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A good first step for Ukraine

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A Ukrainian girl waves the national flag sitting on her father's shoulders during celebration of Ukraine's 23rd Independence Day in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday.

EFREM LUKATSKY / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

A Ukrainian girl waves the national flag sitting on her father's shoulders during celebration of Ukraine's 23rd Independence Day in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday.

I hope Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seven-point plan for re-establishing peace in eastern Ukraine comes to fruition. It would make someone I know in Donetsk breathe easier.

After Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko rashly announced Wednesday morning that he had agreed on a peace deal with Putin, the Kremlin had to go through its usual charade of stressing that it cannot make such deals because it is not a party to the conflict. Still, a kind of arrangement has evidently been discussed, hence Putin’s plan supposedly sketched out on a flight from Blagoveshchensk in the Russian Far East to Ulan Bator in Mongolia.

The plan begins with the "militia of southeastern Ukraine" — meaning, presumably, both the rebels and the Russian troops sent to their aid — stopping its onslaught on the Ukrainian military. The Ukrainians, for their part, would have to move their troops beyond shelling range of rebel-held cities and refrain from using their air force. The sides would trade prisoners — all for all, unconditionally. "Humanitarian corridors" would be opened for aid and refugees, and repair crews would be sent to the separatist strongholds to prepare them for winter. All this, Putin suggested, would be done under international control.

There is nothing here to which Poroshenko might reasonably object. Following the plan would stave off the defeat of Ukraine’s ragtag army at the hands of crack Russian troops, stop the bloodshed and bring some order to eastern Ukraine. The Russian invasion force would presumably help stop the local separatists, whom it has allowed to taste victory, from going for the jugular. The current balance of forces would be frozen, with the separatists and the Russians retaining control of the areas they have carved out for themselves.

The next steps would be problematic. Putin will not want to give up a measure of control over eastern Ukraine. Although it might be tempting for Poroshenko to declare it a Russian-occupied territory and wash his hands of it, he won the presidential election in May on a promise to keep Ukraine together. Hence, there will have to be further negotiations on issues that are much harder for both sides to agree on than Putin’s lenient cease-fire terms. There is every chance that the cease-fire will break down as the political talks fail, and that Poroshenko’s plan to hold a parliamentary election in October will fall through.

For now, however, the steps Putin proposes must be taken. The United States and Europe should back them, too. Not even Ukraine’s biggest champions, such as Sen. Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who dares to call Russia’s actions an invasion, are prepared to raise the possibility of sending NATO troops to Kiev’s rescue. If the U.S. and Europe won’t fight, they should at least support a stop to the war.

By strange coincidence, I know a Menendez in Donetsk. His first name is Enrique, and he’s of Spanish descent: His grandfather ended up in the Soviet Union after Spain’s civil war in the 1930s. A successful Internet marketer, Enrique hasn’t been working much lately because he has stubbornly refused to leave Donetsk. He sent his family away to the neighboring Dnepropetrovsk region, where they are considered refugees, and made it his business to help people suffering from the conflict. He has almost depleted his savings, and every night, as he goes to bed, he hears shelling. Buildings in his neighborhood have been destroyed, and he has narrowly escaped death a few times. Enrique took part in pro-Kiev rallies back in March, but now he just wants the shelling to stop.

"War has come to our homes and I can see from people’s mood that most just want peace, no matter under whose protectorate," Enrique wrote on Facebook last month. "Peaceful life is an enormous value that one tends to take for granted when one has it."

I asked Enrique what he thought of the American Menendez’s proposals to arm Ukraine so it could fend off the invasion. Bad idea, he said: "There will be no Ukraine then. Russia will stop at its western border."

I’d like Enrique to stop hearing those explosions every night. What happens next is somehow less important, although I’d favour an arrangement that would allow him to bring his family back and start working again.

— Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor. He is a Berlin-based writer, author of three novels and two nonfiction books.

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