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Ukraine cease-fire: Sunset on conflict or false dawn?

Ukrainian soldiers may have laid down their weapons Friday – but Western leaders did not appear to hold out much hope for a permanent end to hostilities.

Fighting between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian military continued close to Mariupol, the strategically important new front for the country's conflict, on the morning that the cease-fire was being discussed.

A volunteer of the Ukrainian paramilitary Azov battalion on the outskirts of Mariupol, September 5, 2014.
Philippe Desmazes | AFP | Getty Images
A volunteer of the Ukrainian paramilitary Azov battalion on the outskirts of Mariupol, September 5, 2014.

The conflict over Ukrainian territory has already caused the deepest division between Russia and the West since the conclusion of the Cold War, and dashed hopes that post Soviet-Union Russia would become a Western-style capitalist democracy.

Meanwhile, the cease-fire seemed unlikely to persuade leaders gathering at the NATO conference in the U.K. to halt the expected announcement of further economic sanctions against Russian business outside of the country.

Impact of sanctions?

Nonetheless, international disapproval does not appear to have critically affected Russian actions so far -- possibly because of its near-one-note economy.

"What is Russia in terms of its global impact economically, in trade? It's an exporter of oil and primary metal products," Yukon Huang, former World Bank's country director for Russia, told CNBC.

"When you're exporting raw materials, you don't actually care much about your relationships with neighboring countries because your products are marketable elsewhere fairly easily. You're not dependent on open markets."


The announcement of a $400 billion deal to sell gas to China earlier this year was one example of Russia demonstrating that it doesn't need Germany and other European countries to buy its gas.

On the Ukrainian side, while President Petro Poroshenko seemed to be more conciliatory towards Russia earlier this week, the prospect of elections in October will keep politicians on their toes – and being pro-Russian is unlikely to be popular with ordinary Ukrainians at the moment.

A new equilibrium

There are still some signals that those hoping for a new equilibrium -- with disputed Ukrainian territories gaining some autonomy from the government in Kiev, and Russian influence in the region reinforced -- might have their optimism justified.

"Russian tanks may well be able to get to Kiev in two weeks, but only likely at a huge price - and it would be a hugely risky strategy for Putin, who tends to be conservative, rather than rash," according to Timothy Ash, head of emerging markets research at Standard Bank.


Also, the often assumed unwavering support for Putin in Russia may not always be the case. The Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, an organization representing Russian soldiers' families, has been increasingly vocal in recent weeks. While this may be as close as it gets to opposition within Russia to military action in Ukraine, it still marks the possibility for a groundswell of domestic opinion against the regime.

"Any concrete agreement is unlikely before November, the tense situation is prone to escalation and the potential collapse of negotiations will persist for weeks to come," Otilia Dhand, vice president at Teneo Intelligence, warned.