By Jeffrey Michels
The situation in Ukraine is on the front page again, after months on the back burner of Western attention failed to cool down the war in the Donbass.
As the death toll tops 5,000 – including a disheartening number of Ukrainian civilians – months after the signing of a cease-fire, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande have led a surprise push to find a more substantial diplomatic solution. Their efforts have brought Ukraine and Russia to the negotiating table for a summit beginning this Wednesday in Minsk.
Even Merkel and Hollande have admitted how incredibly elusive their goal may be. But this in no way means that nothing will become of the summit. Even stalemate will have tremendous implications.
On the Agenda
It will be lost on no one that the negotiations will be held where they last failed, especially given that the tatters of the Minsk Agreement of last September will loom large in the discussions. Signed by the OSCE, Russia and Ukraine, the agreements called for a cease-fire between the Ukrainian military and the separatists in the east along the lines which they held at the time.
This was to be the basis for further reconciliation, but the drying of the signatories’ ink in Minsk was quickly followed by the whistling of artillery shells again in Ukraine. Civilians continued to get caught in the cross-fire, Russian military support continued to flow in and people continued to question, with increasing fervor, whether a diplomatic solution was possible.
The main task then, particularly for Merkel and Hollande, is to identify the tragic flaw in the previous Minsk Agreement, so the parties can then decide either to fix it or start anew. The main problem, though, is that despite all that has happened in the meantime, not much has changed. If anything, the parties to the negotiation have only hardened in their opposition.
At the table
Fronting the effort, as noted, are Germany and France. To repair the breakdown in cooperation between East and West Europe, end the violent human rights abuses and restore peace on their continent, they seek above all else to preserve diplomacy as the means towards doing so. To achieve this, a legitimate cease-fire is imperative.
While President Hollande has strongly championed the cause, it is Chancellor Merkel who has tied herself tightly to its outcome. She will be arriving in Kiev after travelling to the U.S. and Canada in what has been called a “crisis diplomacy tour.” Throughout she repeated the call for a diplomatic solution. Although she was met with the nodding heads of President Obama and Prime Minister Harper, it was clear that pressure to change their minds was mounting. Foreign policy hardliners in the U.S. are practically screaming for a tougher stance with Russia, including the delivery of lethal military aid to the Ukrainian government. Canada, with its large Ukrainian population, is not entirely opposed to the idea either.
Ukraine, for its part, is receptive to both avenues so long as it diverges from that which they are on now. Since the September Minsk Protocol, they have lost important territory to the Russian-supplied separatists, including the Donetsk Airport that stood as their symbolic foothold in the east. Their government has continually insisted on both military aid to give them a fighting chance and respect for the Minsk Agreements to give them a chance at peace. This summit will be a time for Ukraine to focus on the latter – an unlikely outcome as their negotiating power has only diminished – while the aftermath may be a strengthened call for the former, with ears firmly perked to developments across the Atlantic.
Finally, attending as the elephant in the room is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Outnumbered by his fellow attendees three-to-one in terms of the east/west dichotomy he loves to perpetuate, Putin does not expect, nor necessarily hopes for, a precipitous outcome. If anything, he will push for a ceasefire under terms that Ukraine will surely rail against. These would reflect the separatist gains in the east, an amount of territory with raised potential for establishing a more intense degree of autonomy. If the talks fall apart, however, Putin will still be able to gain from the appearance of active engagement in diplomatically resolving the crisis, an attempt doomed by his encirclement by hostile, unbending interlocutors.
What’s at Stake
Given the pressures mounting, this may be the last ditch effort for a negotiated solution. If diplomacy fails again to stabilize the situation and military power continues to strengthen Russia’s hand, the pendulum may swing violently. Discussion in the west will more frankly deal with the question of military involvement, which would further stoke a war to which, even now, there is hardly an end in sight.