The meeting in Berlin between only three participants of the Normandy Four to discuss the Ukraine crisis is proof that the Minsk agreements need to be reassessed. Could we eventually see the involvement of new stakeholders in the negotiation process?


French President Francois Hollande, left, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel after talks in Minsk, Belarus, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. Photo: AP

Talks between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande are scheduled to take place on August 24 in Berlin. The meeting was initiated by Kiev, which explains the new format, which does not include Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was quick to point out that the summit does not correspond to the Normandy format, and is simply a trilateral meeting between Germany, France and Ukraine.

At the same time, he noted that Moscow was closely monitoring the preparations and would scrutinize the results, since “Russia clearly needs additional leverage over Kiev.”

Hence, Russia's top diplomat effectively expressed confidence that the upcoming meeting would be, above all, “instructive” for the Ukrainian authorities. At the same time Moscow seems to be assigning the role of “tutor” to Berlin and Paris.

The meeting is expected to discuss the situation in the Donets Basin (Donbas), the current state of the Minsk agreements, Crimea and issues related to the implementation of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union.

What each participant wants from the Berlin meeting

In an earlier statement, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described the situation in eastern Ukraine as “explosive.” In his view, there is much at stake right now, and if the parties fail to reach an agreement on a peaceful settlement, “we could see a new spiral of military escalation at any time.”

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In turn, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, announcing the meeting, stressed that the priority was for military operations to cease and weapons to be withdrawn. That should be followed by an agreement between the sides on creating the “appropriate conditions for holding elections in the Donbas region.”

In the words of Ukrainian President Poroshenko, the main purpose of his meeting with the leaders of Germany and France is to coordinate a tough response to what he calls “Russian aggression” against Ukraine.

“The key task of the Ukrainian authorities is to create a powerful international community as a united coalition to stop the aggressor. This applies both to well-coordinated actions to combat aggression in the east of the country and well-coordinated steps to cement the non-recognition of Crimea’s annexation,” underscored the Ukrainian president.

He also stated that Ukraine is not satisfied by Russia’s implementation of some its key commitments, namely the withdrawal of large-caliber artillery and heavy equipment. Ukraine’s head of state also stressed the need to ensure the right conditions for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to carry out its special monitoring mission.

Searching for a workable solution to the Ukraine crisis

That is the approximate lay of the land in respect of the priorities of the Normandy format participants. Despite their differences, each of the parties understands that delaying a solution to the problem will only aggravate the situation, rendering some aspects insoluble.

For Russia, the Donetsk problem is similar to the proverbial “suitcase without a handle” — hard to carry, but a pity to throw it away. Outside of the failed “Novorossiya project,” the current adventure in the Donbas looks like an inexplicable anomaly in the sphere of Russian foreign policy.

On the other hand, too many hopes on both sides of the border have been placed on Russia’s presence in the region. Therefore, unlike the owner of the useless suitcase, Moscow cannot simply quit the Donbas without incurring considerable reputational damage to itself, both domestically and throughout the so-called “Russian world.”

This, in turn, is overlapping with other negative developments, primarily the price of oil and its effect on the exchange rate of the ruble, as well as the slow but steady grinding of international sanctions.

The unfavorable circumstances, limited time frame and loss of image are forcing the Russian authorities into making mistakes, for instance the decision to destroy imports of sanctions-listed food, which has caused a mixed reaction in Russian society.

In the current climate, Russia cannot increase its presence on Ukrainian soil without worsening the adverse consequences for itself. Hope clings to the regimes in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, which can still act with impunity to maintain the desired degree of tension in the region and, if necessary, used to soak up negative PR without Russia becoming officially involved in the conflict. This explains the periodic outbreaks of military activity along the dividing line in the Donbas.

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Lavrov’s words also suggest that the Kremlin is pinning its hopes on its European partners. According to Moscow, they must “put pressure” on Kiev to make as many concessions as possible in the settlement of the situation in the Donbas, while preserving Russia’s positive image both domestically and abroad.

The official position of Berlin and Paris in the settlement of the conflict cannot be described as simple. Having failed to achieve the withdrawal of heavy weapons as per Minsk-2, Germany, in particular, is determined to ensure that Ukraine carries through the provisions relating to constitutional reform.

The German Foreign Ministry evaluated the August 20 meeting of the Normandy format as a “positive and intensive exchange of views” on the reform of the Constitution of Ukraine and the process of decentralization, in particular the assignment of special status to certain parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

It seems as though the Minsk agreements are being mechanically implemented, and none of the European diplomats involved in the settlement process wants to consider the possible consequences of such actions. Not only that, pushing through constitutional reform in a country whose territorial integrity has been shattered by fighting is not safe; likewise the desire to give special status to areas beyond the control of the official authorities merely encourages the separatists to expand their scope of influence through so-called gray zones.

Thus, there is a negative synergistic effect. Having failed to carry out the main clause of the Minsk agreements on the demilitarization of the conflict zone, the participants in the settlement process intend to give more rights to just one side, the separatists, who are effectively out of control as it is, untying their hands in the process and allowing the tail to wag the dog.

Ignoring the diplomatic subtleties for a moment, one might say that the roof is being added to the house before the walls. And that seems to be the crux of the current phase, since the proposed solution conceals a time bomb with a fairly long fuse.

The conclusion suggests itself that the problem cannot be solved within the current system of coordinates. What’s needed is a major revision of the approaches and solutions related to the process. As practice shows, mechanical adherence to the Minsk agreements with the focus on the most readily implementable provisions not only fails to facilitate the conflict resolution process, but also merely adds a new layer of complexities. In order to change the situation for the better, the Minsk process must be institutionalized. As evident from the current situation, the efforts of the OSCE alone are insufficient.

Since Europe has enough problems of its own, the need to review the negotiating format is becoming increasingly obvious and urgent. To that end, it would be advisable either to expand the Normandy format to include the United States or to raise the status of participants from the level of foreign ministers to heads of state. The U.S. and Russian presidents could meet under this format and set about untangling the knotty situation, which is fraught with negative consequences — not only for Europe, but also for the world.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.