, Putin will be given some sort of access to the negotiations between the EU and Ukraine regarding the proposed free-trade area. Both of these concessions, so necessary to getting agreement in Minsk, give Russia what it seeks, control over events in its immediate geographic region that it would not otherwise enjoy.

So whether this specific agreement lasts or not, and I believe its lifespan will be short, it does not suggest any permanent peace. Russia will continue to press its concerns in the way it has for at least the last year and, because ultimately this matters far more to Moscow than it does to Washington, continue to be able to wring concessions out of the West and those states it claims to protect.

The likelihood of such Russian efforts continuing into the future reveals the limitations of President Obama's rhetoric in his State of the Union address. Obama labelled Russia a failing power, isolated and economically weakened. Russia is isolated, and its economy is increasingly fragile in the face of economic sanctions and the declining price of oil. But however objectionable we find its methods, however much we may question the wisdom of its aims, the agreement in Minsk suggests Russia is not failing in achieving its goals.

Russia does not want to be liked, it does not want to be friends and it does not want to be brought into the western club. It wants to be thought of once again as a Great Power, the way first Tsarist Russia and then the Soviet Union were. Both of these versions of Russian imperialism were respected and feared by their peers. This fear generated for Moscow unprecedented freedom in its near abroad to structure things to its own benefit.

The agreement in Minsk shows not only that the bear still has teeth, but that it also has the brains to use them.

Dr Mathew Davies is a fellow at the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

Interested in international relations? Find out more hereThis article was first published at The Drum.

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