The NATO summit of world-class golfers is on its way out (having achieved nothing material and merely regurgitating old talking points), but it will be promptly replaced with yet another round of "peace talks" in Minsk, Belarus where all the usual suspects are gathered as well as the leaders of the eastern Ukraine separatists. According to Reuters, representatives of Ukraine, the pro-Russian separatist leadership, Russia and the OSCE security watchdog began talks on Friday on resolving the Ukraine conflict.
Most participants declined to comment to reporters as they arrived for the talks in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, but former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma said: "We all came for peace, that's the most important thing - to find a truce."
President Petro Poroshenko said on Thursday he would announce a ceasefire if the talks took place although there was no immediate ceasefire announcement.
News that the talks on securing a ceasefire had started pushed Moscow shares up.
A ceasefire agreed in June ended after 10 days because fighting did not stop, but officials were hopeful any new agreement could trigger steps to secure a more lasting peace after Russian President Vladimir Putin and Poroshenko gave it their backing.
Sadly, said officials must not be aware of the latest news then, that even as efforts to cobble together a makeshift truce continue (and ask Gaza how those have fared in the past months), the Russian rebels (as they are now known) continue to make territorial gains, and following our report that "The Battle For Strategic Mariupol Begins", said fighting has escalated and is now openly raging between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels just east of the strategic port of Mariupol on Friday, as Reuters confirmed earlier today.
According to media reports, Ukraine says its forces are trying to repel a big offensive by the rebels to take Mariupol, a port city of around 500,000 on the Sea of Azov crucial for its steel exports. It stands about halfway between Russia and the Russian-annexed Crimea region.
"Our artillery has come and is being deployed against the rebels," said the mayor of Mariupol, Yuri Khotlubey.
The commander of the Azov volunteer militia, Andriy Biletsky, said his men had regained territory from the rebels in a counter-offensive after they came within just five km (three miles) of Mariupol on Thursday.
"We brought sufficient artillery and reinforcements," he told Reuters at one of the checkpoints erected on the outskirts of the port to defend it from the rebels.
Mariupol became a major focus of concern for Ukraine after the rebels broke away from their main strongholds further north in late August - backed, Kiev says, by Russian regular forces.
Russia denies sending troops and weapons into Ukraine, despite what NATO says is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Whether backed by Russia or not, clearly the eastern militia is now pushing aggressively to take the one key city on the Ukraine Black Sea coast whose downfall would allow the creation of a land bridge between Russia and its latest territorial expansion in Crimea. Perhaps this is the reason why few if any anticipate any de-escalation breakthrough from Minsk any time soon.
"We have come for peace, the main thing is to get an armistice," said former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, Kiev's representative at the Minsk talks.
However, few in eastern Ukraine, wearied by nearly six months of conflict, have much hope that a ceasefire can hold and some said it was a bad idea that would only benefit the enemy.
"A ceasefire would be a disaster, we would lose everything. By fighting we can resist the invasion and send them back. With a ceasefire they will consolidate and carry on after a while," said Ukrainian soldier Taras.
And an interesting undercurrent has emerged: now the Ukraine army is strongly against a ceasefire, with one possibly leading all the way to yet another presidential coup. To wit:
Another Ukrainian soldier who gave his name as Mykola said Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko - who was attending the second day of a NATO summit in Wales on Friday - would "betray the country" if he backed a peace plan at this time.
Finally, as for the benefits of NATO, it appears all the golf outing in the past two days was designed to do was to force the member nations to agree on spending targets. It failed. From FT:
Nato leaders have failed to agree new binding targets for raising defence expenditure – one of the most contentious issues up for discussion this week at the military bloc’s biannual summit in Wales. However, they are set to agree to freeze further cuts to defence budgets across the 28-member alliance.
Wrangling over national obligations to spend more on defence has gone down to the wire: while Nato diplomats in Brussels had already hammered out a deal on a raft of other policies due to be agreed at the summit, the text of spending commitment agreements was still being fought over as the Nato Atlantic Council meeting to discuss it began on Friday morning, according to people familiar with the negotiations.
Nato’s members are supposed to spend at least 2 per cent of their annual economic output on defence. Many members of the alliance had hoped to secure a binding commitment for states who do not currently to do so within a specified timeframe.
Only four of them currently hit their target: the US, the UK, Greece and Estonia. A number of other Nato members have committed to increasing their spending to the 2 per cent mark, including Poland and the Baltic states.
But many of Nato’s biggest powers come nowhere near. Germany spends 1.3 per cent of its gross domestic product on defence while Italy spends 1.2 per cent and Canada just 1 per cent.
Oh well, if and when Russia (and China) emerges as the new weaponized superpower axis and NATO is unable to do anything to stop then, one can always blame that too on "austerity."