Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland discussed the situation in Ukraine with Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, who is called the “Kremlin’s curator of the Ukrainian question,” at a closed-door meeting on Friday, January 15. Many details of the meeting have not been revealed, but observers believe it may indicate the Kremlin’s desire to remove at least some Western sanctions as soon as possible.
Nuland and Surkov held the meeting at the (Russian presidential residence) in the resort town of Pionersk in the Kaliningrad oblast. According to various Russian agencies, the meeting lasted 4 or 6 hours. The meeting was the subject of many rumors, with the only official information coming from State Department spokesman John Kirby, who stated the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the necessity for the full implementation of the Minsk agreements.
“Assistant Secretary Nuland’s meeting with presidential advisor Surkov is part of our continued efforts to work with Russia to ensure full implementation of the Minsk agreements, in close coordination with the other Normandy powers — Ukraine, Germany, and France,” Kirby said in a statement
Constructive talks on Ukraine without Ukraine
Immediately after the meeting Kirby confirmed that the participants had discussed the situation in eastern Ukraine and the need for the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. He said the talks were constructive.
Surkov characterized the discussions as “substantial, constructive and helpful,” describing them as a search on ways “to find compromises in the implementation of the Minsk agreements.” According to Surkov, the meeting addressed “several sensitive issues such as … constitutional reform (in Ukraine), security and elections (in the occupied part of Donbas). Ideas were put forward that can be discussed in the Contact Group and the meeting of the Normandy Four, ” he said. What specific ideas regarding Ukraine were discussed without Ukrainian representatives, Surkov did not specify.
Even before the Nuland-Surkov meeting, the Russian Interfax agency presented the views of an unnamed “informed source” that in the course of these meetings “certain recommendations may be developed” which the Contact Group and its thematic subgroups are expected to take into account and which would provide direction on the issue of the political settlement in the Donbas — in particular, recommendations on the local elections in the currently occupied territories.
Nuland, during her stop in Lithuania on Friday morning, said that the transition to the implementation of the remaining points of the Minsk agreements would be possible when “people stop being killed” in the region. She pointed out that these points address not only local elections but the withdrawal of foreign weapons and fighters and the return of Ukrainian control of its borders.
Meanwhile, as the meeting was taking place in the Kaliningrad area, Russian President Vladimir Putin was holding a working meeting in Moscow with the permanent members of Russia’s Security Council, the Kremlin press service announced briefly. Kremlin journalist Dmitry Smirnov said that Ukraine was discussed as well as Syria, the US, and Russia’s internal affairs.
Ukraine center of attention
The situation in Ukraine was the topic of discussion among several leading figures from various countries recently.
On January 13, US President Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin discussed Ukraine, among other issues, during a phone conversation. At the same time, a Kremlin announcement stated that Putin told Obama that it is Kyiv that needs to fulfill the Minsk agreements. The White House statement, however, emphasized that most of the conversation had to do with the need for Russia to carry out its own obligations under the Minsk agreements, particularly its obligation to stop supporting the separatists who continue to destabilize Ukraine.
On the same day, January 13, President Petro Poroshenko held a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande. Kyiv was the only side to report this conversation, stating that further steps for fulfilling the Minsk agreements were discussed among other subjects, as well as violations on the part of “Russian fighters” — these exact words were used by the president’s press service –and that all three parties “agreed to continue contacts the following week.”
At the same time, the France Press agency, citing an unnamed Ukrainian official, reported that representatives of Merkel and Hollande are expected to visit Kyiv and Moscow as soon as the following week to hold talks on resolving the crisis in the Donbas. The agency added that Moscow has not yet confirmed these meetings.
Prior to the meeting of the senior US and Russian officials, the Ukrainian president unexpectedly received Russia’s new representative in the Trilateral Contact Group, Boris Gryzlov, in Kyiv late in the evening of January 11 . AS President Poroshenko explained later, former president Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine’s representative in the Contact Group, also took part in the meeting.
Moscow can no longer withstand sanctions?
This surge of diplomatic activity involving Moscow has led several commentators to the same conclusion, that Russia wants somehow to resolve the problem at least to the extent that this would result in the lifting of some sanctions — those that were imposed because of aggression in eastern Ukraine (separate sanctions are in effect for the occupation of Crimea and they are not at issue here).
In particular, even before the last meeting of the US and Russian officials, Radio Liberty commentator Vitaliy Portnikov expressed the view that it is “proof that Russia will try to achieve the cancellation of the sanctions against Putin’s regime using all possible means.”
As Portnikov wrote in his commentary for Espreso TV, “Vladislav Surkov will try to negotiate with the Americans. It should be understood that the curator of the ‘Ukrainian direction’ in the administration of the Russia’s president is still the same Surkov … The visit of Gryzlov to Kyiv did not produce the results expected in Moscow. It became clear that Ukraine is not ready for the ‘insertion’ of the Donbas on Russia’s terms — in other words about maintaining Zakharchenko and Plotnytsky in power (leaders of the so-called DNR and LNR “republics,” who are considered as terrorists in Ukraine). If negotiations on this issue drag on, Russia simply will run out of time for consultations on lifting sanctions. That is why a decision was reached in the Kremlin to try to put pressure on Poroshenko through the Americans. The question is what could Surkov offer Nuland in the situation where Putin is not ready to give up either the thugs in the Donbas or those in Crimea.”
The Russian political analyst Alexey Makarkin, vice president of the Russian Center for Political Technologies, has a similar view on the Donbas negotiations. He told the Russian news agency Interfax that these meetings indicated Moscow’s desire to speed up the resolution of the problem because of the economic crisis
“Reactions to the economic situation differ considerably from what they were even a few months ago,” Makarkin says. “There is a feeling that the crisis is delayed. When sanctions first appeared we said well, the Americans are only hurting themselves, The Europeans too. We will enter the Chinese markets. And the Chinese say that if you are subject to sanctions, we will take that fact into account as well. Chinese financial institutions are also embedded into the global economy and they don’t want to quarrel with the Americans. That is why, perhaps, there is a now a serious desire to agree on some compromise format so that by mid-year we could begin discussing the lifting of sanctions,” he concludes.
Several points of the Ukrainian-Russian agreements on resolving the crisis that were concluded in Minsk, Belarus, during 2014-2015 and are known as the Minsk agreements should have been executed before the end of last year, but are actually being extended now. In the West it is emphasized that the lifting of that portion of sanctions against Russia that were imposed for its aggression in the Donbas can be considered only after the full implementation of these agreements by Moscow and the separatists it is supporting.
Featured image: political cartoon by Oleksiy Kustovskyi. “The border or the constitution. Both. ”