Presidents talk again about the end of the war in Eastern Ukraine
Chance of success is minimal
In search of possible solutions for the civil war in Eastern Ukraine, the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and France and the Federal Chancellor of Germany are discussing in Paris this afternoon. But the chance that they will find a way to end the conflict is very small.
The last time Putin, Macron and Merkel discussed the war in the so-called Normandy format was in Berlin in October 2016. The fourth participant was Petro Poroshenko, then president of Ukraine. Since last May it has been Volodymyr Zelensky.
There is a big difference immediately in the latter. Unlike the hardliner Poroshenko, Zelensky is willing to seek compromises. Phone conversations with his Russian colleague Putin have led to a few small results. Ukraine and Russia exchanged prisoners in September, Russia recently returned three naval vessels that had landed it long ago after an incident in Kerch Strait near Crimea, and in three small towns in the conflict area the separatists supported by Russia and Ukraine have their troops withdrawn from the front line. Under Poroshenko, that would have been unthinkable.
But there are more than enough topics about which there is no beginning of agreement. Russia, for example, demands that the self-proclaimed ‘people’s republics’ of Donetsk and Lugansk be given far-reaching self-government and that local elections are held. Zelensky is not a priori against it, but he only wants it under his conditions: those elections must be held according to Ukrainian law and under the control of international observers. There is no clarity about the form of autonomy. Zelensky only wants to let him know what exactly he has in mind when the discussions in Paris are successful.
It is already clear in advance that it will not be sufficient for the separatist leadership. They are not satisfied with less than complete independence and long-term affiliation with Russia. Only if Moscow orders that they have to arrange will they be reluctant to do so, but the chance that that will happen is minimal.
And then there is the border with Russia. Since the summer of 2014, it has been fully under the control of the Russians and the ‘people’s republics’. Ukraine has no say whatsoever about what goes beyond that border. What that is, can be guessed: in addition to basic necessities for separatist area that hardly produces anything itself, these are mainly weapons, ammunition and other military supplies and Russian soldiers. That is a thorn in the eye of Zelensky, but it is unlikely that he will get anything back from border control in Paris.
Even more important than the points of dispute is the enormous mistrust between the parties. According to Kiev, the war in the east of the country has been organized and directed from the outset by Russia, which is doing everything it can to destabilize neighboring Ukraine and keep it unstable. The Kremlin wants to prevent it from joining the EU and NATO. In the eyes of Ukraine, the separatist leaders in Donetsk and Lugansk are not much more than puppets of Moscow. Kiev therefore refuses to negotiate directly with them.