Ukraine Heads Back to the Negotiating Table

4 MINS READSep 12, 2015 | 13:14 GMT
Ukraine: Back to the Negotiating Table
A firefighter extinguishes a house fire caused by shelling between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in Oktyabrsky village near Donetsk on Aug. 12.

In Ukraine, all signs point toward continuing interest from every party in pushing forward with talks on the country's ongoing conflict. Foreign ministers from the four members of the Normandy format are scheduled to meet in Berlin on Sept. 12, ahead of the group's planned presidential-level meeting, set for Oct. 2 in Paris. Diplomats from Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France have been working to resolve the conflict in Ukraine since June 2014, and if the success of the recent temporary cease-fire is any indication, they now may be dealing with a calmer eastern Ukraine and a more amenable Russia. Since its implementation last week, the cease-fire between Ukrainian security forces and Russia-backed separatists has remained more or less in place. The relative calm on the front lines and the resumption of Normandy format meetings indicate that both Russia and the West are serious about reaching a diplomatic solution to the conflict. However, Ukraine's own domestic pressures will continue to create significant obstacles to ending the conflict.

Since the establishment of a temporary cease-fire on Sept. 1, there have been significantly fewer skirmishes and casualties on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine. Both sides frequently violated the first Minsk cease-fire agreement, implemented in September 2014. The new agreement was initially intended to be a temporary measure to allow some calm at the start of the school year. However, both the Ukrainian and separatist forces have largely observed the cease-fire, even beyond its planned Sept. 7 expiration, marking one of the most sustained periods of peace since the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe first stepped in to broker a cessation of hostilities in 2014.

The lull on the battlefield has also been accompanied by notable developments on the political front. On Sept. 4, Andrei Purgin, a separatist leader of the Donetsk People's Republic, was dismissed from his parliamentary speaker post and reportedly detained by separatist forces. Purgin was known as a staunch supporter of Russia's annexation of the Donetsk People's Republic, and Moscow may mean the move, like the implementation of the cease-fire, to be a good-will gesture.

These developments mark a notable reversal. August saw increased military activity along the line of contact, and Ukrainian, European and U.S. leaders admonished Russia for failing to abide by the Minsk agreements and rein in separatist forces. That month, when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met with French and German leaders in Brussels to discuss the conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin was pointedly left off the list of attendees. The United States also increased sanctions against Russia, while the European Union extended its own, and Moscow indicated that it expects to be under sanctions pressure for quite some time. This was a clear sign of frustration with Russia, and Ukrainian officials publicly warned of a potential escalation in the conflict on the part of Moscow and the separatists.

However, the latest positive signs on the battlefield have reinvigorated the negotiation process, shown by the announcement of Normandy format talks scheduled for Sept. 12 and early October. Stratfor has received indications that Putin is interested in changing his tactics to enter into a more positive dialogue with the West, with several goals in mind. One is to have the EU sanctions lifted or at least eased; the Russian economy is suffering and the Europeans themselves are hurting from Moscow's counter-sanctions. Russia also aims to push Ukraine to hold direct talks with the separatists that will result in greater official recognition for the militants. A spokesman for the German government said Sept. 9 that local elections will be a key topic of discussion within the Normandy format talks in the coming weeks, and that an agreement on the issue "should be reached."

While Russia and the Europeans may have some room to be more flexible on sanctions, the local election issue has been a particularly sensitive one in Ukraine. The country is scheduled to hold elections on Oct. 25, but the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk have scheduled their own elections for Oct. 18 and Nov. 1, respectively. The Ukrainian government calls these polls a violation of Ukrainian law and the Minsk agreement and has refused to recognize them. Putin, in turn, has been requesting that Ukraine hold a direct dialogue with the separatist territories and recognize these elections. His position has garnered little support in the past, but officials may revisit it with renewed focus in talks within the Normandy format.

Even if the talks advance, Kiev faces pressure from far-right groups within Ukraine that is bound to complicate efforts to resolve the conflict. Just as the Ukrainian government faces pressure from Russia to make concessions to the separatists, it is also feeling pressure in the opposite direction to increase confrontation with the separatists from nationalist groups such as Right Sector and the Svoboda party. Indeed, controversial legislation over the decentralization process, which was perceived as being too soft on the separatist territories, recently caused protests in front of the Kiev parliament, where clashes between far-right demonstrators and security police led to several fatalities. And while nationalist groups only have around 5-10 percent of popular support in the country and continue to be a fringe element on the political spectrum, they nevertheless have the ability to create substantial instability for a government that is already under tremendous economic and social stress.

This puts Kiev in a difficult position. Any moves that are interpreted as a concession to Moscow or the separatists could create significant blowback at home. In the meantime, Poroshenko has been adamant that Russia's continued military presence in eastern Ukraine is a violation of the Minsk agreement and that any constitutional change toward decentralization can quickly be reversed based on the conditions on the ground.  The latest recognition of the cease-fire and the announcement of Normandy talks show that all sides are still interested in advancing the diplomatic dialogue, but a broader resolution is still subject to considerable political challenges.

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