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Ukraine-Russia peace talks are in a stalemate as Kyiv eyes ways to revise Minsk deal

Украинская делегация прибыла в Берлин для участия в переговорах на уровне политических советников лидеров Украины, Германии, Франции и России
Andrii Yermak, the head of the Ukrainian President’s Office, reading documents aboard one of the planes of the presidential fleet. Photo:
Ukraine-Russia peace talks are in a stalemate as Kyiv eyes ways to revise Minsk deal

Nine months have passed since the last summit in the Normandy Four (N4) format in Paris, when the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France resumed peace negotiations regarding Ukraine’s war-torn Donbas region, where Russia occupies substantial parts of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.

This time, on 11 September, political advisors of the Normandy Four leaders met in Berlin. The formal head of the Ukrainian delegation was Oleksiy Reznikov, the country’s vice PM and minister for the reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories. However, when it comes to the Donbas negotiations with Russia, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s top gun is Andriy Yermak, head of the President’s Office. The chief Russian negotiator was Dmitry Kozak, deputy head of President Putin’s administration and supervisor of the Kremlin’s policies toward Ukraine. After seven hours of talks, Yermak and Kozak made conflicting statements regarding the results.

Here we publish an abridged translation of an article by Maria Zolkina, an analyst with one of the major Ukrainian pollsters, that scrutinizes the points made by the officials and analyzes how Russia and Ukraine act in the negotiation process and what we can expect in the future.

The two Russian-run self-proclaimed “republics” occupy roughly one-third of Ukraine’s Donbas region. Map: Euromaidan Press

The long-awaited meeting of advisers to the Normandy Four leaders in Berlin not only failed to lead to any breakthroughs [in the Russia-Ukraine talks on the war in the east of Ukraine, – Ed.] but also became a disappointment of sorts for both Kyiv and Moscow.

The negotiation positions of Ukraine and Russia are increasingly diverging, leaving Ukraine almost no room for maneuver and compromise with Russia, even having a substantial desire for “peace” [in the Donbas advocated by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy], and Ukraine’s “Plan B” to revise the talks is becoming increasingly realistic.

What risks could it bring to Ukraine? And how can Kyiv avoid falling into Russian traps?

What did they (not) agree on?

Ukrainian presidential office head Andrii Yermak (L) and Russian presidential envoy Dmitry Kozak (R)
Ukrainian presidential office head Andrii Yermak (L) and Russian presidential envoy Dmitry Kozak (R)

Extending the regime of the ceasefire in the Donbas region is basically the only agreement reached in Berlin.

However, it was not backed by any additional guarantees, and therefore could be violated at any time, as Russia did before. The ceasefire is an exclusively political tool for Moscow to press on Kyiv with demands to start implementing the political clauses of the Minsk accords [namely – the issue of enshrining a “special status” in Ukraine’s Constitution and holding elections in the currently occupied territories before Ukraine gains control of the area; Ukraine views these two clauses of the Minsk agreements as unacceptable while implementing them is a cornerstone for Russia – Ed.].

Without progress in political compromises there will be no ceasefire.
The JCCC (Joint Center for Control and Co-ordination) was established in 2014 as a Ukraine-Russia body for dealing with the ceasefire on the ground. As Russia withdrew its representatives from the JCCC a few years ago, the Donetsk and Luhansk Russian occupation administrations (“LDNR”) created their alternative groups to pose them as a replacement for the Russian side in the JCCC in order to force Ukraine to establish direct contacts with “LDNR”.

Moreover, the obviously flawed mechanism of implementing the ceasefire with a blurred role of the JCCC, which now has only Ukrainian representatives, wasn’t improved at the meeting. That’s why the exact way to monitor the ceasefire remains an open question.

The Russian and Ukrainian sides send completely opposite signals as to amending the resolution of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine (Parliament) on local elections in Ukraine on 25 October.

The Parliament’s resolution announced that local elections will be held on 25 October across Ukraine except for the Russian-occupied Donbas and Crimea. Russia demands to remove the ban on the local elections in ORDLO (Ukraine’s code name for occupied Donbas) from the document,  as part of its policy to push Ukraine to hold elections there before the territory is controlled by Ukraine and therefore legalize the Russian-appointed “leaders” of the territories in Ukraine’s political field.

The Kremlin’s representative Dmitry Kozak states that the Rada is going to consider the draft amendment to the resolution in the near future, while his Ukrainian counterpart, Andriy Yermak, denies the existence of such an agreement point and says that there is only some a draft amendment of some MP, although none is available online on the Parliament’s website at the moment.

Russia is focusing on this resolution solely to have the option of blocking the negotiations when its whims would be ignored, or, if they succeed, to show off how successful its pressure on Kyiv would have been.

However, there is almost no chance of adopting such changes to the election resolution, as even the pro-presidential Servant of the People faction is not ready to vote for it. And, in the end, everyone understands that even its adoption would not bring the elections in the occupied territories any closer.

No progress

One of the key issues for Ukraine and for President Zelenskyy personally, a new stage for exchanging prisoners, was left without an answer.

As well, some tactical things — demining the territory and opening new entry-exit checkpoints — were agreed at the previous Minsk TCG talks.

Even less agreement between the sides exists on Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s top priority issue of planning a new summit of the leaders of the Normandy Four.

Despite Yermak’s rather optimistic forecasts, it’s not on the agenda.

The Kremlin’s reaction to Kyiv’s enthusiasm is not just cold but even jeering.

Note Kozak’s statement that for one of the parties (obviously, Ukraine) the meeting with Putin is an end in itself. Meanwhile, there actually is no real reason to meet.

The bottom line is that both delegations returned home from the negotiations without any serious gains.

However, while the Ukrainian side lacks mechanisms to achieve its goals, the Russians may certainly involve pressure, blackmailing to break the new ceasefire.

Russian tactics of “small steps”

For Zelenskyy and his team, this period is quite difficult. There is no reason to agree to a political settlement yet, but Russia will demand to satisfy its appetites to keep the ceasefire running.

At the same time, it seems that the Kremlin will combine the tactics of strong pressure and ultimatums with the tactics of “small steps” that are against the interests of Ukraine.

The joint inspection near the town of Shumy [in the free Ukrainian territory together with representatives of Russia’s occupation administration, – Ed.], which was disrupted on 10 September, is one of such dangerous “grassroots” initiatives coming from the Russians. Thus, Russia is obviously going to try to use the ceasefire regime for maximizing the legitimacy of the representatives of its illegal armed formations as a “second party” for contacts with the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

The key goal of the Russians in organizing this inspection was to bring the so-called “DNR Mission to the JCCC” in from the cold, so that its “chief” would review the positions of Ukraine’s Armed Forces and, as Russia further demanded, signing a protocol of the inspection.

And in the protocol, without a doubt, the signature of that “official” should have appeared next to the Ukrainian representative’s signature.

This example is a very clear demonstration of how persistently and methodically the Russians play to force Ukraine’s direct dialog with the “LDNR” at all levels.

And there is no doubt: along with diplomatic pressure in the Normandy Format, similar “initiatives” will be actively promoted in the Minsk TCG.

Today, the Kremlin does not care much about the format of this direct dialog [between Ukraine and Russian occupation administrations in the Donbas], it is interested in the very fact of at least some direct contacts of this kind. Preferably, when the dialog is enshrined in a signed document.

This tactic of “small steps” is based on a number of mistakes made by the Ukrainian side earlier, especially at the stage of the 2019 disengagement of forces and troops [in three zones on the front-line].

The mistakes occurred when the President’s Office turned a blind eye to the presence of the pseudorepublics’ non-existent “JCCC” in the disengagement areas, while the OSCE SMM representatives were not physically allowed to inspect the old and new positions of militants in these areas.

The disengagement zone is planned to include all settlements in the 1-km buffer zone of the gray zone between the Luhansk and Donetsk “People’s Republics” and Ukraine. Map: Euromaidan Press

Plans remain for further inspections where Russia will suggest the fake “authorized representatives” of the JCCC instead of official Russian representatives. The risks that this carries is obvious.

The future of the Minsk accords

Despite Kyiv officially confirming its commitment to the Minsk deal, it is becoming increasingly more apparent even to its largest proponents in Zelenskyy’s circle that the deal is impossible to implement it in its current form.

Whether the President’s Office likes it or not, but responding with concessions to Russia’s blackmail and pressure would be political suicide.

However, while Ukrainian negotiators manage to fend off the Kremlin’s most brazen demands, their ability to see the risks of such “single initiatives” as joint inspections is markedly worse.

The idea to revise and update the Minsk accords has been increasingly floated on the sidelines of the talks. But, in parallel with political pressure on Ukraine, the Kremlin is already openly demanding to abandon the very rhetoric of a possible update to the Minsk documents.

And, in fact, this may be the Kremlin’s game for who will be blamed as the “guilty party” for disrupting the implementation of the Minsk peace accords.

If Moscow does not receive guarantees for its settlement scenario [with the legalization of its pseudo-statelets in Ukraine’s political field through amendments to Ukraine’s Constitution and premature local elections – Ed], it will not seek not a constructive compromise with Kyiv, but rather an excuse to suspend active negotiations — de-facto, freezing the conflict —  while making Ukraine responsible for Russia’s own actions.

This may be the reason Russia is so actively blaming Kyiv for the idea of revising the Minsk accords, in order to accuse Ukraine of “disrupting” the process and moving away from the Minsk matrix.

Kyiv understands these Russian plans but has no decision on finding a way out of the situation.

Ukrainian President Zelenskyy is not ready to refuse further attempts of finding a compromise with Russia. Following Russia’s scenario does not seem possible, because of resistance within Ukrainian society, and because of a lack of guarantees from Russia.

The worst prospect of going around in a circle shapes up for Volodymyr Zelenskyy. But this situation cannot last for long.

Russia’s chosen course of action does not guarantee its success. On the contrary, Ukraine’s idea of updating the Minsk accords attracts more and more attention, and today won’t be considered as pulling out from them: after all of Ukraine’s attempts to establish a dialogue with Russia, Ukraine would look more constructive with this idea.

Formally, the last hope of President Zelenskyy’s Office is a Normandy Four summit of state leaders, but, ironically, Russia will not agree to hold the meeting without previously achieving a major political agreement.

Therefore, Ukraine is left with preparing further informational and political grounds for giving proposals to amend the Minsk deal.

The armed conflict in Ukraine’s easternmost historical region of the Donbas made up by Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts started in 2014 soon after Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula. Since its beginning, the war claimed more than 13,000 lives and displaced almost 2 million people. Russia keeps denying its involvement in the conflict.

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