As the conflict in Ukraine enters its sixth year, recent signs point to a revival of the stalled negotiation process between Ukraine, Russia and the West. While various political and security challenges still stand in the way of a comprehensive truce between Kyiv and Moscow, the successful implementation of more tactical measures, such as prisoner swaps and troop withdrawals, could help break the diplomatic deadlock over the war.
Editor's Note: On Oct. 1, President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that Ukraine has agreed to the so-called "Steinmeier Formula," which envisions granting special status to the separatist regions of Donbas following local elections that are supervised by OSCE and international monitors and held within the guidelines of the Ukrainian Constitution. This marks the latest in a series of significant steps toward reviving the Normandy Four format talks to advance negotiations over ending the Ukrainian conflict. However, remaining differences between Ukraine and the separatists/Russia regarding the sequencing of the implementing agreement and other strategic issues remain likely to prevent any meaningful breakthroughs over the Ukrainian conflict in the foreseeable future.
On Sept. 18, Ukraine announced it was preparing to pull back its military presence 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) from the roughly 450-kilometer front line in eastern Ukraine on the basis that Russian-backed separatist forces do the same. Specifically, Kyiv stressed that the successful completion of this plan would depend on concurring "reciprocal actions from the opposite side." This announcement follows a high-profile prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia on Sept. 7. Combined, these two recent developments suggest that the door to further de-escalation may be opening wider — and with it, the potential for diplomatic progress toward addressing the nearly six-year conflict in the region.
Closer to Diplomacy?
There have been discussions of a resumption of talks between heads of state in the Normandy Four format (Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France). The last time such a meeting took place regarding the conflict in eastern Ukraine was in 2016. A successful, mutual pullback of military personnel and equipment along the front line in Donbas would create positive momentum going into the Normandy summit, as well as boost parallel natural gas transit negotiations between Ukraine, Russia and the European Union (which are part of broader talks among Ukrainian officials). This could, in turn, increase the chances for Kyiv and Moscow to start implementing some of the political aspects of the 2014 Minsk Protocol, and lay the groundwork for further political concessions as well, including the potential lifting of EU sanctions against Russia.
What Stands in the Way
However, there are still significant hurdles for a comprehensive breakthrough (or even piecemeal agreement) to take place as a result of the potential upcoming Normandy Four talks. These include:
- The Minsk impasse: Russia and Ukraine have divergent positions on implementing the Minsk protocols, particularly its sequencing. Before granting any concessions, Ukraine has demanded a complete removal of Russian military personnel from the region and the restoration of Ukrainian control over the Russian border with Donbas. Russia, however, has pushed against these demands, insisting that Ukraine must first recognize Donbas' political autonomy.
- Domestic political pressures: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy — who took office earlier this year after securing a landslide victory — has made ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine one of his top priorities. However, domestic political pressures will make Zelenskiy (and, to a lesser extent, Russian President Vladimir Putin) hesitant to pursue more meaningful concessions for fear of appearing politically weak.
- Past failures: Finally, previous troop pullbacks have proven to be unsuccessful. A previous agreement in 2016 to push back both Ukrainian and separatist forces from three specific areas (Stanitsa Luganskaya, Zolotye and Petrovskoye) has had little success. Over the past three years, the pullback has been successfully completed in only Stanitsa Luganskaysa — and even then, only recently.
A step back from the front line in eastern Ukraine could at least allow Kyiv and Moscow to reopen the conversation around ending the conflict.
What to Watch for
Despite these challenges, the fact that there is movement on the ground in terms of both prisoner exchanges and a limited version of troop pullbacks nonetheless suggests that more diplomatic progress could soon be reached. In gauging the likelihood of such traction, it will be important to monitor the following developments in the coming weeks and months:
- A sustained cease-fire: Persistent crossfire in eastern Ukraine risks delaying or thwarting any troop pullbacks. A sustained cease-fire in the region would first have to take place for either side to feel comfortable enough to move their military troops and equipment.
- A strong start to the pullback: Any successful troop pullback would have to occur sequentially across the front line in eastern Ukraine, likely beginning first in the Luhansk regions of Zolotye and Petrovskoye (the sites of the previously failed 2016 plans). If both Russian and Ukrainian forces are successfully removed in these two regions, then pullbacks in other parts of Luhansk and the more contentious Donetsk region would likely take place next.
- The U.S.'s diplomatic position: The United States — while not a part of the Normandy Four — will nevertheless play a key role in peace negotiations. Given its own rivalry with Russia, along with its political and security support for Ukraine, Washington can be expected to side with Kyiv and insist on more concessions from Moscow. Zelenskiy is scheduled to have his first sit-down with U.S. President Donald Trump on Sept. 25 on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. The White House also recently signed off on the release of a $250 million military assistance package for Ukraine.
- The Normandy Four summit: Concrete movement toward a cease-fire and troop pullback would likely set the stage for additional meetings among Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany that are needed to reach any more meaningful truce. There is also a chance that the potential meeting will yield some limited concessions from Ukraine and Russia, such as additional prisoner swaps, or granting greater access for forces with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor separatist territories in eastern Ukraine.