The Minsk peace process in Ukraine has been facing another hopeless stalemate in late January 2016. Monday, on February 1, President Petro Poroshenko is traveling to Germany to discuss the difficulties with the implementation of the Minsk Agreement. Berlin voices no claims to Kiev, but he has some, indeed. Meantime, Kiev brings reproaches upon the German side. Before the Ukrainian president’s visit to Berlin, the Ukrainian ambassador to that country blamed Germany for reducing pressure on Russia and for working with it on the North Stream-2 gas pipeline project. Ukraine is concerned over the potential capacities of the North Stream-2 that, if implemented, will help Gazprom refuse from the gas transit via the territory of Ukraine. Poland supports Ukraine’s stand on the issue. However, Germany has its own interests in the project. A possible gas hub in the territory of Germany will give Berlin one more lever of influence on the process of uniting the European Union main body around Germany. Berlin brushes away the Ukraine’s complaints saying that the German Government “does not reduce pressure on the conflicting parties.” This indirectly confirms Germany’s pressure on Kiev too.
Western media report that the concerned Minsk process mediators - Berlin and Paris - are pressing Poroshenko demanding implementation of the Minsk agreements by Ukraine, particularly, adoption of constitutional amendments concerning the special status of the particular districts of Donbass and a law on the elections in those districts “on the basis of Ukraine’s legislation.” Berlin and Paris see Kiev sabotaging the Minsk Agreements and plunging into its domestic policy conflicts. German Chancellor Merkel and President Poroshenko will meet in Berlin prior to the Normandy Four (foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany) talks anticipated in mid-February in Paris.
Last weekend, Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolay Patrushev said Kiev had not taken measures for implementation of the Minsk Agreements. He hailed the efforts of France and Germany towards peaceful resolution of the Ukrainian conflict. Patrushev believes that the governments of those countries “truly strive to settle the problem.” Actually, Patrushev’s statement demonstrated that Russia is committed to the Minsk Agreements.
The situation of early 2016 seems more favorable for Russia than it was six months ago. On January 22, Secretary of State John Kerry said he believed it would be possible to lift sanctions on Russia in the coming months. On January 25, French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron said he hopes the sanctions against Russia will be lifted as early as this summer, but “subject to the implementation of the Minsk Agreements.” Referring to U.S. and EU officials, Bloomberg reported that “the worsening of crises from Syria to Libya are forcing the international community to reconsider sanctions slapped on President Vladimir Putin’s government over Ukraine as a way of getting a key diplomatic power broker on board… Setting the scene for an end to its isolation are government officials in France and Germany.” Similar reports on the readiness to resume cooperation with Russia are voiced from different sides nearly every day.
The Kaliningrad meeting of Assistance Secretary Victoria Nuland and Russian President’s Assistant Vladislav Surkov gave Kiev more reasons to fear a U.S.-Russia deal where the point on Ukraine will be just an addition to other more important issues. Washington’s decision to launch a land operation against the “Islamic State” in Syria suggests that such option is possible.
Yet along with the hopes for normalization of relations and lifting of the sanctions on Russia, the West increases its information pressure on the person of the Russian president as if hinting at the desirable domestic political decision in Russia. The relations of Russia and the West could be normalized, but without Putin. This is what Washington is hinting at.
Simultaneously, there are plans that are more realistic. The White House would like to see “some progress” over Ukraine in the middle of the year so that Democrats could increase the approval rating of their candidate ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for November. Washington does not rule out that the conflict in Ukraine may be frozen for a 1.5 year so that the new president becomes fully acquainted with the problem and continues the Ukrainian game after a pause.
As for Germany, the approval rating of the ruling coalition of the CDU/CSU is falling amid slipping approval rating of Chancellor Angela Merkel. It is high time for the ruling elite in Berlin to think of prospects of the 2017 elections. French President Francois Hollande is facing the similar problem of approaching problematic presidential election. Both Berlin and Paris would gain dividends ahead of elections, in case of successful resolution of the Ukraine conflict.
However, the political background for late January suggests no breakthroughs in Ukraine. Kiev insists that “the Russian-led separatists” are blocking the Minsk process. Formally, ATO continues n Donbass as part of the low-intensity military conflict with casualties on both sides on a daily basis. The Supreme Rada has made no changes to the Constitution concerning decentralization or special status of Donbass. Actually, President Poroshenko has violated the confidential agreements that were achieved at the Normandy Four meeting in early October 2015.
The Ukrainian parliament was to make the amendments stipulated by the Minsk Agreements into the constitution by 300 votes before January 31. Instead, the Supreme Rada decided to change the order of amending the constitution. Before that decision, Prime Minister of Ukraine Arseniy Yatsenyuk suggested approving the constitutional amendments on a referendum. Yatsenyuk sabotaged the Minsk process by demanding to approve the new constitution through voting at both the parliament and a nation-wide referendum. Earlier, under Viktor Yanukovych, Yatsenyuk said the law on referendum runs contrary to the international legal norms.
Simultaneously, Ukraine’s deeply unpopular prime minister demands as much power as the president has, but refuses to assume a full responsibility for economy. Yatsenyuk holds the president from dismissing Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. Apparently, the presidential and governmental structures are splitting, while the governmental coalition is on the verge of collapse. A voting on the сonstitution would split it finally. Now, the president of Ukraine tends to think of snap elections to retain his grip on power. Yatsenyuk’s government will not resist snap elections and he would leave the government. At the same time, another election campaign would increase the domestic discrepancies in Ukraine even more and would make the West-demanded reforms impossible.
The last turning in the Minsk process enables Poroshenko to offer excuses in Berlin, complaining of his insufficient powers. The military and political foreign conflict scenario for Ukraine requires a dictatorship in the country, while there is no such due to the “democratic principles” of separation of powers. Poroshenko will now try to retain his power hiding behind the phrases like there is no alternative to the Minsk process.
In fact, Poroshenko did not set the constitutional amendments required by the Minsk process to voting, but demanded the government to report to the Supreme Rada on February 16. Shelving the issue of the constitutional amendments, President Poroshenko tries to persuade the West that he cannot secure a decision in a democratically elected body – Supreme Rada, especially when Russia fails to observe the first points of the Minsk Agreements on the full ceasefire and release of hostages, as well as withdrawal of troops and mercenaries. Delaying with the voting at the Supreme Rada, Poroshenko saves a chance to maneuver and not let the conflict in the leadership to exacerbate. A failure of that bill at the Ukraine parliament would put an end to the Minsk process, while it formally continues now.
As for the Russian side, at the meeting of the tri-partite commission on January 27 in Minsk, it showed firmness and demanded that Kiev observes all the points of the Minsk agreements. In addition, the leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics declared that the Ukrainian bill of constitutional amendments was not coordinated with them. Therefore, they offered their own amendments that give a wider autonomy to the “special districts,” seats in the Supreme Rada, the right to veto foreign policy decisions etc. In response, Ukraine’s delegation rejected these proposals. It is obvious that a compromise on the constitutional amendments is unachievable. Neither will it be possible to adopt amendments in Ukraine’s interpretation, as they were sabotaged at the Supreme Rada.
In addition, Russia’s Plenipotentiary at the talks in Minsk Boris Gryzlov demanded that the constitutional amendments provide a special status to Donbass on a permanent basis, not for three years. Foreign Minister of Ukraine Pavel Klimkin said that it is impossible to give Donbass a special status on a permanent basis through constitutional amendments. Here is where the sides faced a deadlock issue.
Kiev links the next meeting of the Contact Groups in Minsk with the results of the Normandy Four meeting. Now, Ukraine offers drafting a road map on fulfillment of the Minsk Agreements that will determine the succession of implementing the points of the Minsk-2, but obviously, the way Kiev wants i.e. transfer the control over the border, “disarm terrorists,” pull back the Russian troops, while the constitutional amendments and elections will be left for the end of the process.
Moscow, in turn, demonstrates that it is ready to wait to achieve a full agreement over the constitutional amendments, amnesty and the law on elections in Donbass. The diplomatic process continues but makes no progress, while both the sides and the mediators admit that they have faced a stalemate. Simultaneously, during the recent days, there were slight attempts of pressing Kiev and European mediators. In particular, President of Russia Vladimir Putin said at the meeting of the All-Russian People’s Front that in the Soviet time, the border between Russia and Ukraine was drawn “at random” and “groundlessly,” while Donbass’ inclusion into the territory of Ukraine was “absurd.”
In addition, representative of the Lugansk People's Republic (LPR) Vladislav Deinego said LPR thinks of possible elections on February 21 without participation of Ukraine, as Kiev fails to fulfill its commitments. If LPR conducts elections beyond Ukraine’s legislation, this will put an end to the Minsk process. Therefore, they will hardly do it.
The January collisions over implementation of the Minsk agreements by Ukraine showed that Kiev is ready to turn the war in Donbass into a low-intensity conflict “for a while” if it remains unsettled and EU’s sanctions against Russia are not lifted. The same applies to Crimea in the long run. Kiev keeps the conflict in the state of smoldering not to let it freeze. None of the points in the Minsk Agreements has been implemented, but the sides are shuffling. Since March 17 2015, the Minsk process has been protracted and no political or military solution has been achieved.
After the hopes for Constitutional amendments in Ukraine have faded away, a question arises as to whether EU will continue its policy of sanctions against Russia over Ukraine crisis. The issue of the sanctions should be decided in late July 2016. What Kiev seeks now is to achieve prolongation of the sanctions and avoid implementation of the Minsk Agreements. In case of further sanctions, Kiev is ready to protract the conflict. Ukrainian nationalists still believe that the sanctions will exacerbate the economic crisis in Russia and result in a political crisis that will disintegrate the country as it happened in 1991. Now Kiev anticipates that the prolongation of the sanctions this summer will mean their current victory and a bigger one in future. Quite the contrary, the lifting of the sanctions will be a heavy blow for Ukraine and betrayal by the western allies. The smoldering conflict helps Kiev make provocations to blame Moscow for possible escalation of the military actions. A provocation should become an argument for the supporters of the EU sanctions to prolong them again.
It is obvious that Berlin and Paris will take no strict measures to press Kiev and make it implement the Minsk Agreements. Meantime, a threat to lift the sanctions on Russia could influence Kiev. The next Normandy Four meeting will ascertain the near-term prospects. During such pause, Russia can strengthen its positions only if the people rally round the flag and the president’s approval rating remains high. In addition, Russia needs to be flexible and adjusted to the economic crisis. A relative political, economic and financial stability is what Russia needs to achieve a turning point in the Minsk process.