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Russia-Ukraine-West: Against whom does time factor work?

Lukashenko, Putin, Merkel, Hollande, and Poroshenko. Minsk Agreements 1

Two years have passed since the first Minsk Agreement that was made on September 5, 2014 to settle the military crisis in Donbass – on the border of Ukraine and Russia. The policy around the Minsk Agreement has changed dramatically by its second anniversary. The Crimea incident with Ukrainian raiders showed that Kiev tries to withdraw from the Minsk Agreements to its benefit and in prejudice of the adversary. As a result, Russia warned that it would minimize or even halt its participation in the negotiations on condition of formal continuation of the Minsk process, indeed.

Then, President of Russia Vladimir Putin refused to hold the Normandy Four meeting on sidelines of G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China. At the same time, the Russian leader openly casted doubts on the Normandy Four summit’s potential capacity to settle the problem, as Ukraine fails to implement the Minsk Agreements. However, in Hangzhou, on September 4, Putin held separate meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande and discussed with them the possibilities of implementing the Minsk Agreement. In particular, further cooperation in the Normandy Four format was discussed then. On the heels of the meeting, Vladimir Putin told journalists: “Regarding the Normandy format, whether it is good or bad, there is no other means of settling conflicts. That is why, of course, Russia will support this format.” The Crimea incident has paled into insignificance.

Six days later, it became known that Foreign Ministers of Germany and France, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Jean-Marc Ayrault are set to travel to Kiev on September 14. Officially, in Kiev they will be engaged in preparations for possible meeting of the Ukrainian, Russian, French, and German foreign ministers in the Normandy Four format or perhaps even for the summit of the presidents and prime ministers. To hold such a high-level meeting, it is necessary that Kiev show at least its readiness to implement the Minsk Agreements. As a first step, the troops could be pulled back from the engagement line in Donbass.

However, in his address to the Supreme Rada on September 6, Ukraine’s president reaffirmed that Ukraine will make no breakthroughs in the implementation of the political part of the Minsk Agreements. Poroshenko keeps promoting his own interpretation of the Minsk-2 provisions that run contrary to the essence of the agreement. Besides, Kiev insists that OSCE launches a police mission to provide security in “special regions” in the pre-election period, during and after the elections. They suggest that OSCE Mission should get access to the entire territory of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR) and the Ukrainian-Russian border. Moscow, in turn, should agree to support the idea of arming OSCE observes with personal small arms but along the engagement line only.

On Friday, September 9, Angela Merkel had a phone call with President of Ukraine to feel out the situation ahead of the ministerial meeting in Kiev. Merkel and Poroshenko tried to coordinate their steps concerning the implementation on the Minsk Agreements. In this light, Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov said the text of the Minsk Agreements might be corrected certainly, on condition that the DPR and LPR representatives agree with the corrections.

So far, it appears that the high-level Normandy Four meetings will hardly resume by the end of the year. In the meantime, the deadline for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements is December 31 2016. What will happen to these documents if the visit of Steinmeier and Ayrault to Kiev results in no breakthrough?

After the NATO Summit in Warsaw, it was suggested to replace the Normandy Four with a new formal of talks involving U.S., Germany, France, Italy, and Ukraine and excluding Russia. In such case, the Minsk Agreements will be allegedly replaced with certain “Surkov-Nuland plan” allegedly approved by Moscow. By data not confirmed by Moscow, this option allegedly meets Kiev’s current demands concerning the access of the OSCE police mission to the territory of the ‘people’s republics’ and the transfer of control over the border to Ukraine before the elections in the “special regions under” within the Ukrainian laws. Amnesty is suggested as the last measure.

This questionable option is not likely to lead the Minsk process out of the stalemate. Such option is possible only after the presidential election in U.S., after long arrangements and coordination. Hypothetically, this will become possible no sooner than in summer of 2017. Ukraine’s leadership hopes a new U.S. president will force Russia to either accept Ukraine’s interpretation of Minsk-2 or help Kiev refuse from the Minsk Agreements blaming Moscow for the breach of the Minsk process. In short, the Minsk process depends on the new administration of the White House.

As regards the proposals of the Russian side, they stem from the recognition of the fact that the Ukrainian side obstructed the conflict’s settlement through implementation of the Minsk Agreements. The conflict has not reached a political settlement and the Contact Group in Minsk has not turned into an effective platform for talks. Ukraine has not recognized its partners in the talks as legitimate political subjects. Eventually, the Ukrainian side has violated its commitments under Minsk-1 and Minsk-2. Besides, Kiev introduced its own interpretation of the Minsk Agreement to the world on May 18 2015 and was not punished for it.

Afterwards, on July 14, 2015, the Supreme Rada passed a law on the local elections without coordinating it with the Donbass representatives to the Contact Group and set the elections for July 17 on territory under control of Ukraine. Ukraine refused to consider the remarks of the DPR and LPR concerning the bill on elections, while Paris and Berlin supported the bill suggested by Kiev, though it run contrary to the essence of the Minsk Agreements. Later, Germany and France have repeatedly demonstrated their support to Ukraine’s interpretation of Minsk-2. The statements by Russian officials that the leaderships of Germany and France allegedly increase pressure on Kiev to make it implement the Minsk Agreements were perhaps vain wishes.

Nor has Kiev implemented the road map for the implementation of the Set of Measures that were determined at the Normandy Four summit in Paris on October 2 2015. However, this has become an undesirable precedent – the agreement was reconsidered and elections were prioritized unlike the constitutional reform. The Paris arrangements showed that Russia could yield to pressure of its opponents and tolerate revision of the Minsk Agreements. This let them hope for revision of the entire package. As final obstruction, Paris and Berlin even suggested refusing from the Contact Group and settling the political provisions of the Minsk Agreements at the level of the political directors of the Normandy Four foreign ministries. Such format, if Russia agreed on it, would leave the representatives of the “people’s republics” beyond the talks. Now, Russia hopes if the conflicting parties are successfully pulled back from the engagement line in Donbass, Paris and Berlin will demand Ukraine to bring the special status into effect and hold elections. However, it would be naïve to rely on this, considering the experience of Germany and France in unfair brokerage. In this light, it should be noted that the recent provocations in Crimea showed the high level of consolidation based on anti-Russian sentiments in Europe.

Hence, Kiev sabotages the Minsk Agreements and faces no pressure. Freezing of the conflict in Donbass on the Transnistrian model – it is another desirable option for Moscow - appears to be impossible either. Meantime, armed clashes continue on the engagement line and the situation is about to grow into a large-scale armed conflict. A new solution is needed. And Putin has actually suggested it in late August 2016 saying that the Minsk Agreements are not implemented, but Russia does not refuse from them in principle.

At the roundtable on the Minsk Agreements held at the TASS news agency in Moscow on September 5, they came up with another option admissible for Moscow i.e. “freezing of the talks” within the Minsk process on condition of prolonging them until 2017. Actually, the recurrent military actions will continue next year too. In fact, facing a deadlock, they in Moscow said such situation is not bad and must be used. They try to give some strategic importance to the hopeless Minsk process.

It is noteworthy that representatives of LPR and DPR to the Contact Group Denis Pushilin and Vladislav Deinego attended the roundtable at TASS. They agree with the proposals of Russian experts from the Moscow State Institute of the International Relations “to freeze” the Minsk process. The main point of the game around the Minsk process is non-recognition of the Minsk Agreements’ failure but recognition of their impracticality in the long-term outlook. By the end of 2016, a statement should be made (so far it is not known who will do it) about possible prolongation of the Minsk Agreements until 2017. The peace talks may be continued without any political or military resolution next year too. All the arrangements made by the Contact Group will be temporary and will lead to no results that would be unfavorable to the parties. This guarantees that these transitional arrangements will not be implemented stalling the Minsk process. The Minsk Agreements will be prolonged every year, as there is no alternative to them. They will help maintaining relative peace along the line of contact and enable the Contact Group to focus on the regular agreements to cease hostilities and exchange POWs.

The authors of the idea to “freeze the Minsk Agreements” think this process, if let to play itself out, will lead to freezing of the conflict in a few years. Actually, once method of the political settlement, the Minsk process is now turning into an instrument for freezing the conflict. Moscow hopes to implement Minsk-2 and the crisis gradually within the coming few years through the stage of freezing the talks and the conflict. This is what Moscow calls an optimistic scenario.

Ukraine, in turn, seeks to continue the Minsk process through boycotting it, which in fact will lead to freezing of the negotiation process through imitating it. This was the strategy of Ukraine’s leadership based on the so-called “Gorbulin’s plan.” It turns out that the supporters of the “frozen negotiation process” that revealed themselves at TASS have taken the tactical side of “Gorbulin’s plan” – the strategic plan of Ukrainian nationalists. Such coincidence can be explained with the fact that resumption of large-scale hostilities in Donbass is probable but unfavorable to both the sides. Russia’s recent large-scale drills in the regions bordering with Ukraine have demonstrated that Moscow will not let DPR and LPR to be defeated. In addition, neither Kiev nor the “people’s republics” have sufficient resources to change the military situation in their favor. Along with the threat of new sanctions, the Minsk Agreements have obtained the role of a non-military instrument to deter Russia. Furthermore, Moscow has “fixed” them as such when it suggested the Resolution No.2202 at the UN Security Council on February 17 2015 with a reference to the Minsk Agreements in the text of the resolution.

Afterwards, the non-implementation of the Minsk Agreements proved favorable to Ukraine. Kiev started using them not to resolve the conflict, but to return control over the revolted territories and defeat Russia politically.

Meantime, at the roundtable at TASS, the Minsk Agreements were called the victory of the Russian diplomacy, as their implementation meets Russia’s key political demands to Kiev – federalization of Ukraine with preservation of its non-aligned status in the future. Moscow thinks the optimistic scenario will be Donbass’ successful “reintegration” into Ukraine in line with the Minsk Agreements by the end of 2017. However, they lose the sight of the fact that the Minsk Agreements imply “dismantling” and return of the “people’s republics” under jurisdiction of Ukraine and not their integration. In such situation, the suppression of the former separatists and the future pro-Moscow autonomists in Donbass could be just a technical solution requiring certain time or certain level of violence. Under one of the provisions of the Minsk Agreements, Germany and France on behalf of the EU suggested big investments in the restoration of Donbass. Those investments would serve as an instrument to undermine the influence of the pro-Moscow forces in the “special regions” of Donbass.

For conclusion: if Kiev fails to end the conflict on the Minsk Agreements suggested to it, this means that it is in favor of not only Ukraine’s leadership that seeks tangible victory for the welfare of the nation, but also its protectors in U.S. and EU. Russia’s rivals do not want a retreat to save their face. Moscow’s strategy of “freezing the talks” is not good, as Russia fully refuses from political and military initiative and gets defensive. Continuation of the Minsk Process in such way is dangerous, as at a particular moment, U.S. and its allies will blame Russia for undermining it and impose new sanctions on it. This will make the EU less dependent on Russia in the energy field. To do this, the West needs several years, which Moscow is going to spent ‘freezing the talks.’

Yet, the strategy of “freezing the talks” has a positive moment too. Ukrainian mass media have been casting doubts on Kiev’s strategy of boycotting the Minsk Agreement. The Ukrainian think tanks are concerned that the time works against Kiev rather than Moscow. Probably, Ukrainians began to see Russia’s resources and capacities and the lack of such resources in their country.

The supporters of the strategy of “freezing the talks” in Moscow perhaps rely on possible snap parliamentary elections in Ukraine in 2017 that will destabilize the situation in the country again. However, it is necessary to take into account the rules of the radical nationalist revolution when the power goes to more extremist elements. Maybe, Washington and Langley pin hopes with such scenario when they try to deter Russia with the Minsk Agreements. U.S. has already used the Minsk process to reduce Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet countries and restrict the Eurasian integration project. Under the Minsk Agreements, U.S. is openly gaining foothold in the post-Soviet area triggering anti-Russian sentiments to destabilize Russia and take down Putin’s political regime.

Let us wait and see against whom the time factor works.

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