Is the peace process in Ukraine derailing?
Moscow is not interested in making peace with Kiev in an intent to keep the conflict protracted, forcing Ukraine to talk to Russia-backed separatists in the Donbass region.
The military build-up by Moscow last month that amassed as high as 100,000 troops across eastern Ukraine’s border, raised fears that Kiev’s conflict with Russia-backed rebels in the country’s east might dangerously devolve.
Escalated tensions, which led the Ukrainian leadership to call on NATO to open a membership path for Kiev in a bid for protection from the Atlantic alliance against Russia, have appeared to ease after a partial Russian withdrawal. At the time, much of the West – under US leadership – offered strong support to Ukraine against any Russian aggression.
Officially, however, Moscow has shown no intention of coming to terms with Kiev in order to reinvigorate the deadlocked Minsk peace process. It is led by the Normandy group, made up of Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine, who are attempting to resolve the conflict between Moscow-backed separatists in the Donbass region and the central Ukrainian government.
In 2015, after fighting killed more than 14,000 in eastern Ukraine under the Minsk process, Germany and France brokered a political agreement that appeared to largely concede to Russian demands, like offering broad autonomy in separatist regions. The deal also included that Ukraine, which has not had full control over its eastern border since 2014, would only regain access to it should Kiev allow local elections.
While Ukraine signed the 2015 deal, much of its establishment viewed its provisions as a threat to its national security and territorial unity. Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian, demanded a modification of the deal in order to prioritize Kiev’s control over the border. Zelensky wants to consider giving recognition of autonomy over eastern regions after gaining control over the border.
Zelensky’s call was met with a strong rebuke from Moscow, which claims to not be a party to the Ukrainian conflict. It sees it as an internal political issue.
“Control of the border is the very last move that comes only after those territories get a special status fixed in the Ukrainian Constitution and hold free elections acknowledged as such by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe,” said the Russian minister Sergei Lavrov last week.
“I believe that we mustn’t let Mr. Zelenskyy and his team get off the hook, even though they are trying hard to wriggle out,” Lavrov added.
From a legal perspective, Ukraine’s delay of its compliance with the 2015 deal appears to give political leverage to Russia in its refusal to engage in any new talks with Ukraine and Western countries.
“The West either can’t or doesn’t want to encourage compliance with the Minsk agreement,” Lavrov noted.
Zelensky also demanded a change in the Minsk setting, bringing two new members, the US and UK, both of which are fiercely anti-Russian forces, to the group. On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will pay a visit to Kiev to discuss the latest developments with his Ukrainian counterparts.
Putin offers no talk
Until now, Russian President Vladimir Putin had refused to meet with his Ukrainian opposite, Volodymyr Zelensky, who last month urged one-on-one talks with Putin – who in turn advised Zelensky to talk to Moscow-backed separatists to find peace in the country’s east. For the Ukrainian leadership, that would amount to a redesign of the country’s political structure to appease separatists.
“Putin demonstrated that he has not the least bit of desire to yield anything of interest to Zelensky let alone reach a peace agreement,” said Danylo Lubkivsky, director of the Kiev Security Forum.
“Ukraine is committed to peace and is ready to do everything in its power to achieve such peace. However, it takes two parties to want peace, and Moscow’s recent belligerent behaviour cast significant doubt on its intent,” a Ukrainian presidential adviser told the Financial Times.
In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine while a helpless Kiev watched its Black Sea region slip from its hands and into Moscow’s. In a similar manner, right after the Crimean annexation, Putin appeared to support separatists in eastern Ukraine to weaken Western-backed Kiev’s political power.
If Ukraine grants autonomy to the Donbass region, it will also complicate its efforts in joining both NATO and the EU. Both Western political institutions will approach cautiously to integrate a country, whose eastern regions are under Russian influence.
As a result, by creating a political deadlock in eastern Ukraine, Putin achieves several important political objectives. While the increases Russian influence over Kiev’s political decision-making process, Putin also effectively utilises the Donbass region’s autonomy demand as a political measure to keep some distance between Ukraine and Western powers.
Despite the West’s strong-worded reaction to Russia’s April military deployment, which included nuclear-capable short-range missiles, by instantly escalating the conflict, Putin also showed both Ukrainians and the Western states that he controls the conflict, according to Kurt Volker, a former US special representative to Ukraine.
“Putin, therefore, underscored a key political point he has been making for years: the West may talk a good game, but Ukraine cannot count on Western support. It is inherently connected to Russia and must come to terms with the Kremlin,” Volker wrote.