The beginning of conflict in Eastern Ukraine is nearing its sixth anniversary. The concerted effort of Russian, French, German and Ukrainian leaders to settle this issue diplomatically has yielded few tangible results so far. The recent meeting in Paris of four leaders gives ground for cautious optimism. What have the parties agreed upon? What problems remain and what has changed since the last round of Normandy negotiations?
Long Time No See
The results of the Normandy talks, which resumed after a three year standstill, do not look particularly promising. A three-point-long communique, which has been drafted beforehand by a Trilateral Contact Group, reiterates what has previously been agreed upon with just a few alterations. The circumstances surrounding the meeting between leaders of four major European countries, however, make the rendezvous in Paris not that insignificant after all.
First, we should underline that it might be the sixth round of Normandy negotiations for
V. Putin and A. Merkel, but not for recently elected E. Macron and V. Zelensky, who got hands-on experience on the matter for the first time in Paris this week. Moreover, this also has been the first personal encounter of Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky, which undoubtedly sends a strong message both home and to the international community.
Before the meeting, five bilateral meetings are reported to have taken place, which were followed by almost an hour one-on-one conversation between the presidents of Russia and Ukraine after the meeting of the quartet. The so-called “Steinmeier formula” predictably has become the cornerstone of the discussions, notwithstanding the fact that Ukraine recently officially signed off to implement this solution in its original form. According to this proposal, put forward by then German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2015, the law on the special status of Donbass (expires on December 31, 2019) should enter into force on a provisional basis on the day of elections in the disputed region. Once the OSCE recognises these elections as free and democratic, the law becomes permanent, which should open the road for further negotiations. The law in its current form states that elections can only take place when the illegal military formations, military equipment, militias and mercenaries (art.10) leave the territory of Donbass, which is heavily contested by Moscow.
The Art of the Possible
However unimpressive the final communique might look like, it does have certain points that can make the situation “on the ground” more tolerable for people caught in the conflict. Having secured three crossing points at Stanytsia-Luhanska, Zolote and Petrivske earlier this year, the parties now agreed to secure safe passage for civilians at three additional stations which must be agreed upon before the next summit in Berlin in four months. Given the dire humanitarian situation of locals in these regions who have to cross borders on a regular basis (for pensions and other social contributions still provided by Kiev), the necessity of this measure seems natural. However, the number of such points in the whole conflict region is unsatisfactory and civilians continue risking their lives crossing the contact line.
The four leaders have also reached an agreement to continue the practice of exchanging detained persons on the basis of “all for all”, which builds upon a prisoners swap three months ago. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) was also mentioned in the final document as it is still faced with constant limitations by combatants when it comes to inspections of certain areas along the contact line. The leaders agreed on the necessity to provide full access to the SMM observers in order to ensure a complete ceasefire.
The main challenges hindering the peace process in Ukraine, however, are left untouched. The known unknowns are the following: under which conditions will the elections take place (mass media access, who is eligible to vote and to be elected, how to ensure safe conduct?), what will happen to militias fighting on the side of Donbass (amnesty, transformation into “people police”, deportation?) and changes concerning the legal status of the region should be undertaken (Zelensky’s party does not have the necessary majority in Rada to pass the amendments to the constitution that Russia insists on)?
The Elephants in the Room
What makes an already complex situation surrounding the peace process in Ukraine even more complicated is the question to what extent the conflict parties are able to trust each other. President Zelensky in his recent interview with the TIME magazine said “I don’t trust anyone at all…Nobody can have any trust. Everybody just has their interests.” Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, claims that just as soon as Russia gives up control over the border, Ukrainian nationalists will “repeat Srebrenica” with Russian-speaking populations in Eastern Ukraine, suggesting that Kiev does not have control over the nationalist military fractions at home.
Another prominent issue that has not been reflected in the resolution, but which has been actively discussed during the bilateral meeting of two presidents was the gas transit contract that expires on January 1, 2020. In light of two new pipelines (Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream) that are planned to go into operation next year, the Ukrainian leadership is facing a hard decision: risk further alienation of Gazprom and pursue the $22 billion suit against Russia in Stockholm court of Arbitration or agree on the “zero formula” in which Russia also drops its case against Ukrainian Naftogaz and resumes direct supply of natural gas to Kiev, which is expected to be 25% cheaper than the current price. The IMF might have bought some time for the Ukrainian government by granting it a $5,5 billion loan this December, but this could hardly become a decisive leverage against one of the largest suppliers of natural resources in the world.
Last but not least, the bargaining position of President Zelensky is weakened by a rapidly evaporating international support (most prominently from the USA due to the Ukrainegate) and growing domestic criticism coming from nationalist wing. Left alone against increasingly pro-Russian president Macron and slowly but surely retiring Angela Merkel, the unexperienced team of V. Zelensky has a difficult task to solve: stop the plummeting approval ratings in the face of the upcoming local elections in autumn 2020 and take unpopular measures with regards to the Minsk accords. Regarding the latter, he made following comments: “Listen, if I now start implementing these Minks agreements [in their current form], you will be speaking to another president of Ukraine!”
Even though the Russian leadership might signal that it has all the time to continue this war of attrition in Ukraine, the Kremlin is not as satisfied with the status quo in the region as it might seem. This uncomfortable topic continues to be the thorniest issue in the dialogue with its Western partners, particularly when it comes to important topics for Moscow such as economic cooperation (sanctions on vital technological know-how) or energy export (EU’s Third Energy Package). Russia might be scoring political points in Syria and Turkey or impress with the reinvention of its Africa policy, but Moscow still cannot boast of much success at its doorstep.
The settlement of conflict in Ukraine is a vital prerequisite for the fully fledged rapprochement between Russia and the EU. The recent Normandy summit demonstrated that leading European countries fully acknowledge this and are ready to revisit old problems which were considered non-negotiable some three years ago. The question remains however whether the parties are ready for something bigger than a mere exchange of opinions. However paradoxical it may sound, but the freeze of the conflict, which continues to claim lives every single day, is the best we can hope for at the present moment.