On Apr 13, 2015, Berlin hosted a regular meeting of the Normandy Four. The foreign ministers of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine discussed ways to settle the conflict in Ukraine but because of Russia’s objections, they failed to adopt Ukraine’s key proposal for that round – deployment of international peacekeepers in Donbass. After the meeting, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin promised that they would continue pushing that issue. The only thing the foreign ministers approved in Berlin was the OSCE’s initiative to consider withdrawal of tanks and weapons below 100mm from the contact line. This proposal does not seem to have any sense after the OSCE’s reports of numerous breeches of the point stipulating withdrawal of heavy weapons. So, we can assume that the only reason it was made for was to register at least some progress in the talks.
In reality, things have not changed at all - the foreign ministers have passed no decisions that might speed up the peace process. The only difference from previous meetings was that this time they talked about ways to settle the conflict rather than just efforts to maintain the achieved ceasefire. Before the meeting, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier insisted on going to the next stage of the Minsk process – launching a political process, this implying conduct of local elections in the east of Ukraine. For French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius this was also a priority. After the Berlin talks, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said that for Ukraine “political process” meant “free and fair elections” in Donbass as a condition for further dialogue with the “separatists,” but he added that none of the military and political leaders of the “separatists” might take part in those elections. This was one more proof that the Minsk-2 talks have come to a deadlock. And the key obstacle here is Kyiv’s position – a position that prevents Moscow from finding a worthy way-out of the crisis.
Under such conditions, Russia was forced to try to influence its partners from the Normandy Four. In his interview to Russia TV last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia might recognize the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics. Though noting that this would be a counterproductive step for the time being, Putin added that they would act according to emerging realities. Germany did not wait to react: on Apr 19, the German foreign minister told ARD that any step on the Kremlin’s part to recognize the “territories occupied by separatists” would curb the peace process. He said that Ukraine’s unity had to be preserved as it was the core of the Minsk process.
On Apr 13, Russia took one more step to pressure the United States – President Putin lifted the ban on the sale of S-300 air defense systems to Iran. In response, Israel said that it might resume arms deliveries to Ukraine and Georgia.
But it seems that these mutual demarches have failed to impress those they were meant for.
As far as the Minsk-2 accords are concerned, they stipulate some basic scenario for how settle the conflict in Ukraine. At first glance, this scenario seems to be good for both parties. But the only problem of it is that it is too general and offers no specific solutions. This is just a concept of how the conflict may be settled rather than a complex of specific mechanisms of how it can be settled.
Russia used the Minsk Accords as an occasion to avoid a direct conflict and new even tougher sanctions. The accords also gave the Kremlin time for causing a split between the EU and NATO through diplomatic maneuvering. If the Russians actually wish to provoke such a split, they need to be restrained. For the West the Minsk Accords were a chance to prevent the rout of the Ukrainian army and to give the Ukrainians time to pull together. This is why both parties agreed to keep the conflict in Donbass on a low level of intensity. But this regime cannot last for a long time. This is not just a rifle hanging on the wall onstage. This is a story about two armies that have ceased fire and have now either to resume their war or to go back home. So, this pause may end in either in even tougher war or in more stable peace. For the time being, things seem to be heading for war, but the point is that neither of the conflicting parties need a decisive outcome for that war as Russia may face new even more devastating sanctions, while Ukraine may suffer a military defeat. For the West a new war would mean the risk of internal transformation in Russia. In the meantime, Apr 12, 2015, saw a new escalation in Donbass.
It was then that the Normandy Format showed its key defect. The parties to this format are Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France. Russia wants to be a mediator rather than a party in this process but keeps patronizing Donetsk and Lugansk. Ukraine, on the contrary, wants Russia to be a party rather than a mediator. As regards the real party to the conflict, the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics, they have no place in the Normandy Format, which makes their status quite ambiguous. The reverse side of the Normandy Four is the Minsk Contact group, where there are no official representatives from Ukraine and the rebel republics but are just some individuals with undefined powers. Obviously, the key problem here is Ukraine’s reluctance to recognize Donetsk and Lugansk as parties to the conflict and to negotiate with their representatives in any OSCE-mediated groups. Even more, they in Kiev keep calling the leaders of those republics “separatists” and “terrorists.”
In an interview to BBC last week, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic Alexander Zakharchenko said that the agreement on ceasefire in Donbass would most probable be broken. He noted that the Minsk Accords had sense only if Kiev recognized the Donetsk People’s Republic. Earlier, on Apr 16, Zakharchenko told Bloomberg that sooner or later the borderline city of Mariupol would become part of the Donetsk People’s Republic. He said that the united army of Donetsk and Lugansk had almost 23,000 regular soldiers and 30,000 part-timers and noted that there was 90% probability that the war in Donbass would resume.
Thus, after the last Berlin meeting both Moscow and the rebels in Donbass attempted to pressure Kiev, Berlin and Paris with a view to push the Minsk process along the way that would benefit the Russians.
The key problem here is that for Donetsk and Lugansk all the previous military campaigns ended in delayed victories and a chance for Kiev to say that it had lost only specific battles rather than the whole war. Both Minsk-1 and Minsk-2 have sown that Moscow is unable to impose its terms on Kiev.
In their turn, Germany and France keep saying that Russia will not be able to split the EU’s attitude towards the need for anti-Russian sanctions. But instead of threatening the Kremlin, they took some encouraging steps in hope that they might inspire the Russians to soften their position on Donbass. On Apr 14, before the meeting of G7, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier linked Russia’s possible return to G7 with the conflict in Ukraine. The G7 FMs added that the sanctions against the Russians would be lifted only when they fully meet comply with the Minsk Accords.
A few days later, they in Brussels announced that Ukraine, Russia and the EU would resume their free trade area talks on Apr 20-21. On Apr 17, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany was interested in economic contacts with Russia and even mentioned the Kremlin’s favorite concept of common trade area stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok. But the key prerequisite here, according to Merkel, is that Russia should fulfill the Minsk Accords on the conflict in Ukraine – even if this implies certain difficulties. By difficulties Merkel meant the terms laid by Kyiv on Washington’s instruction.
A few days before Merkel’s speech, in an interview to Deutschlandfunk, foreign political expert of the German Social Democrats Rolf Mutzenich stressed the need to include the issue of Crimea in the Minsk process.
In the meantime, US paratroopers arrived in Lvov with a view train Ukrainian guards. The Kremlin’s restraint in reacting to this news proves that the Russians are ready to negotiate settlement of the Ukrainian conflict.
So, in the weeks to come, we should expect the Europeans to appear with an initiative on comprehensive settlement of the conflict in Ukraine, this including not only Donbass but also Crimea. For the Europeans it is really important to make Crimea part of the negotiating process. And this time the initiator may well be not Germany but France. This week Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is going to visit France so as to discuss with Francois Hollander the possibility of international peacekeeping in Ukraine. On Apr 24, Hollande is to visit Armenia, where he is supposed to meet with Putin and to discuss ways to settle the conflict in Donbass.
These new initiatives may well be followed by new military tensions in Donbass. And the Europeans may use this as a pretext to show that no peace is possible there without international peacekeepers. On top of that, the very logic of the negotiations implies that sooner or later they will make Crimea a topic for summit-level talks.