Article by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on developments in Ukraine. Published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 6 May 2014
In Odessa last Friday, more than forty people died in a fire following a clash between two battling groups, which ended in one group fleeing into the trade union building. When molotov cocktails were thrown into the barricaded building, dozens of those inside were horribly burned to death. The police did not intervene. Ukrainian security forces continue to take action against street barricades and the seizure of public buildings by pro-Russian protesters who espouse violence. Dozens of people have been killed or seriously wounded in this and other clashes in the past few days alone. Thousands of soldiers are at the ready just beyond Ukraine’s borders, in what is viewed in Ukraine as a blatant threat of invasion.
These are dramatic events and developments. The news has not just got worse, it is getting worse ever quicker.
And if that wasn’t enough, the war of words is also escalating, reflecting as it were the course of events: ever sharper words are being exchanged between the Ukrainian leadership and the separatists, between Kyiv and Moscow, between the East and the West. Telephone calls between political leaders are in danger of becoming mere statements to their own constituencies instead of being a means of communication between interlocutors seeking to solve problems. Public opinion in some countries is easily stirred and is becoming increasingly radicalised.
All in all, the events on the ground and the public response thereto are inflaming each other and dramatically aggravating the overall situation. Madness is taking hold. We are in danger of reaching the point of no return, the moment when there will be no more stopping events spiralling out of control and we will literally be on the cusp of a war in eastern Europe.
And yet, although the situation deteriorates daily, we and the OSCE succeeded on Saturday, in the very midst of the ongoing battle for the town of Slavyansk, in freeing unharmed a total of twelve German, European and Ukrainian military inspectors who had been detained by pro-Russian separatists.
This was possible because everybody ultimately worked together constructively when it mattered – the Ukrainian Government in Kyiv, the Russian leadership in Moscow, and the Russian envoy Vladimir Lukin. This was possible because the OSCE had developed a network on the ground, on which it was able to draw at the crucial moment. This was possible because our political channels to Kyiv and Moscow were still open and allowed for the exchange of confidential information.
It is thus always worth making use of any remaining options, time and again, even if the situation seems all but hopeless. Giving up is not an option! This principle must also be applied to our efforts to achieve de-escalation. We could indeed fail. But we don’t have the right to sit back and let disaster take its course. We have the duty not only to seize any chances that arise, but also to doggedly make our own chances.
We no longer have a broad range of instruments at our disposal to bring about a peaceful settlement in Ukraine. And a military solution is not an option anyway. But we do have a seasoned, respected international organisation on the ground. The OSCE has been expanding its presence in Ukraine for several weeks now. It has representatives at many of the hot spots. And not only that – we also have an agreement that was signed by the four parties to the Geneva accord of 17 April, namely Russia, Ukraine, the USA and the European Union, which gives the OSCE a mandate to do more: to help manage local conflicts, to offer mediation, to assist in disarming non-state forces.
This is a chance, but no more than that. If the OSCE is to become a more powerful force for a political settlement, it needs strong backing from those who sent it into Ukraine – from its member states and in particular the four parties to the Geneva accord.
There is not much time left. In my opinion, the following points need to be dealt with as a matter of priority:
1. The four parties to the Geneva meeting must send a clear political signal that they stand by what they agreed and still want it to be implemented. Meeting again would send the right message. Such a meeting would not be able to avoid sensitive security policy issues.
2. Agreement must be reached on the conduct of the presidential elections, to give a new Ukrainian leadership democratic legitimacy, without which political and economic stability would not be possible.
3. Fora for dialogue, such as roundtables, mayors’ and governors’ meetings, and other suitable forms of formalised dialogue must be established at national, regional and local level, drawing on the OSCE’s expertise.
4. Broad consultations on constitutional reform must be held to a tight timetable with the goal of actively involving all regions and social groups, and producing a viable consensus.
5. The efforts to disarm non-state groups and clear public buildings and squares throughout the country must be continued.
We can only hope to succeed if the key participants, above all those in Moscow and Kyiv, are willing to go down such a road. Eastern and southern Ukraine must be able to play an active role in the process. We do not know if it will succeed. But paying the usual lip service to a peaceful settlement is certainly not enough. Perhaps the realisation that Russia and Ukraine doubtless have the most to lose should it not prove possible to turn the situation around now will help.