In Stratfor's 2018 Annual Forecast, we wrote that a resolution for Ukraine would remain out of reach, despite potential progress in negotiations between the United States and Russia over a U.N. peacekeeping force. Even as the two major powers cautiously signal a willingness to find common ground over such a force, that analysis still holds.
Even as the animosity continues to build between the United States and Russia, the two countries may be moving toward compromise in a hotly disputed theater: Ukraine. Following Jan. 26 talks in Dubai between Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov and U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker, Surkov said that Russia would carefully study U.S. proposals for a U.N. peacekeeping force in Ukraine. More specifically, Surkov spoke favorably of a U.S. plan to deploy U.N. peacekeepers in phases.
A phased approach, if carried out, would be a significant departure from the United States' and Russia's respective positions up until now. Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin first signaled his openness to a U.N. peacekeeping mission last September, the Kremlin has been adamant that such a mission must be limited to guarding independent observers on the line of contact between Ukrainian troops and separatist forces. The United States and its allies in Ukraine, on the other hand, have insisted that a U.N. peacekeeping mission should be deployed throughout Donbas, including at the border between the separatist territories and Russia where the Russians regularly provide weapons and troops to sustain the rebels. A phased approach would, ostensibly, provide a compromise between the two plans.
Few specifics are currently available about Washington's proposal. U.S. officials have yet to comment, and Surkov approached the topic cautiously, stating only that Russia would provide a prompt answer after careful study and that a follow-up meeting would be arranged. It's unlikely that Russia will implement the plan until after its March presidential vote, given that doing so would represent a concession to the United States — something it wants to avoid during election season.
Russia's post-election landscape could offer more room for negotiation, however, especially since Moscow is also facing the possibility that Washington will expand sanctions against it. For the Kremlin, a more constructive approach to the Ukraine conflict might go a long way toward avoiding a major expansion of sanctions. Russia is not about to abandon its position in eastern Ukraine, but allowing U.N. peacekeepers to the frontlines could show cooperation with the West, while still leaving open the possibility for Russia to subsequently freeze the process if and when it sees fit. For now, the phased approach is still just at the proposal stage. But if the United States and Russia do eventually agree on a plan, it could bring about a real, if limited, deployment of U.N. forces.