Hope springs eternal: the phrase, common in Russia and Ukraine, could not be more apt.
Ever since last Thursday's all-night peace talks in Minsk, which brought together Russia, Ukraine and Western mediators in the hope of bringing about a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, hope has been growing that there could be an end to the death and suffering.
But this is far from a sure thing. Even after the marathon talks, German chancellor Angela Merkel, who led the talks along with French president François Hollande, admitted there was still “lots and lots of work” to do.
As of today, the ceasefire was broadly holding. But Ms. Merkel has a deep distrust of Vladimir Putin and questions whether he will stick to the agreement, and with good reason. The first ceasefire agreement signed in Minsk in September was not observed by Moscow; the Kremlin allowed the military thugs it calls separatists to continue their advance into eastern Ukraine.
If the separatists do not keep to the ceasefire this time, Mr. Putin will lose all credibility.
During the period between Minsk I and Minsk II, the separatists achieved significant territorial gains with massive support from Moscow. For that reason, experts now ask why Russia and its fighters should adhere to a ceasefire agreement this time, when they can hope to be rewarded at the negotiating table for further territorial conquests on the ground.
The question is justified. But the one crucial difference between Minsk I and Minsk II is that this time Mr. Putin, who up to now has stubbornly insisted that he is not belligerent, has been granted the role of peacemaker at the negotiating table.
Mr. Putin participated in the negotiations as an equal. The result was autonomy for the Donets Basin, one of the rebel strongholds, in return for peace in all of Ukraine.
He has also personally pledged to support the solution that was jointly worked out. He will no longer be able to claim that the separatists are not under the command of the Kremlin. If they do not keep to the ceasefire this time, he will lose all credibility.
The compromise is a litmus test for Mr. Putin and a make-or-break point for Ukraine. The Russian president has staked his country's moral credibility, without which it will never again be respected as a great power.
For Kiev, everything is at risk. Will President Petro Poroshenko, the dove among so many hawks, find domestic support for the major concessions he has made in order to achieve a peaceful compromise? Or will a new power struggle, even a new revolution, tear apart Europe's largest country by area?
There is reason to fear a new power struggle if the West does not now quickly stabilize the Ukrainian economy with concrete aid projects. But this must not extend to the Donets Basin — that is now the task of Russia. If it did, Mr. Putin would be seen as being rewarded for his annexation policy.
Much energy must be invested in enhancing the economic cooperation between the European Union, Russia and Ukraine. If that happens, Europe will perhaps get out of the affair with only a cold shudder running down its back.
Berlin and Paris must make sure that Ukraine does not disappear from the map of Europe.
The lesson to be learned from the crisis over the Donets Basin? More cooperation and diplomacy instead of saber-rattling, on all sides.
If Minsk II leads to a sustainable peace, it would be proof that German attempts at talking instead of shooting - a policy often discounted by Berlin's partners - are in fact more pertinent than ever in a globalized world.
The long night in Minsk also highlighted something else: that the German-French partnership can once again be counted on. It creates trust within the E.U. and among Europe's partners, has great political weight and is Germany's best protection against accusations of acting alone.
And for Mr. Hollande, the glow of success alongside Ms. Merkel will perhaps create a readiness to take more risks in order to achieve reforms in his own country.
Berlin and Paris must now make sure that Ukraine does not disappear from the map of Europe, neither materially nor mentally. Mr. Putin will win if there is not massive Western help to ensure that Ukraine becomes the newest chapter in the success story of the E.U.'s eastern expansion.
Such a failure would be in the interests neither of those who put their faith in strategies of deterrence, nor of the politicians and economic leaders who believe in diplomacy. Both have a common goal: a stable and prosperous Europe, preferably with a free-trade zone from Lisbon to Vladivostok.
Hope springs eternal that Mr. Putin desires this as well, and that he will choose economic prosperity over military expansion.
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