In the immediate aftermath of the Crimean incident I speculated that it was unlikely to trigger renewed fighting despite the deterioration of the situation in the Donbass. I said that the Western powers would work hard to prevent the situation sliding into a war which Ukraine would lose and which would expose their sanctions policy as a bluff
So it has proved. Not only have the Western powers failed to make any strong statements of support for Kiev over the Crimean incident, but Putin’s decision to call off the scheduled Normandy Four meeting he was due to hold with Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko at the G20 summit in Hangzhou alarmed the Europeans – just as I said it would – and has stirred them into diplomatic action.
The result has been an urgent round of meetings between the Germans, the French and the Ukrainians, and a visit by the German and French foreign ministers – Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Jean-Marc Ayrault – to Kiev. This has come shortly after the separate meetings German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande held with Russian President Putin on the margins of the recent G20 summit meeting in Hangzhou in China.
The result of all this frenetic diplomatic activity is the announcement of yet another ceasefire – supposed to take effect on 15th September 2016 – with a beefed up OSCE monitoring team, all supposedly accompanied by a renewed commitment from Ukraine to pass constitutional amendments granting autonomy to eastern Ukraine, as it was required to do by the Minsk II agreement.
The Germans and the French are also trying to get discussions with the Russians in the Normandy Four format underway again, and are proposing a Normandy Four foreign ministers’ meeting of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France to be held on the sidelines of the forthcoming UN General Assembly session in New York next week.
Rounding off their visit to Ukraine, Steinmeier and Ayrault have also visited the eastern Ukrainian towns of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk – flashpoint of intense fighting in the summer of 2014 and recaptured by the Ukrainian army from the militia in July of that year – presumably in order to reassure the local people – known to be still passionately opposed to the Maidan regime in Kiev – that the peace process this time is genuinely on track (Steinmeier and Ayrault cannot visit the militia controlled areas of eastern Ukraine since that would be tantamount to recognising the militia as a legitimate non-state actor, something which at the present time it is politically impossible for them to do).
Total skepticism is in order. All the promises and commitments coming out of the Ukrainian side over the last few weeks have been made before, but have never been honoured.
Kiev still refuses to negotiate directly with the militia except in the restricted forum of the Contact Group, and refuses to discuss the constitutional amendments and election law it says it will pass with the leaders of the militia, even though that is what it is required to do by the Minsk II agreement, which it signed.
Moreover Kiev has in recent weeks taken to saying that local elections cannot be held in the militia controlled areas of eastern Ukraine until their border with Russia is returned to Ukraine’s control, a demand which flatly contradicts the terms of the Minsk II agreement.
The Russians and the militia for their part are continuing to say they consider Kiev’s unilateral attempts to change the terms of the Minsk II agreement unacceptable.
Even on the subject of the suggested Normandy Four foreign ministers’ meeting in New York the Russians are proving unforthcoming, with TASS reporting Dmitry Peskov – the Kremlin’s official spokesman – sounding distinctly guarded and unenthusiastic
“If we see prospects for the discussion of substantive, concrete issues connected with the implementation of the Minsk agreements, then it will be reasonable to convene a Normandy Four summit meeting. For this, we need to have the situation in which real matters for discussion will appear.”
Obviously the Russians are playing hard-to-get. Despite Peskov’s evident lack of enthusiasm it is overwhelmingly likely that – unless the ceasefire breaks down – a Normandy Four foreign ministers’ meeting will take place in New York in a week’s time. Nothing much however should be expected from it.
The most likely result of all of these recent diplomatic actions of the last few weeks is another temporary reduction in the fighting. However a political settlement along the lines set out in the Minsk II agreement looks as far away as ever.
The Ukrainian conflict is not frozen. Fighting goes on all the time, even during periods of so-called ‘ceasefire’.
What it would be more true to say is that the Ukrainian conflict is stuck. The Europeans will not allow Ukraine to attack the militia controlled areas of the Donbass – as it wants to do – because they know it would be defeated and because they do not want their sanctions policy exposed as a bluff. However they are still unwilling and/or unable to force Ukraine to carry out the commitments it made in Minsk in February 2015. Since the political situation in Ukraine means that it will never carry out these commitments by itself unless it is forced to do so, Ukraine is trapped in a position where it can neither advance nor retreat. That guarantees that the conflict will continue.