The four-country summit held in Berlin on October 19 brought a mixed bag of results, with some real concessions made amid stubbornly reiterated demands that have paralysed almost two years of efforts to end the conflict in East Ukraine, which has claimed around 10,000 lives.
While the sides - Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France - agreed to deploy an armed police mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the war-torn Donbas region, the two former Soviet neighbours still face the same sticking point for the peace process: whether security issues, including control of the border with Russia, must be resolved before local elections are possible in rebel-held territory.
Ukrainian and Russian Presidents Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin previously let it be known that neither expected much to change as a result of the hastily coordinated talks in the German capital. Meanwhile, the EU’s stance on Russia showed more cracks when a summit of 28 leaders in Brussels the next day dropped the explicit option of more sanctions again Moscow for its air assault on the Syrian city of Aleppo, including the bombing of hospitals.
“To facilitate preparations for local [Donbas] elections in future, when security conditions let us hold those elections, we’ll now make an attempt to deploy an armed – or as we call it – police mission of the OSCE, which will ensure security amid both the voting process and the transition period,” Interfax quoted Poroshenko as saying after more than four hours of talks with Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.
The dispute over security and elections has stymied the Donbas peace process over the past year. Citing the Minsk accords reached in the Belarusian capital in 2015, Ukrainian authorities demand control over the frontier with Russia in the east to prevent supplies of Russian weapons and personnel before there can be elections in rebel-held areas.
The Kremlin rejects any security preconditions and wants the polls to go ahead in the Donbas at the earliest date. The position was strengthened by Merkel’s comments at the Berlin summit that Ukraine should regain full control of the occupied border “only at the end of the process”, a position also indicated by Hollande a few days earlier. However, the sides agreed that OSCE observers could move freely up to the border, Merkel added in widely reported comments.
Poroshenko in turn insisted that “all foreign troops” must be unconditionally pulled out from rebel-held areas before local elections, in reference to the Russian military, despite Moscow’s insistence that it has no forces in Ukraine. Other measures sought include a more durable ceasefire, observance of the disengagement regime, the release of prisoners, and unrestricted access for OSCE mission staff to all areas, an issue that has constantly hampered efforts to monitor both sides commitment to demilitarisation in the conflict zone.
Nevertheless, it was a main accomplishment of the Berlin meeting that the four leaders got together at one table amid rising global tensions also over Syria, with Russia increasingly accused of war crimes in its military intervention in the civil war there.
Ukraine gains time
“The ceasefire is still shaky, and although the bloodshed mostly stopped, it is unclear how ‘normal’ elections could be held in Donbas under the current circumstances any time soon,” Balazs Jarabik, a Ukraine specialist at the Carnegie Endowment the expert tells bne IntelliNews. “This is the major Ukrainian point with which the Europeans can’t argue.”
“The European mood is hardening toward Russia also because of Syria,” Jarabik says. “Ukraine gains time, but the question is on what it will be used for. The less the Russian threat will be in the limelight, the more internal issues will resurface as major concerns for Ukrainians,” he adds, noting that ordinary people are more anxious right now about the heating season as the country’s fuel stocks won’t suffice for an especially tough winter.
But Poroshenko is having none of it: “I would like to categorically refute the rumours and gossip about being unprepared for winter,” he said on October 12. According to official data, Kyiv has accumulated 14.7bn cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas for the 2016-2017 winter season.
New map of old peace path
Participants of the Berlin summit agreed to draft a new road map for the implementation of the Minsk peace accords. The map will be drafted to ensure the success of political, security and humanitarian measures in Donbas, according to the Ukrainian president, touting this as proof that matters are moving forward. “Only a year-and-a-half ago, no one even wanted to hear about a road map,” Poroshenko said, referring to the Russian side. Now it will be developed by the end of November and signed by the four leaders.
But pressure on the Ukrainian government to drop demands for total security before elections can also undermine progress. Hollande’s comments about control of the border on October 11 stirred up immediate strong criticism among Ukrainian government officials, the country’s political experts and far-right nationalist groups.
“I’m telling you, Mr Hollande, don’t you dare us to abandon Ukrainian territories and millions of lives of our citizens to Putin’s regime just because you find this convenient,” Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a statement.
Red line time
On the eve of the Berlin talks, a group of pro-Western Ukrainian think tanks published a memo for Ukrainian authorities regarding “red line” limits for compromise in the areas of political dialogue, security, and humanitarian issues.
According to the document, the elections should be held “only within a completely demilitarised territory”, after Russian military forces and mercenaries are withdrawn from Ukrainian territory, and military equipment and armaments are at a minimum kept in secured storage until they are completely removed from the Donbas region.
The authors also insist that the election date may be cancelled in case of ceasefire violation, the vote should be held only after the exchange of prisoners and illegal detainees is completed, and the elections should be held according to Ukrainian law.
"No plan B"
One positive that can be drawn from the summit is that the sides had to reaffirm their commitment to the Minsk agreements, flawed and disputed as they are. Before the start of the talks, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said there was no alternative. “I told the Ukrainians there was no plan B to the Minsk accords. Some think there is a plan B, which is confronting Russia, which we don’t want,” he said, according to Reuters.
Putin was especially put in the spotlight to publicly get behind the effort to revive impetus. While offering little other comment after the talks, he told reporters that, “All participants of today’s meeting have confirmed that the basis of a settlement on the southeast of Ukraine should be based on the Minsk agreement, all reaffirmed their commitment”. He also confirmed the agreement on deploying armed OSCE units.
However, Moscow loses nothing by being seen to be cooperative, especially amid growing international outrage at its actions in Syria. Rather this could only help inch EU leaders, who are meeting in Brussels, a little more in its favour. In the end, a mention of possible further economic sanctions against Russia was dropped from an earlier draft of the summit conclusions at the request of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, EU sources told Agence France-Presse.
The leaders called for “an end to the atrocities and immediate cessation of hostilities”, European Council President Donald Tusk said, adding that the EU “considers all available options if these atrocities continue”.