Ukraine peace prospects remain dim despite Merkel's efforts

Ukraine peace prospects remain dim despite Merkel's efforts
Ukrainian government tanks in the Donbas conflict zone.
By Sergei Kuznetsov in Kyiv June 9, 2017

“A new frozen conflict is now emerging in the territory of the former Soviet Union,” Leonid Kuchma, former Ukrainian president and Kyiv’s current envoy to the trilateral OSCE-Ukraine-Russia contact group, told journalists on May 31. “Russia does not have a slightest wish for it to disappear.”

With more than 10,000 lives already lost, the casualties in the three-year-old separatist conflict in the Donbas region are still mounting. Seven government troops were killed and 141 injured by rebel shellings in just May, according to Ukrainian officials. But it’s been a year and a half since the end of full-blown fighting, and Kyiv and Moscow are still conspicuously far from any agreement on what steps could bring stability and peace to Ukraine.

Russia insists on implementing constitutional reform in Ukraine that would provide Donbas with the right to self-rule, and holding local elections in the region. Kyiv emphasises that any moves towards elections are impossible as long as Ukraine has no control over the Ukrainian-Russian border and Moscow supplies weapons and military personnel to the region.

“We [Russia] cannot do what the Kyiv authorities are supposed to be doing,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said while reiterating his country’s stance at the International Economic Forum in St Petersburg on June 2. “They [Ukraine] are making every effort to ensure that nothing changes for the better.”

This statement followed US Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart’s grim forecast for developments in the Donbas region during debates in the US Senate Armed Services Committee. “The conflict in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government is likely to persist throughout the coming year, as hopes dim for full implementation of the Minsk agreements,” Stewart said, referring to peace process steps agreed in the Belarusian capital in 2015.

Merkel’s mission

According to Stewart, Russia is unlikely to abandon its destabilising actions, short of seeing Ukraine capitulate to Russian demands. This is because the conflict remains the Kremlin’s most effective leverage over Kyiv. “Ukraine will not implement controversial elements of the Minsk agreements, such as granting a special status to certain parts of the Donbas, until Russia follows through with its security commitments,” he added.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not ready to abandon diplomatic pressure on both Russia and Ukraine. “We will continue with the Minsk process and the Normandy format [of group negotiations by the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine] will exist,” Merkel told reporters before her May meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. “We will very quickly look for possibilities for the four presidents, or three presidents and one chancellor, to be in contact with each other.”

Remarkably, Merkel avoided blaming any particular side for failing to implement the Minsk accords, which could indicate a possible change of tone in Berlin’s stance towards the negotiations. Until recently, Western nations have maintained a high level of criticism towards Moscow.

Recently, Germany was sending out signals that it would like to see more concessions made by Kyiv for the settlement of the Donbas crisis. In February, Ernst Reichel, the German ambassador to Ukraine, said in an interview with the RBC news agency that, “it is not necessary for there to be no Russian troops there, or for every city administration to have a Ukrainian flag over it, for Donbas elections to be held”.

These remarks triggered swift criticism from members of the ruling coalition in Kyiv. Oleksiy Goncharenko, a lawmaker from the Poroshenko Bloc parliamentary faction, even vandalised a monument section of the Berlin Wall which stands outside the German embassy in Kyiv. The embassy said in a special statement that it was “very sorry” about the incident, pointing out that the lawmaker had violated the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations.

Macron in the picture

Meanwhile, Berlin’s efforts to find a solution to the military conflict are also facing challenges from the change of administration in France, as well as in the US with Donald Trump’s election.

On May 29, newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron told journalists after a meeting with Putin that the sides would like negotiations in the Normandy format to be conducted “in the near future, so we can discuss all the issues”.

“In this Normandy format, we would like to hear a report by the OSCE on the events that are taking place [in Ukraine]. We exchanged our views on this matter. I said for my part that I would like us to achieve de-escalation of this process within the framework of the Minsk process,” he added.

Shortly before this statement, Merkel confirmed that Macron made it clear at recent talks that he was committed to continuing the Minsk peace process. The chancellor didn’t provide any further details.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is still trying to determine its policy towards the Donbas conflict. This uncertainty cannot be considered a positive development for Berlin.

In April, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had openly questioned why American taxpayers should be concerned about Ukraine.

“It is in the interests of the US taxpayers to have a Europe that is secure and is strong politically and economically... You don’t want a weak Europe, broken into bits and feeble,” Ayrault replied, according to Reuters.