May 19, 2017

Putin, Merkel exchange views on Ukraine in Sochi

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The Kremlin’s message to Ukraine is: either concede a negotiated special status for Donetsk and Luhansk (resulting in a state within the Ukrainian state), or accept de facto the definitive separation of that territory from Ukraine.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel took the initiative earlier this month to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on May 2. The German agenda included preparations for the upcoming G-20 summit in Germany (where the presidents of Russia and the United States will meet), the situation in Syria (in the context of preparing for the G-20 summit), and comparing notes on the “conflict in Ukraine,” in that order of German priorities. The four-hour Putin-Merkel talks on May 2 behind closed doors indeed adhered to that order of priorities.

In the Putin-Merkel joint news conference, however, international media interest focused heavily on the situation in Ukraine’s east and Russia’s role therein. This persistent line of questioning led Mr. Putin and Ms. Merkel to declare their respective views at some length. The two leaders last met officially seven months ago (October 19, 2016), in Berlin, for negotiations in the “Normandy” format (Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France), followed by an unusually long hiatus in the Normandy process. Thus, Mr. Putin’s and Ms. Merkel’s statements in Sochi provide a wide-ranging review on their respective positions.

Mr. Putin’s main tactical goal is to pressure Kyiv into starting political settlement negotiations with the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” – a process leading to their de facto recognition by Ukraine and Western disengagement from the problem. Toward that end, Russia persists with attrition warfare on the ground (periodically threatening escalation) against Ukraine (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, March 30) while seeking to align Western diplomacy with Russia’s interpretation of the political terms of the Minsk armistice.

As he stated in Sochi, Mr. Putin envisions four initial steps in that direction (Kremlin.ru, May 2; Interfax, May 3):

1. initiating a “direct dialogue” between the “parties to the conflict,” namely Kyiv and the (as yet) “unrecognized republics”;

2. through that dialogue, enshrining a “special status” for Donetsk-Luhansk in the Ukrainian Constitution and legislation;

3. working out a special electoral law applicable to those territories; and

4. holding local elections in Donetsk-Luhansk that would produce recognized authorities there.

Mr. Putin, however, professed to be pessimistic about this scenario. He argued that Kyiv had at one time possessed sufficient domestic leeway to comply with the political terms of the Minsk armistice (as he interprets it), but the Ukrainian government missed that chance, its domestic leeway has since then narrowed, and the prospect of a political settlement is now receding.

That “direct dialogue” means a bilateral negotiation between co-equal parties, Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk, as the first step toward recognition of the latter by the former. Direct dialogue would replace the mediated dialogue in the Minsk Contact Group, in which Donetsk-Luhansk are not co-equal with Kyiv. For all its questionable value, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) mediation would undoubtedly be replaced de facto by Russian arbitration of any direct negotiations between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk.

Next steps toward Putin’s goal

Mr. Putin’s four steps are to be understood cumulatively as the first stage, and thus his interim goal, in the overall settlement process. If Kyiv and its Western partners agree to legitimize the Donetsk-Luhansk authorities through elections (a scenario seriously considered in Berlin and Washington in 2015-2016), then Mr. Putin’s next stage would involve negotiations on the delimitation of powers between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk, in the framework of the special status and in the Minsk armistice sequence.

Mr. Putin, however, stopped short of invoking that follow-up stage with Ms. Merkel in Sochi. Instead, the Russian president affected near-resignation over the receding prospects for a political settlement. Departing from his norm, he did not bother to condemn Kyiv for the deadlock on the Donetsk-Luhansk elections and special status. Mr. Putin’s remark, factual and slightly regretful, that the Ukrainian government lacks domestic political leeway to be “flexible” in the negotiations is accurate, though self-serving.

With his seeming equanimity, Mr. Putin reinforces Moscow’s recent moves that may, instead of a special status, foreshadow outright secession of the Donetsk-Luhansk territory from Ukraine. Those moves include Russia’s recognition of the “people’s republics’ ” identity passports and other types of documents, a go-ahead for takeovers of Ukrainian-owned infrastructure and industrial plants, a switch to the Russian school curriculum and a full shift to the use of the ruble in that territory.

The message to Ukraine is: either concede a negotiated special status for that territory (resulting in a state within the Ukrainian state), or accept de facto the definitive separation of that territory from Ukraine. And the message to Berlin and other Western capitals implies: either pressure Kyiv to concede the special status and elections for Donetsk-Luhansk, or watch that territory’s full secession and the collapse of a diplomatic compromise between Russia and the West. Hence, Mr. Putin’s calculated display of equanimity regarding the stalled Normandy and Minsk processes.

While the Kremlin’s domestic propaganda continues depicting the Ukrainian government as lacking legitimacy, Mr. Putin no longer does so in front of foreign audiences (although he still uses the disrespectful term “Kyiv authorities”). By now he would challenge the Ukrainian government’s legitimacy merely to retaliate when journalists or other interlocutors seem to challenge the legitimacy of the Donetsk-Luhansk “republics.” Thus, during the joint news conference in Sochi, Mr. Putin found it necessary to retort that “the current Kyiv authorities came to power through an anti-constitutional coup.” He seemed oblivious to the implication – which Ms. Merkel instantly grasped – that an illegitimate government (if such it was) could not deliver a legitimate agreement. The German chancellor therefore interceded that “the Ukrainian government came to power through democratic means, and the president [Petro Poroshenko] now has the responsibility to implement the Minsk agreement” (Bundeskanzlerin.de, May 3).

For, unlike Mr. Putin, Ms. Merkel cannot affect indifference at the possible failure of the Minsk process. Stacked though that process is against Ukraine, the German government (on a bipartisan basis) is firmly beholden to the Minsk process, connecting its fulfillment with the lifting of sanctions on Russia. For his part, Mr. Putin never mentioned the sanctions in his remarks, even when Ms. Merkel did. He merely alluded once to some “known difficulties,” in spite of which a growth trend has returned to Russian-German trade. The intended signal is that Moscow expects to wait out and ride out the sanctions.

Merkel’s position on Minsk

Unlike Mr. Putin’s ambivalent message – seeking Ukrainian recognition of the Donetsk-Luhansk “republics” under the political clauses of the Minsk armistice, while sabotaging the military clauses of the armistice, and displaying almost nonchalance over the resulting deadlock – Ms. Merkel reaffirmed her insistence on the fulfillment of military and political clauses, in the sequence laid down by the armistice “agreement.”

As long, however, as Russian and proxy forces continue the attrition warfare in Ukraine’s east, thus breaching the military Clauses 1, 2 and 3 of the Minsk armistice, it remains impossible to advance to the follow-up political clauses. Russia wants to enforce those clauses first, which would reverse the “agreement’s” sequence. And while Mr. Putin pretended to ignore the matter of European economic sanctions on Russia in his remarks, Ms. Merkel held out the lifting of sanctions at some unspecified stage in the sequenced fulfillment of military and political clauses, by Russia and Ukraine in reciprocity.

Ms. Merkel’s remarks in Sochi reveal her conception of a road map that was discussed at the October 19, 2016, “Normandy” summit of the heads of state of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France in Berlin, and is still under discussion. Ms. Merkel outlined a short- and medium-term scenario in Sochi (Bundeskanzlerin.de, May 2; Deutsche Welle, Ukrinform, May 3).

First, the onus is on Russia to abide by the ceasefire, so as to advance to the political stage, which constitutes Russia’s priority interest. Said Ms. Merkel, “I am asking the Russian president insistently to do his best and bring about a ceasefire. This could foster an atmosphere in Ukrainian society that would make it accept painful compromises regarding the status of the Donetsk and Luhansk territories.” Apparently, the onus would shift to Ukraine at that stage.

Second, “We must reach the stage at which elections are held, resulting in a legitimized leadership in the Donetsk and Luhansk territories. On this basis it will then of course be possible to hold direct talks [between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk]. For this we still need a lot of effort. We need a road map. This is on the table, a work in progress.”

Ms. Merkel was alluding to the October 2016 proposed road map. On this second point there is a minor difference between Moscow and Berlin: while Moscow wants those direct talks to be held first, preparatory to “elections” in that territory, Ms. Merkel suggests holding those “elections” first, so as to legitimize (as she said in Sochi) the Donetsk-Luhansk leaderships ahead of their negotiations with the Ukrainian government about their status.

Third, “Our firm intention remains to help Ukraine to regain access [sic] to its border [the Ukraine-Russia border in the Donetsk-Luhansk territory]. This step, however, must be preceded by a political process that would then lead to holding local elections [in Donetsk-Luhansk],” Ms. Merkel said. Inasmuch as all participants in the international negotiations unambiguously recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty in this territory (even Russia, on paper), no elections could be deemed valid here without Ukraine’s advance consent that elections be held.

On the other hand, Kyiv is being asked to accept the holding of those “elections” (legitimizing the Donetsk-Luhansk authorities) as a precondition to hypothetically gaining access to the border in that territory. That, in turn, would be conditional again on agreement with Donetsk-Luhansk. For, under the political Clause 9 of the Minsk armistice, “the process of restoring the Ukrainian government’s full control on the border shall start on the first day after the local elections, and be completed following a comprehensive political settlement… provided that Clause 11 is [also] implemented.” Clause 11, in turn, requires Kyiv to “adopt and bring into force a new Ukrainian Constitution, involving decentralization as a key element… and adopt a permanent special status for the Donetsk and Luhansk [areas] by agreement with their representatives.” The implementation deadline of December 2015 is now moot (Osce.org, February 12, 2015).

That tangle of conditionalities is bound to end in a fiasco for Kyiv; and even if it tried, access to the border would still be at the discretion of Donetsk-Luhansk authorities as long as Russian forces are present there. Consenting to “elections” in Donetsk-Luhansk would only strengthen their hand in negotiations (not only on border control but on all issues), without restoring Ukraine’s “access” to that border. Access is a coded word being used instead of “control.” As such, it denotes that the aim has been downscaled from Ukrainian border control to a negotiated arrangement between Ukraine and the two “republics,” if legitimized and de facto recognized.

Ms. Merkel concluded her remarks in Sochi with a cryptic reference to the “Steinmeier formula.” Without evaluating it one way or another, she only said somewhat testily that this formula was very easy to understand. This is actually one of the more abstruse proposals generated in the course of these negotiations. Frank-Walter Steinmeier (minister of foreign affairs until March and president of Germany since then) first proposed this formula confidentially at the October 2015 Normandy meeting in Paris; it was publicly and aggressively embraced by Boris Gryzlov as Russia’s presidential envoy to the Contact Group negotiations in Minsk. It was again discussed at the latest Normandy summit in October 2016 in Berlin. And it is now being raised by the Russians in subsequent Contact Group negotiations in Minsk (RIA Novosti, TASS, October 24-26, November 9, 23, December 9, 21, 2016; January 17, February 1, 2017). Moreover, it is referenced in public discussions, usually without clarity about its meaning.

This formula lowers the bar for “elections” in the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” to be deemed valid and their authorities as legitimate. Prior to Mr. Steinmeier’s intervention, the negotiations envisaged (based on the Minsk armistice) that those local “elections” be deemed valid only after a positive assessment by observers of OSCE’s Organization for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). In that case, the “republics” would presumably earn a title to their special status, which Ukraine would then have to concede. The “Steinmeier Formula,” however, proposes that Ukraine bring into effect the special status temporarily, on the day when those “elections” are held (before the polls close). It also calls on making that status permanent, if ODIHR assesses those elections positively in its subsequent report. Presumably, some ambiguous findings by ODIHR would make it difficult for Ukraine to revoke a special status, once it has been brought it into effect.

Hours before Ms. Merkel landed in Sochi, Mr. Putin warmly received the newly elected “president” of South Ossetia, Anatoly Bibilov there. Ms. Merkel did not raise that issue. Sochi is located in close proximity to Georgia and that country’s Russian-occupied territories, and Ms. Merkel herself had undertaken an emergency visit to Sochi in September 2008 to discuss Russia’s military intervention in Georgia with then-President Dmitry Medvedev. But Ms. Merkel went on to make a heavy political investment in the relationship with Mr. Medvedev (as did other Western leaders); the issue of Georgia’s occupied territories has practically disappeared from the international diplomatic agenda. Perhaps, Moscow reckons that Western tenacity in the case of Crimea and Donetsk-Luhansk would run out before Moscow’s tenacity would.

The article above is reprinted from Eurasia Daily Monitor with permission from its publisher, the Jamestown Foundation, www.jamestown.org.

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