Over the last several weeks, the 15-month-old Ukraine crisis took fresh steps toward resolution in a series of teleconference calls by the Normandy Four — the heads of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.
Beginning July 10, French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko and Ukrainian parliament chairman Volodymyr Hroisman to comply with all the terms of the February 2015 Minsk 2 agreement.
Minsk 2 demands, among other things, a cease-fire in the Donbass region; a restoration of Ukraine’s control over the border of the whole country, including the conflict zones; and constitutional reform that would decentralize power and grant more autonomy to the Donetsk and Luhansk districts in the separatist Donbass region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin joined in the consultation on July 17 and 24, the first times the four leaders spoke together since April 30.
The fourth teleconference focused on a hot spot on the Donbass cease-fire line, the village of Shyrokyne, and there was a demand by France and Germany that Kiev’s and the separatists’ forces withdraw by Aug. 3. The deadline has passed with incomplete results and protests in nearby Mariupol by Kiev supporters.
These teleconferences highlight a general desire to resolve the civil war with the terms of the Minsk 2 agreement by the end of 2015. The question is whether the United States, Poroshenko’s major backer, will accept these terms.
What Paris and Berlin want
Hollande and Merkel have been adamant that Kiev must accept the empowerment of the two separatists entities of the Donbass: the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic.
Paris and Berlin want Ukraine’s constitution reconstructed to permit Donetsk and Luhansk to hold local elections, leading to the creation of legitimate institutions.
“Local elections held under Ukrainian law and with respect for the corresponding commitments will be an important milestone,” a statement from Hollande’s office said.
Paris and Berlin have insisted to Kiev that the only way to maintain the armistice and restore stability to Ukraine is to follow the Minsk 2 agreement and permit Donetsk and Luhansk a special status that would amount to independence under Russian military and civil protection.
In the calls, Poroshenko complained that there was no cease-fire along the Donbass frontier, that Russia was arming and commanding the separatist forces and that Russia has no intention of honoring the Minsk 2 agreement.
Poroshenko argued that his government plans to allow “specific procedures of local self-administration in certain districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.” However, this change would be far less than the autonomy sought by the separatists.
Congress has been eager for some time to commit lethal aid to Ukraine. In the event of renewed combat, the pressure on the U.S. and NATO to intervene will be even greater.
In addition, the Ukrainian parliament has called for elections to be held on Oct. 25 in all regions of Ukraine except Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk.
What Russia and the US want
Putin has been firm that the Kiev moves so far are inadequate.
“The attempt to present the constitutional amendments … as some kind of fulfillment by Kiev of its Minsk obligations is just an imitation and should not fool anybody,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.
Putin wants Kiev immediately to establish direct talks with the Donetsk and Luhansk authorities. Putin said this was the critical element in the Minsk 2 agreement, looking to establish a special status for the separatist regions.
Putin also wants Kiev to grant independent powers to all regions of Ukraine and to grant near autonomy in the Russian-dominated regions by year’s end.
While the U.S. is not a party to Minsk 2, as the chief supporter of the Poroshenko government, it serves as a counter to the combined weight of Berlin, Paris and Moscow.
During a visit to Kiev to meet with Poroshenko on July 16, Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, demanded that Russia withdraw all its forces from Ukraine, cease supplying the separatists with weaponry and logistics, exchange all prisoners of war and return the Ukraine-Russia border to Kiev’s control.
To back up these points, the U.S. announced that it would expand U.S. military training of the Ukrainian volunteer national guard in western Ukraine to include special forces as well as the regular Ukrainian army. More than two dozen U.S. allies participated in the training exercise, outside Lviv, Ukraine.
The major concern in Berlin, Paris and Moscow is that the often violated cease-fire along the Donbass front will collapse. This is why the sudden concern for Shyrokyne, where both sides have massed first-rate troops and weapons systems.
The Kremlin understands that a return to the heavy fighting of last winter will give the U.S. and NATO proof that Russia has decided to crush Kiev.
On the other hand, Kiev understands that the longer the cease-fire continues, the more likely it is that the Donbass will be empowered as a Russian protectorate, either by voting or by the facts on the ground.
Also, Kiev knows that there is a larger risk than just losing control of Crimea and the Donbass. Other regions of the remaining state, such as the Russian-sympathetic Odessa province and the Russia-hating neo-fascist cults in western Ukraine, along the border with Poland, may go their own way rather than remain part of a weakened Ukrainian state.
All parties face a crossroads: either diplomacy or a wider war.
Russia will likely achieve its goals as long as direct negotiations continue among the Normandy Four to implement Minsk 2.
On the other hand, if large-scale fighting starts again on the Donbass front, Kiev will be in a strong position to call on U.S. assistance to reclaim its whole territory. Congress has been eager for some time to commit lethal aid to Ukraine. In the event of renewed combat, the pressure on the U.S. and NATO to intervene will be even greater.
In that case, there is a high risk of a wider conflict and a profound European emergency.