Ukraine peace talks: What are the goals and the stakes?

Angela Merkel, Vladimiras Putinas, Francois Hollande'as
DELFI montažas

The Western powers want to see at least a conditional peace in Ukraine, which is why they have divided up roles in an effort to convince Russia to back down. US President Barack Obama is the bad cop, who flashes the option of supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine.

Meanwhile German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the good cop, who wants to try all diplomatic measures first.

“I have always said I don’t see a military solution to this conflict, but we have to put all our efforts behind a diplomatic solution,” Merkel said after meeting with Obama on Monday.

On Wednesday, representatives of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France are meeting in Minsk. The meeting’s outcome will determine whether the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine continues or if a compromise peace ends it, even if neither side is completely satisfied.

Linas Kojala, analyst with the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Centre, says that the fact that Putin has agreed to talks in the first place is an indication that he wants something.

“I think that what is happening now shows that Putin, too, is ready to look for a solution in Ukraine that would suit Russia – and this can actually lead to an agreement,” according to Kojala.

“If we want the new agreement to be effective, certain needs of Russia need to be met. How to find the middle line, a compromise that would be acceptable to all parties? It is a complicated task. On the one hand, Western leaders are going to the meeting to beg, in a way, that Putin stop military action; on the other hand, however, they have ways to pressure Putin into a compromise. First, there is the threat of supplying weapons [to Ukraine] and further sanctions. It’s a double process, quite complex, but it seems that all sides are interested,” he adds.

What do Western powers want?

Nerijus Maliukevičius, lecturer at the International Relations and Political Science Institute of Vilnius University, says he thinks the Western position is well-coordinated: while the United States threatens with a possibility of supplying lethal weaponry to Ukraine, Germany is speaking of diplomatic solutions.

“Politically and diplomatically, this is a position that forces Putin to adopt a certain orientation, one towards a diplomatic solution. I am not a sceptic when it comes to Western sanctions, because essentially what we have here is the good cop bad cop game. Merkel and Europe as a whole are the good cop. They also hold the possibility of further sanctions. On the other side, if Putin refuses to listen to the good cop, there is always the option of inviting the bad cop – the United States and military support. Diplomatically and politically, this does not seem like a comfortable situation for Putin. Obviously, such an arrangement was arrived at through talks and consultations,” Maliukevičius says.

He rejects accusations levied against the West of failing to come to a united position. The seeming duality, Maliukevičius says, is there by design.

“I see it as a multi-layered political game,” according to the political analyst.

He adds that Merkel’s seeming scepticism about military solution for the conflict is well-measured. “It seems that Putin cares about procedures, so there are no intentions to forgo them.”

What is the overall goal of the West?

Maliukevičius claims that Western leaders will always speak about Ukraine’s territorial integrity, although in fact it is no longer possible. They will also seek to stop military action on the ground in eastern Ukraine at all costs.

Kojala agrees that the US and Western Europe are playing good cop bad cop with Russia. The division of roles is natural, he adds, as Western European leaders would be hard-pressed to sell the option of weapon supply to their societies, whereas the Americans are more amenable to exporting hard military power.

“In meetings with Putin, Merkel will use the same argument of Obama about the option to supply weapons, saying: either you are on board and consent to our conditions, or the Americans will do what they do,” Kojala summarizes.

Ukraine’s needs

When it comes to Ukraine’s own needs, Maliukevičius says that Kiev would agree to freeze the armed conflict in Donbass within its current limits.

“It would not be the worst option. I infer such a position from [Ukraine’s President Petro] Poroshenko’s own statements,” he says.

Kiev has asked the European Union to push back the new round of Russia sanctions a few days. EU foreign ministers originally planned to sign off on the expanded blacklist during Monday’s meeting in Brussels, adding five Russian officials and 14 separatist leaders to the list of individuals subjected to travel bans and asset freezes in the EU.

“This way Ukrainians themselves publicly show good faith and investment into the coming talks which could achieve something,” Maliukevičius believes.

“If the agreement does not include forced federalization and distortions to the previous Minsk line, I believe it would not be the worst option for Ukraine, considering the situation it is currently in,” he adds.

Kojala agrees that Ukraine’s most pressing goals right now are to achieve a ceasefire and prevent the state from collapsing.

What Putin wants

“Russia is pursuing several goals. First, to secure the separatists’ territorial gains after the Minsk Agreement. We are talking about 1,500 square kilometres. To entrench the status quo in Donetsk and Luhansk and change Ukraine’s political constitution by giving the regions more autonomy, federalizing the country or by other means. And, of course, to get the West to call off the sanctions if an agreement is reached,” Kojala says.

The political analyst notes that there is only one concern in Russia’s endgame: how much the Western powers are ready to concede in order to secure their only goal, stability.

The devil is in the details, Kojala says, because it will be the small print in the agreement that will determine Ukraine’s future development.

“I think the outcome will be something in the middle, because Ukraine has no resources to fight. I believe that an agreement, in one form or another, will be achieved on Wednesday, one that will be partially acceptable to all parties. The crucial factor, it seems to me, is how successful Ukraine will be in continuing with reform. The fact is that parts of the country will remain in Russia’s control – there is no way around it. Pushing the separatists out or getting them to surrender is not even an issue. It is not for debate. They will stay where they are, in control of some of Ukraine’s territory. And Russia will influence political processes in Ukraine through those territories,” Kojala says.

The Lithuanian analyst says that the more important issue than supplying weapons is the EU and the US continuing support Ukraine’s reforms, democracy and anti-corruption effort.

“If Ukraine succeeds in implementing domestic reforms, cleansing itself of corruption, then Russia’s influence will diminish automatically. And if the West fails to provide help, and Russia manages to fully exploit the separatist region which will remain in its sphere of influence, the country will be doomed for lasting stagnation,” he predicts.

Moscow is also eager to ease the financial strain of supporting the rebel-controlled territories.

“Poroshenko has said that if peace is achieved, Kiev will be ready to talk about restoring government payments to the regions which are, after all, part of Ukrane. Russia can no longer afford to support the huge swaps of land with a population of 4.5 million, therefore another annexation is out of the question. This arrangement would be very welcome in Russia, because it shift the financial burden of supporting the war-ravaged region onto Ukraine,” according to Kojala.

Separatist fighters currently control 4-7 percent of Ukraine’s territory.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande visited Kiev last week and later went to Moscow, where they presented a peace plan to President Vladimir Putin. The three leaders also kept in touch on Sunday. On Wednesday, Russian, Ukrainian, German and French delegations are meeting in Minsk, Belarus, to discuss a peace plan.

Details of the Merkel-Hollande plan have not been disclosed yet, but media reports indicate that Kiev’s forces might be required to retreat from the town of Debaltsave while the separatists would leave Mariupol.

Speaking to France 2 television, President Hollande mentioned that the plan proposes a 50-70-kilometre demilitarized zone on both sides of the current frontline.

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