An overall consensus, in broad outline, seems to have taken shape among the main European players, pre-eminently Moscow and Berlin, to accelerate a solution to the conflict “in” Ukraine by the end of this year, on Russia’s terms. German Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted a meeting in Berlin on August 24, in an unprecedented “Normandy minus Russia” format, though in basic consensus with Moscow.
Merkel, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and French President François Hollande (three of the four Normandy parties) have set out a sequence of steps to settle this conflict on conditions acceptable to Moscow. They aim to complete the main work at a high tempo until December 31, the deadline imposed by the Minsk armistice.
According to German and French readouts and follow-up actions, the Berlin meeting has set out the sequence of steps toward that end.
1) Ceasefire: The participants in the August 24 meeting appealed for a full, verifiable ceasefire to be in place by September 1. Ukraine had all along been calling for an immediate and effective ceasefire; with particular urgency during August, when it faced multiple attacks along the demarcation line. The August 24 appeal from Berlin notwithstanding, another round of Russian/proxy attacks followed on August 26–28, killing 11 and injuring 26 Ukrainian soldiers (President.gov.ua, August 27–29). This seemed designed to be a demonstration effect on Kyiv, ahead of the Verkhovna Rada’s (Ukrainian national parliament) August 31 vote on the constitutional status of the Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine’s east. Apparently satisfied with the vote’s outcome, Russian and proxy forces have declared a complete ceasefire as of 00:00 hours, on September 1, which is holding for now (Interfax, September 1, 2).
2) Pullback of light artillery and tanks: The proposed pullback would create a “buffer zone” to a depth of 15 kilometers on either side of the demarcation line. This does not form a part of the Minsk ceasefire (February 12). It is, instead, a more recent innovation, designed to mitigate somewhat that ceasefire’s ineffectiveness. The August 31 meeting in Berlin, however, could not advance this proposal, since the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) is prevented from verifying pullbacks in the Russian-controlled territory.
Furthermore, Moscow wants Kyiv to sign the “buffer zone” agreement with Donetsk and Luhansk at senior levels. This would exonerate Russia of its responsibility as an active belligerent, would instead portray the war as internal to Ukraine, and could legitimize not simply the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (“DPR-LPR”) as such, but their military organizations also. In practical terms, the “buffer zone,” or indeed the Minsk ceasefire, could only work if the OSCE would monitor the Ukrainian side of the Ukraine-Russia border. Russian and Donetsk-Luhansk forces, however, control a 400-kilometer section of that border from what is legally the Ukrainian side, and do not allow the OSCE to operate along that section. This matter will certainly not be resolved by December.
3) Halting Russian/proxy harassment of OSCE’s monitoring mission: According to Chancellor Merkel at this meeting, “the OSCE’s ability to operate freely is the Alpha and Omega of sustaining the armistice.” However, Merkel lamented, the mission’s monitors are physically threatened, their movements and access restricted, and the mission’s unmanned aerial vehicles—“which we have so painstakingly supplied”—are being jammed (Bundeskanzlerin.de, August 24). The Chancellor’s readout did not name the perpetrators, although the OSCE’s reports can no longer avoid pointing at Russia’s proxies (Osce.org, July and August 2015). Merkel’s remarks amount to an admission that Ukraine cannot have a reliable ceasefire unless it accepts Russia’s terms on a political settlement of the conflict. Russia expects further decisions in the weeks ahead on the constitutional status of Donetsk-Luhansk and the holding of “elections” there. In that case, Moscow will itself be interested in a show of constructive cooperation with the OSCE for the duration of elections (see below).
4) Status of the Russian-controlled territory in Donetsk-Luhansk: Merkel and Hollande praised Poroshenko’s “great efforts” to enshrine that territory’s self-administration in an amendment to Ukraine’s constitution. “It is not easy,” they conceded, “to muster a majority for passage of this act in the Ukrainian parliament.” Undoubtedly, they asked Poroshenko to guarantee a majority in the Verkhovna Rada’s August 31 vote; which he went on to deliver. Nevertheless, Merkel’s readout of the meeting hinted at a deeper problem: “there are differences with Russia on this matter; it is imperative to overcome those differences” (Bundeskanzlerin.de, Elysee.fr, August 24).
Indeed, on August 20, Berlin had hosted a meeting of legal experts from all four “Normandy” countries to discuss the Ukrainian constitutional amendment, as well as “elections” to be held in the Russian-controlled territory. In that August 20 meeting, the Russians quoted the Minsk armistice chapter and verse. It states that Kyiv must negotiate the constitutional amendment and the election modalities with Donetsk-Luhansk, seeking “mutually acceptable solutions,” instead of Kyiv legislating solutions “unilaterally.”
On August 24, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called together a unique meeting, in Berlin, of the “Normandy” format minus Russia (though essentially in consensus with Moscow). Merkel, along with French President François Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, outlined a series of steps that need to be taken to resolve the Ukraine conflict, on terms acceptable to the Kremlin, prior to the December 31 deadline imposed by the Minsk Two accord.
The German and French readouts of the meeting, first of all, call on both sides to adhere to a full, verifiable ceasefire. Second, they propose a pull-back of light artillery and tanks to a depth of 15 kilometers on each side of the demarcation line. Third, they demand the end to Russian/proxy forces’ harassment of the monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The fourth step listed in the German and French readouts of the Berlin meeting specified the need to resolve the status of the Russian-controlled Ukrainian territory in Donetsk-Luhansk. Russia has been adamant that, regarding this matter, Kyiv must reach “mutually acceptable solutions” with Donetsk-Luhansk. Ukraine has, until quite recently, refused to turn its constitution into an object of bargaining with Moscow and Donetsk-Luhansk (Interfax, Ukrinform, August 21; RFE/RL, August 22). But in an August 29 triangular phone call, Putin again told Merkel and Hollande that the relevant constitutional and legislative amendments need to be agreed upon between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk (Kremlin.ru, August 29).
On August 31, the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian national parliament) passed the constitutional amendment on the Russian-controlled territory’s self-administration in the first reading (Ukrinform, August 31, September 1). Whether Kyiv’s “unilateral” enactment would satisfy Moscow, in content and procedure, seems far from certain. Moscow may well encourage Donetsk and Luhansk to insist on a negotiated, “mutually acceptable” constitutional status. This is, almost certainly, the main part of those persisting “differences” to which Merkel alluded in her August 24 readout of the Berlin meeting (see Part One).
The fifth step refers to holding elections in the Russian-controlled Donetsk-Luhansk: Local elections there would go hand in hand with that territory’s constitutional status in Ukraine (currently in the process of being enacted as “self-administration”). To exercise that status, the authorities in Donetsk-Luhansk must be deemed legitimately elected, in conformance with OSCE standards, as part of Ukraine’s country-wide local elections scheduled for October 25.
Moscow, Berlin and Paris in the Normandy group, as well as Washington and the OSCE, all follow this legalistic approach. Politically, however, Russia would recognize the outcome of elections in that territory regardless of any standards. Ukraine’s Western partners suggest that such elections could be validated if the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) assists with preparing those elections, monitors them, and determines that they complied with the OSCE’s standards.
Ukraine has, all along, argued that no valid elections would be possible under the rule of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (“DPR-LPR”), under Russian military occupation, and with mass-scale population displacements. Such elections could only be, in Kyiv’s words, “fake elections.” President Poroshenko and the governing coalition have said this many times. They now feel compelled, however, to retreat from that position under external pressure. Having yielded on the constitutional status, Kyiv must now advance from A to B and accept even “fake elections” in the Russian-controlled territory.
Under the Minsk armistice, elections in that territory are to be held under Ukrainian law. But, under that same document, the “modalities” of those elections (i.e., the ground rules and actual practices) are subject to negotiation between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk for “mutually acceptable solutions.” That means something other than Ukrainian law. Following the August 24 Berlin meeting, the Minsk working group has jump-started negotiations between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk on those “election modalities.” In her annual end-of-summer press conference (August 31), Chancellor Merkel stated that Ukraine’s parliament should “formulate Ukraine’s electoral law in such a way that the separatists [sic] could accept it” (Bundeskanzlerin.de, August 31).
Russia and the “DPR-LPR” are heavily invested in staging those local elections. They need, therefore, to halt their military actions at least temporarily, in order for the elections to proceed. It is equally in the interest of Moscow and Donetsk-Luhansk to allow the OSCE to verify their compliance with the ceasefire. They would not be able to stage their elections unless the OSCE’s monitoring mission confirms that the ceasefire holds, at least for the duration.
Taking all those factors into account, the political settlement is developing in Russia’s favor, and fast. The key dates are drawing close: local elections on October 25; the Verhkovna Rada’s second reading of the constitutional amendment and its court review in late November and early December; the deadline for Ukraine’s political compliance with the Minsk armistice by December 31. While the process advances in Russia’s favor, at this accelerated tempo, and under external prodding of Kyiv as has recently been the case, Moscow has no reason to re-start hostilities. It is now reaping the political fruits of previous military operations and its capacity to conduct attrition warfare against Ukraine as long as necessary, below the threshold that could provoke new economic sanctions from an already sanctions-fatigued Europe.