- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Obama administration on Thursday cautiously embraced the peace deal brokered by Germany and France to end Ukraine’s civil war, despite critics who say Russia and the Ukrainian separatists it is backing got the better of the deal, solidifying their hold on disputed territory while delaying any expanded Western military role in the conflict.

Several regional analysts predicted a surge of violence in eastern Ukraine ahead of Sunday morning’s deadline for a cease-fire — as the Ukrainian military and separatists forces seek to expand their lines before the shooting is supposed to stop.

Publicly, U.S. administration officials welcomed the deal and commended German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande for fashioning a diplomatic solution designed end the fighting that has killed more than 5,300 in eastern Ukraine since April. The Western leaders and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko negotiated late into the night with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Belarus Wednesday before announcing the deal.

But behind the scenes, U.S. officials said they were wary about the prospects for the cease-fire to last.

“We are concerned that the fighting continues,” one senior Obama administration official told reporters on background Thursday afternoon. “We are also concerned about reports of new heavy weapons [moving] into Ukraine from the Russian side, including reports today.”

While the official said the agreement was “absolutely essential to get the fighting stopped,” U.S. officials fear that a sustainable peace may still be out of reach.

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“The first thing is to have a real cease-fire and a real pullback … After that comes this very complex political process,” the official said. “That will require a lot of continued work and a lot of continued negotiation by the various parties.”

Mr. Putin in agreeing to the deal put on the back-burner any talk of sending such U.S. offensive military equipment as armor piercing weapons to Kiev — a subject of intense debate in the White House recently.

“This agreement has probably put on hold any kind of new sanctions or other action against Russia from Washington,” said Boris Zilberman, who is following the situation closely at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “That might be Putin’s goal — that he can solidify his gains in eastern Ukraine while blunting our options.”

Steven Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted in a blogpost Thursday that both sides are likely to try to maximize their position in the next two days. Under the agreement, the cease-fire will be followed by the creation of a buffer zone between 35 and 80 miles wide over the coming two weeks.

“If the cease-fire holds — a very big if,” wrote Mr. Pifer, “the next immediate step will be withdrawal of heavy weapons away from the line of contact.”

Mr. Putin told reporters Thursday that the deal envisages special status for Ukraine’s separatist regions, while Mr. Poroshenko maintained there was no consensus on any sort of autonomy or federalization for eastern Ukraine.

Obama administration officials said the next step would be talks between Kiev and rebel leaders toward the “implementation of interim self-government in the special status area” — territory now controlled by the rebels in the eastern Ukraine.

There would then be a potential vote toward autonomy for the area, although it would still remain part of Ukraine. If and when the vote is resolved, Ukraine’s government, and presumably its military, would be allowed retake control of the nation’s border with Russia.

While uncertainty remains, the collective powers of the Western world appeared to throw their weight behind the deal. Within hours of its announcement, the International Monetary Fund agreed to give Ukraine’s struggling government a new bailout package worth $17.5 billion. The World Bank said it was ready to commit up to $2 billion.

With Ukraine’s government finances in shambles, the money was likely a “sweetener for everybody involved in the conflict to play nice and sign the peace agreement,” said Mr. Zilberman.

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