The question is not whether Poroshenko will implement the Minsk agreements, but whether the Ukrainian regime will survive any attempt to implement them.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, right, and French President Francois Hollande speak at the Elysee Palace after meeting in Paris, France, Oct. 2. Photo: AP
For a different take read: "The ghost of Syria haunts the Normandy Four talks on Ukraine"
The recent Normandy Four meeting in Paris confirmed the viability of the Minsk agreements. Avoiding all sensationalism, the presidents of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia rejected high-minded diplomatic statements in favor of emphasizing the working nature of the meeting.
However, apart from demonstrating the commitment to implementing Minsk-2, the talks in Paris delivered a very important result: they showed that the Ukrainian political system has no choice but to demonstrate its viability. And Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko cannot rely on foreign help to pass this test.
Kiev and the separatists, looking for a compromise
The Normandy Four talks in Minsk will undoubtedly go down in diplomatic history for their duration, intensity and abundance of post-event interpretations. There is genuine competition between analysts to have their voices heard.
On one side are the pro-Ukrainians, and on the other, those sympathetic to the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republics (LPR). They all point to various elements of the agreements, asserting that Kiev or Donetsk and Luhansk (in accordance with their sympathies) should be the first to start implementing the agreements.
Over time, officials from Kiev and the self-proclaimed DPR and LPR weighed in. Kiev demanded that Donetsk and Luhansk hand over control of the border with Russia, and in response the rebels framed plans to hold their own elections, since Kiev was in no hurry to introduce a special electoral procedure for the rebel territories or to offer an amnesty for their leaders.
The mutual demands could have run to infinity. In the meantime, the tension was growing. The DPR and LPR planned to hold elections without regard to the upcoming Oct. 25 local elections across Ukraine.
But on the eve of the Paris talks, the head of the tripartite contact group for peaceful settlement, Pierre Morel, proposed a plan that defined the procedure for the implementation of the February agreement in Minsk.
Under the plan, Ukraine must adopt specific legislation that, first, defines the procedure for elections in the DPR and the LPR, and, second, offers an amnesty for the leaders of the breakaway territories, which will then have the right to take part in the elections.
The elections will then be held under international observation, and if the monitors recognize them as valid, Ukraine will get what it wants: control over the sections of the border with Russia that are presently in the hands of the DPR and LPR. That was the plan that emerged during the Paris talks.
The limited nature of Poroshenko’s power
On the eve of the summit, President Poroshenko and Ukrainian officials rejected the French diplomat’s plan out of hand. That is understandable, since they could not be seen to be making concessions on Donetsk and Luhansk.
Even those sympathetic to the Poroshenko regime note that the Ukrainian president’s power is limited and conditional. The abundance of weapons in the country, the erosion of legitimacy, the presence of semi-official paramilitary forces and the absolute power of the Ukrainian oligarchs clearly demarcate the limits of Poroshenko’s influence.
Not only that, over the past 18 months Ukraine’s new rulers, with wholesale media support, have supercharged nationalist sentiment, gearing the population for a struggle to the bitter end. Now the Paris talks have posed the question as to what Poroshenko will offer voters by way of a victorious outcome.
According to some statements by Ukrainian officials, the country is at war with Russia. However, Poroshenko will have to explain to a public fired up by chest-beating rhetoric why and how there can be an amnesty for DNR and LNR rebels which Kiev sees as terrorists.
Moreover, Poroshenko’s position in Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, which will pass the necessary laws to implement Morel’s plan, is shaky. So it is hard to understand when and how these laws will be adopted.
Why Germany and France reassessed their approach to Ukraine
But give Poroshenko his due. He arrived in Paris, survived the four-hour talks, accepted the results and did not resign on returning home. Will he now work on implementing the Paris agreements?
The assessments of numerous observers suggest an affirmative answer to this question. In their view, the position of Berlin and Paris has changed fundamentally in recent months. Realizing that full and unconditional support for Kiev would not bring any quick and lasting rewards, but only further tension with Moscow, France and Germany assumed the role of dispassionate arbitrators.
Note that it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande who talked to reporters after the talks in Paris. The Kremlin's spokesman said later that Russian President Vladimir Putin had declined to speak to the press specifically to avoid any erroneous interpretation of the outcome.
That approach is clear. One of the sides in the Ukrainian civil war looks to Russia for support, so Moscow cannot be an impartial arbitrator, but can play an active part in the implementation of the Minsk agreements.
Recall that since the start of the Ukraine crisis in February 2014, Berlin and Paris have tried to play the role of arbitrators. However, as soon as the arrangements on the transfer of power by former President Viktor Yanukovych were violated, France and Germany, together with the United States, began to offer support to the new Kiev authorities.
But it is clear today that Poroshenko and his allies can deliver neither victory on the battlefield, nor successful reforms, nor a properly functioning political system. For Russia, the Ukraine crisis is not a geopolitical project or a diplomatic game, but a civil war in a neighboring, kindred country.
Given the illusory nature of Ukrainian progress towards democracy and full membership of the European Union, the deterioration of French and German relations with Russia over the Ukraine crisis has been real. It seems that both Berlin and Paris have weighed the pros and cons of backing Poroshenko and concluded that the original idea of arbitrating the conflict is far more advantageous.
The shift in attitude is no secret to Poroshenko. Given that Washington neither joined the Normandy Four, nor fully sponsored Ukraine’s state project, nor offered its own settlement solution, the Paris talks dispelled any remaining illusions that the Ukrainian president might have had in respect of Western assistance (or lack thereof), not to mention aid that might have been used in the confrontation against Russia.
Time for a political settlement to the crisis
The Normandy Four summit gives reason to suppose that the tug-of-war over the integration of Ukraine could be, if not stopped, then at least paused. The Western-backed overthrow of Yanukovych not only failed to launch the process of Ukraine’s full integration with the European Union with clear terms and conditions, but also called into question the very preservation of Ukrainian statehood.
Less than two years later, the agenda is dominated not by Ukraine’s European integration or even the majority-backed reforms, which have yet to materialize, but by how to end the civil war and reintegrate the Donbas region with the rest of Ukraine.
Implementation of the Minsk agreements is the sole mechanism for addressing these issues. The past months have seen the end of active combat in the Donbas. Both sides recognize the legitimacy of Minsk-2 and are committed to the withdrawal of weaponry.
Next up are the political arrangements. Focused as they are on Russia, as a result of the Paris talks, the DPR and LPR promptly announced the postponement of independent elections, adding to the pressure on Kiev to adopt laws on an amnesty and a new electoral procedure.
Given the position of Berlin and Paris, Poroshenko is running out of options and potential diversions. The question is not whether he will implement the agreements, but whether the Ukrainian regime will survive any attempt to implement them.
The opinion of the authors may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.