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Results of Merkel’s visit: Should Russia betray Donbass once and for all?

President of Russia Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel held talks in Sochi, Sunday, on May 2. The issues on agenda included the situation in Ukraine and Middle East, fight against terrorism, development of bilateral relations, as well as Russia-EU relations.

Here is a brief overview of the meeting results. The relations of Russia and Germany have deteriorated drastically since 2014 because of dispute for geopolitical control over Ukraine. In fact, Ukraine is the issue number one in current German-Russian relations. Meantime, media headlines covering the visit evidently ignored the Ukrainian crisis. “Chechnya gay rights: Merkel asked Putin to intervene” reads headline of a BBC article. Further in the text, the author recalls that Putin and Merkel touched upon situation in Syria, war in Ukraine, sanctions against Russia. No breakthroughs were anticipated in settlement of these issues. Rights of “gays” were prioritized, while Ukraine and all the “remaining issues” have paled into insignificance.

Here is a title from New York Times: “Angela Merkel Presses Vladimir Putin on Treatment of Gays and Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Further in the text: “Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, took the opportunity of a rare visit to Russia to raise human rights issues on Tuesday with President Vladimir V. Putin, a noted departure from their continuing differences over Ukraine and Syria.” German Zeit Online writes: “Merkel calls Putin for protection of minorities.” Subtitle reads: “During her visit to Russia, Merkel urged human rights protection. Besides, Putin should use his influence to stop fire in Ukraine.”

Judging from headlines of world’s mainstream media, Ukraine crisis has paled into insignificance this spring. One the other hand, human rights issues are more effective tools to target a country and turn it into an outcast as well as to prepare western countries for sanctions and “humanitarian bombardments.” Ukraine issue comes the third after “Chechnya gays” and Syria, and this has grim prospects, though that fact was ironized in Russia.

When preparing for Merkel’s visit to Russia, Germany suggested different interpretation of the priorities. Merkel’s spokesperson Steffen Seibert said: “The visit serves the preparation of this year's G20 summit in Hamburg. In addition to the G20 issue, other current foreign policy challenges will also be discussed, such as the Ukraine conflict or the war in Syria." Actually, G20 summit is a priority, while Ukraine and Syria come after it. Though, Seibert warned that “the twin issues of Crimea and Ukraine could block any improvement in relations.” “These are burdensome circumstances which cannot just be talked away,” he said. It turns out that Merkel presents her visit within her other others to all the main or “problematic” future participants of the Hamburg summit. Visit to Sochi is just part of the international program ahead of G20 Summit and no fundamental breakthroughs are anticipated.

Therefore, European media in other headlines covering the visit of the German Chancellor to Russia tried to spotlight its inefficiency with a negative connotation for the host country. Here are some of those headlines: “Merkel sheds light on differences with Putin” (Das Bild); “Meeting between Chancellor Merkel and President of Russia Vladimir Putin seemed quite chill” (Die Welt); “Merkel, Putin aim to ease diplomatic tensions in Sochi” (Deutsche Welle); “Chancellor in Russia: no illusions” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung); “Talks in Sochi. Meeting that is not supposed to become harmonious” (Sueddeutsche); “Merkel and Putin fail to see eye-to-eye” (EUObserver).

Chill, rigidly and without illusions. Language of gestures and poses matter. “Angela Merkel listens. If relations are normal, she often nods. If business is looking well, she even smiles sometimes. Neither of the above happened in Sochi.” (Sueddeutsche Zeitung). “On Tuesday afternoon at the summer residence of Putin, Merkel came out with deadpan expression for a joint press conference. No vestige of smile” (Spiegel). “International reporters attending the press conference said the atmosphere was tense.” (Sueddeutsche). And in the end, a single example of neutral coverage of the visit: “Merkel and Putin had plenty to talk about” (Zeit Online).

More specifically about the Ukraine issue on agenda of Merkel’s visit. Ukraine crisis is an important aspect in the relations of Germany and Russia. At their final joint press conference, Merkel and Putin disagreed on the reasons behind the war in the east of Ukraine. President Putin insisted that the coup in Kiev sparked war, while Merkel claimed that Ukraine’s government was “elected democratically.” Suffice it to say that ATO operation in Donbass started before the snap election of president and snap parliamentary elections in Ukraine i.e. on April 13, May 25 a and October 26, 2014, respectively. The Kremlin recognized the legitimacy of those elections.

At the press conference, the sides said both Moscow and Berlin come out for unfailing implementation of the Minsk Agreements. How to understand the phrase “unfailing implementation” amid differences of Merkel and Putin when interpreting the sequence of implementation of Minsk-2 dated February, 2015. Here is how Putin interprets the Minsk process:

“We agreed to focus, among other tasks, on separating the forces and assets of the parties to the conflict, which should completely stop the attacks, establish a direct dialogue between Kiev and the unrecognized republics, legislatively formalize the special status of these regions and hold elections there on the basis of such legislation.” That is, ceasefire and disengagement of the sides, direct talks, legislative amendments and special status and only afterwards elections. Does it mean that control over border will be transferred to Ukraine’s authorities after all this is implemented?

Here is how Merkel interprets the Minsk process: “Unfortunately, there has not been much progress, and we have to continuously remind of the starting point of the Minsk agreements, about the need for a truce, after which come the political steps.” According to Merkel, Ukraine must be provided access to its own border, first, and then “painful concessions” on elections should be achieved. It appears that concessions will be “painful” for Donetsk and Lugansk. Unless there are legitimate authorities after elections, no direct talks are possible between Kiev and representatives of these regions, according to Merkel.

Actually, the German chancellor interprets the Minsk Agreements from the position of the nationalist authority in Kiev, which makes it possible to block the process inherently. The demand “border first” and the all the rest next suggests Kiev’s direct military control over the territory of DPR and LPR with political decisions favorable to it. This means that Russia will have to betray Donbass once and forever.

During her visit to Russia, Merkel confirmed de-facto changes to Minsk-2 without rewriting the agreement. Here is what Merkel thinks of that document: “However, this does not mean that we can simply forget about the existing agreement and must move toward concluding a new agreement. That is to say, the issue is not that of a new agreement, but implementing the provisions of this agreement. And this is the key to solving the problem.”

As to the common interests, Merkel said: “We have different views on the causes of this conflict… Despite this, we have agreed to continue using this format to prevent further escalation.” Actually, in Sochi, Merkel and Putin agreed at least on one provision on Ukraine: the situation would be much worse but for the Minsk Agreements.

Nevertheless, the current situation in Ukraine “causes serious concern,” the Russian president said. “I am absolutely convinced that the current Kiev authorities quite possibly missed the chance to implement the Minsk Agreements at a moment when they had significant domestic political opportunities.” Does it mean that the “current authorities in Ukraine” have no “domestic political opportunities” to implement the Minsk Agreements? Perhaps new authorities are needed? Or new opportunities? The formula of the Minsk Agreements gets no solution. However, the Normandy Four format is preserved. The talks on Ukraine within that format will continue with new participants after the presidential election in France. Merkel made an intriguing statement saying, “The program is already on the table, and we have to continue working on this program.” Evidently, it is high time to present the program.

At the final press conference, Vladimir Putin called Germany a “friendly” country. Rather a bewildering statement, indeed. However, Merkel, in turn, said, “Of course, hybrid warfare plays a certain role in Russia’s military doctrine.” EU is preparing to extend the sanctions against Russia once again after they expire in July 2017. It is known that Merkel is behind the efforts of European leaders to maintain anti-Russian sanctions. In Sochi, Market reaffirmed that she hopes the sanctions will be lifted upon implementation of the Minsk Agreements. The scheme of their implementation Merkel presented in Sochi.

Besides, Merkel mentioned the idea of “the starting point of the Minsk agreements” which suggests ceasefire on the engagement line. In this light, the Minsk Agreements have an evident fundamental shortcoming. They lack a condition demanding that ATO is stopped and Ukrainian army is sent back to barracks. Without such condition, the “starting point” of the Minsk Agreement cannot be implemented. Consequently, the smoldering conflict in Donbass will continue, as Moscow has failed to find a peaceful solution to the conflict that would not require final ceding of positions.

Dmitry Semushin

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