Report of the Center for political conjuncture of the future negotiations, the U.S. and the Russian Federation on the Donbass


Prospects of Russian-American talks on the conflict settlement in Ukraine

Format definition

Bilateral Russian-American format on the conflict settlement in the Donbass was established in 2016 as a response to the fact that European guarantors of the Minsk agreements – Germany and France – have failed to achieve their implementation.

In Kiev continue to perceive the Minsk agreement of February 12, 2015 as irrelevant to their interests and intentionally lead the peace process to a standstill, refusing to follow the consensus reached by the heads of States “channel four” on the synchronization of steps in the security sphere and in the political part. In a situation when Moscow is unable to exert effective pressure on the Ukrainian authorities, Berlin and Paris also didn’t have enough leverage on them to achieve progress in the peace process.

The United States initially was not considered by the participants of the “Normandy format” as an independent mediator.

In Russia believe that the Obama administration along with the leadership of several EU countries contributed to the coup in the Ukraine to finally deploy Kiev in the West and disrupt Moscow’s plans to create its integration infrastructure, covering most of the former Soviet Union. At the same time, the Kremlin is well aware that the real influence of the US on the Ukrainian leadership is much higher than the Europeans.

France and Germany also understands that the Americans are taking a more Pro-Ukrainian stance in the conflict. Too the active involvement of the US in the negotiating process could create the impression that the two powerful States of Europe acknowledged his impotence. However, Paris and Berlin recognize that only Washington currently can exert effective pressure on the Kiev, especially in regard to the linking of political issues and security issues in the Donbass.

The Ukrainian authorities periodically manipulated the desirability of U.S. accession to the “Normandy format”, hoping eventually to get to conference venue of the strongest of its ally, and thus to achieve additional advantages in the pressure on Russia to impose Ukrainian interpretation of peace agreements.

Thus, the appearance of bilateral Russian-American format to some extent was the result of the coincidence of interests of all participants in the negotiations. While the American negotiators needed more time to dive into the details. From the very start of the settlement process WA details were informed by representatives of the “channel four” about all the arrangements and the nuances of negotiations.

As a result, currently, the channel talks between Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov and U.S. special envoy in Ukraine with Kurt Volker became the main negotiating platform in the settlement of the conflict in the Donbass. Contact assistants of heads of state “channel format” continue, but now they are perceived as secondary in relation to the Russian-American track.

Germany and France generally support the Russian-American track. Berlin and Paris see in him is the only option to unfreeze the implementation of decisions agreed upon in the early part of the “Norman Quartet.” It should be noted that the United States expresses in the negotiations with Russia, not only its position. Walker agreed upon a line with Germany and France, as well as with Ukraine, supporting the status of participants in the “Normandy format”.

While the White house and the Kremlin publicly expectations placed on this channel not only to resolve the conflict in the Donbass, but also for the normalization of bilateral relations in General.

Recently, the United States actively signal that normal relations with Moscow are impossible without settlement of the conflict in Ukraine.

On 28 November the Secretary of state Rex Tillerson has spoken very clearly, stating that “we will never be able to restore relations [with Russia] until we solve the Ukraine”.

December 4, US Ambassador to Russia John huntsman reiterated that “Ukraine is critical to restoring our relations with Moscow” and called the Ukrainian conflict original cause “cooling” of bilateral relations.

In public opinion thus actively promoted the position that the conflict in the Donbas is perceived by Washington as the main barrier to exit from the crisis in bilateral relations. The administration of the trump insists that only the chopping of this node (and not, for example, finding a common understanding on Syria and North Korea) will be the starting point of normalization and the new “d├ętente”.

However, it is clear that this position can hardly be considered exhaustive and sincere. You need to consider all specifics of the problems in bilateral relations, a question about the South-East of Ukraine. Consider, for example, the quality and quantity of U.S. claims to the Russian Federation over Crimea, not to mention the problem of “Russian interference in the American elections of 2016”.

Two attempts: tracks Surkov and Surkov Nuland-Walker

Russian-American negotiation track was intended to support the diplomatic efforts of the “Normandy four” negotiations at the level of which in the beginning of 2016 took place in an intensive mode, and was not originally considered as the starting point of the restoration of bilateral relations.

Under the Obama administration the talks were held between the supervising Ukrainian question in General and the Minsk process with Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov and the assistant Secretary on Affairs of Europe and Eurasia Victoria Nuland. There were held four meetings. The first – 15 January 2016 in Kaliningrad, then 18 may, 23 June and 5 October in Moscow. The track ceased to exist after the presidential elections in the US on 8 November. 9 Nov the then current US Ambassador to Russia John Tefft said that Nuland is ready to come to Moscow after the election to continue negotiations. However, the meeting never took place.

Verbal agreement on the resumption of the track with the new administration trump was reached on 11-12 April during the visit of the new head of the state Department Rex Tillerson in Moscow. But it was not until 7 July 2017, the State Department appointed a special envoy to Ukraine. He was a former Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker. Despite the fact that the status of the special envoy in the diplomatic hierarchy is formally lower than the assistant Secretary on Affairs of Europe and Eurasia, the appointment of the individual negotiator on Ukraine has reinforced the value of this track.

For six months we have held three meetings Surkov and Volcker: the first on August 21 in Minsk, second and third in Belgrade on 7 October and 13 November respectively. Expected in December or early next year could be held the fourth meeting.

Thus, it can be stated that after beginning work in the White house administration trump, despite the continued degradation of relations, this track has become one of the most important areas for bilateral contacts, which postponed discussion on the controversial issues and to work which has a direct impact dynamics in others, except for Ukraine, the problems that have accumulated between Moscow and Washington.

Public signals

The negotiators on both sides emphasize their constructive, detailed discussion of the mechanics of implementation of the Minsk agreements. These estimates remained unchanged during the track Surkov, Nuland, and marmots in the track-Walker. Despite the fact that Russia and the United States remain dissatisfied with the outcome of the format they were pleased with the atmosphere and agree with the need for further work to continue the efforts to harmonizing their positions on the resolution of the conflict in Ukraine.

As mentioned above, in 2016 in Moscow and Washington focused on the fact that the track does not come off from “channel format”. Sources in the media pointed out that during the talks, Nuland and Surkov will coordinate the matters on the situation in the Donbass, and then the proposals can be brought up for discussion already, “Norman Quartet” as the main platform for the settlement of the conflict.

However, the existing differences in the assessment of the causes of conflict and ways of its settlement were determined by different signals in the media, which gave Moscow and Washington after meeting with Surkov and Nuland. The Russian side drew attention to the discussion of political issues – first of all, the steps of Ukraine on granting special status, and the breeding process of the parties on the demarcation line. So, at the end of the meeting of 5 October 2016, the Russian side signaled that Surkov and Nuland agreed to increase pressure on Kiev to accelerate the implementation of the Minsk agreements and the direct dialogue of Ukraine with the Donbas. “It was noted that Ukraine submitted a proposal for the implementation of the political settlement of claims that does not meet the Minsk agreements”. In addition, “it was noted with satisfaction that the Special OSCE monitoring mission has free access to the border areas and during August and September one hundred and forty-five times carried out inspections, found no violations and, moreover, no foreign troops”, – stated in the news reports.

In turn, the U.S. side emphasized the priority of security issues, i.e. the implementation of the first three points of the Minsk package of measures. Thus, on 23 June 2016, the U.S. Embassy reported that “negotiators focused on the topic of maintaining security in the framework of the Minsk agreements, including the question of how to more quickly achieve a full ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy artillery and ensuring full unobstructed access of OSCE representatives to Eastern Ukraine.”

In those signals, which were given to the participants before and after the talks Surkov and Walker, the theme of “Norman Quartet” was not present. The main topic on the agenda was the coordination of the UN mission in the Donbass. At the same time, the parties continued to acknowledge their differences in vision of the resolution of the conflict. Following the meeting on 13 November, published on the website of the U.S. Embassy statement said that “in the United States and Russia have different concepts of how to come to peace, but we will continue to work to make him come.”

However, one should note a small but important change in the content of the statements of the American side. Washington was more clearly focus on the need for Ukraine to fulfill its part of the bargain. American negotiators publicly indicate that we should not only negotiate the parameters of the solution of security issues, including through the implantation of the UN mission in the conflict zone, but also that Kiev must be ready to solve the issue with a special status, Amnesty and elections in the Donbass, that is move part of the way to peace. So, in the above statement, the US Embassy said that the implementation of the Minsk agreements “has always been you need a combination of policies and security measures.”

28 November 2017 Walker expressly stated that Ukraine should be ready to go to complicated steps to return the Donbass, namely to provide special status and declare a partial Amnesty.

Current agenda

Shift change American representatives and emergence as negotiator, Kurt Volker, coincided with the formation of a new agenda of the track. The key issues were, firstly, the harmonization of the parameters and mandate of the UN mission in the conflict zone, and secondly, the establishment of correspondence between this mandate and the procedure of implementation of the Minsk agreements.

By early autumn of 2017 diplomatic effort in Minsk in “channel format” at an impasse. The work of the subgroups in the contact group did not bring any results, including due to the fact that Kiev had deliberately blocked the discussion of meaningful issues. In the conflict zone continued trench warfare, and all agreements of the ceasefire were violated by the parties.

5 Sep Russia dramatically changed the agenda of the negotiations – President Vladimir Putin said that he had instructed the foreign Ministry to table a resolution in the UN security Council about the introduction of security of the UN mission in the Donbass. On the same day the resolution was made by the Russian diplomats.

The initial proposal was that the blue helmets should protect the Special monitoring mission of the OSCE in the monitoring process it is the demarcation line in the Donbass. Framework for such cooperation between the UN and the OSCE has been enshrined in paragraphs 2 and 3 of the decision of the OSCE Permanent Council No. 1117 of 21 March 2014.

11 September on the initiative of Germany held a telephone conversation Russian President and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Putin agreed with the proposal of Germany to establish a complete correspondence between the security mandate of the UN mission and mandate of the OSCE SMM. Blue helmets should have the right to work across the conflict zone and the OSCE mission. As reported on the official website of the Kremlin at the end of the conversation, Putin and Merkel, “ensuring the safety of OSCE observers by UN personnel can be carried out not only on the line of contact after reconstitution of forces and means of both parties, but in other places where the SMM, the OSCE carries out its inspection visits, in accordance with the Minsk package of measures”. As a result, Russia made changes in your text of the resolution add the proposal of the German side.

In the Russian draft resolution a priority of the UN mission is defined as providing armed security inspections Special monitoring mission of the OSCE. Geographical area of the mandate “blue helmets” applies to the whole conflict zone, as observers of the OSCE in accordance with the agreed mandate, should be provided full access when conducting their inspections. It is to be noted that the whole area of conflict – means full access to the territories controlled by militias, and the territory controlled by Ukraine. A preliminary and necessary to carry out the terms of deployment of such a mission are the ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons under the Minsk agreements (in the prescribed security zone) and approval of the mandate of the mission with representatives of DNR and LC.

The United States insists on the broader mandate of the UN mission, proposed by the Ukrainian side. Washington opposes the mission to protect OSCE observers and considers necessary the introduction of a full peacekeeping mission because, in his opinion, the security of the OSCE observers, peacekeepers should be mandated to monitor the Ukrainian-Russian border and the disarmament of the warring parties. The latter refers exclusively to “illegal armed groups”, that is, the armed forces of the DPR and LPR militias.

In fact, the current United States position is that using the “blue helmets” to completely block the border of Donbass with Russia, to disarm the militias and, in this way, to solve the so-called security problems. After that, as promised by the American negotiators, Kiev will be able to proceed with the implementation of the political block of the Minsk agreements. However, no specific guarantees and mechanisms, how it can be done, neither Washington nor Kiev does not provide, limited to declarative statements.

All matters relating to the provision of separate areas of Donbass special status on a regular basis, Amnesty and the elections are postponed for the period after it is installed sustainable ceasefire and it will disarm the militias and force the dismantling of the DNR and LC. The Russian side and the Republic of Donbass naturally suppose that this scenario could lead to a serious military clashes and victims among militiamen and the civilian population.

Republic are strongly opposed to the question of the mission was decided without consulting them. 31 October in a joint statement, they insisted that “without our consent no UN forces in the Donbass will not be” and what “may be consented to by negotiations in the contact group, where we are full represented.”

Paradoxically, the fact – the issue of bringing security to the UN mission to resolve the conflict does not cause enthusiasm among the representatives of the OSCE. In the SMM continue to have skepticism about the feasibility of the UN mission as a whole and in any format. Now observers are working in the conflict zone without weapons, and this underlines their status as disinterested and objective mediator in the peace process. To have the appearance of armed guards without necessary approvals (from all sides of the conflict) can not only cause harm to this status and to reduce the credibility of the OSCE, but also in practice to worsen the conditions of security for observers, that is, to lead to directly opposite results. The mere presence of armed people in support of the mission may be cause for additional provocations and attacks on observers. Therefore, for the OSCE, it is crucial consent to the placing of this mission from the republics of Donbass.

Thus, the differences between the proposals of Russia and the USA are both in different understanding of the scope of the mandate of the blue helmets, and how to combine the emergence of the UN as a new player in the peace settlement, which is not envisaged by the Minsk agreements, step-by-step implementation of a package of measures of 12 February 2015.

United States focus on the complete security solution. Russia, for its part, requires us negotiators actionable guarantees that Ukraine will accomplish political points “Minsk-2”, which will give the residents of Donbas need a “vision of the future” in a United States will make their lives in this country safe, create conditions for the implementation of all political and social rights.

Moscow is convinced that the only type of security of the UN mission will give Kiev the necessary incentives to advance towards a political settlement. In the case of the adoption of the American version of the mission, Ukraine will receive all she is interested – end of support of Donbas by Russia, and will not have the motives to implement their political commitments, that should the Minsk agreements be preceded by the process of the transfer of Kiev control over the Russian-Ukrainian border (paragraph 9 of the Minsk package of measures).

Since the problem of diminishing trust between the negotiating parties is quite acute, we can confidently state that existing guarantees from the Ukrainian side is clearly not enough.

External factors: the pressure of circumstances and the pressure of the calendar

The development of the negotiation process will continue to influence the pressure of external circumstances (primarily, the chronic lack of trust of all parties to each other) and the need to take into account objective limitations related to the political calendar.

Distrust of the United States from Russia. As mentioned above, Moscow no longer views the United States as an independent arbitrator. At that time, in Washington believe that Russia is a side in the Ukrainian conflict, Moscow have symmetrical views. In the Kremlin believe that the United States played not only the role of the curator of the Kiev regime, whose interests the Americans protect in the negotiation process. A very common point of view that the US is trying to use the conflict in Ukraine with the aim to forge political and economic resources of Russia and even some European countries. The voltage on the continent is perceived as a strategic element of the game of Washington.

Moreover, with some diplomatic wording disappear fairly hard conclusions. So it is possible to evaluate the characteristics of Russian-American relations, the Deputy Minister of foreign Affairs of Russia Sergey Ryabkov, that the U.S. and Russia have entered a period comparable to the cold war.” “One of the unique features of the period experienced in our relations with the United States, is the lack of a coherent and, most importantly, recognized by both sides of the game rules, no algorithm, to which it would be possible to resort to crisis management,” said the diplomat, 5 December 2017.

As a result, Russia is not ready to accept at face value unsubstantiated by any evidence the us promises that the Ukrainian side will abide by the political unit of the Minsk agreements after the issue of security. The emphasis of the Kremlin on the adherence to the principle of parallelism (simultaneously with the security policy) in the implementation of peace agreements is the result of a literal reading of the Minsk agreements. And need to solid fixed to ensure that Kiev is implementing its part of the political commitments at the same time with progress in security.

Personnel problems. The administration of the tramp remains unstable. Periodically in the press voiced the information about the resignation of Secretary Rex Tillerson. It is possible that he will be replaced by a politician who will stick to the more hard-line rhetoric against Russia that will become a new issue in the negotiations. In addition, remains suspended even, the American negotiator, Kurt Volker, who works as a “volunteer”. All these personal factors only reinforce doubts about the validity of any steps towards the American position.

Distrust towards Russia from the United States.After accusing the Kremlin of meddling in the U.S. presidential election and the hacker attacks to the American political infrastructure, the topic of cooperation with Russia, including on the subject of the settlement of the conflict in Ukraine is distinctly negative and even toxic in nature. In this situation, any attempt to negotiate with Russia on the basis of its interests (even in the terms of the Minsk agreement, which many in the West regarded as signed by Ukraine under strong pressure) can be interpreted part of the American establishment as the result of “collusion” with the Russian authorities and the impact on U.S. national security and its allies. This definition can theoretically reach any agreement that does not conform to the logic of war from the Ukrainian authorities. As a result, the freedom of maneuver for American diplomacy is very limited as there is limited focus in the talks with Moscow. Washington, in fact, has been hijacked interpretation of the Minsk agreements, which insists Kiev, and not able to look at the conflict from the other side. The United States are deprived of the possibility to use any positive aspects of Russian-American relations to increase trust, because of their absence.

The expiration of the law on the special status of Donbass. 10 Oct 2018 period of validity of the law on the special status of Donbass will again expire. Given the challenges that the Ukrainian authorities are faced with its extension in October, the lack of support for the Minsk agreement among the majority of Ukrainian politicians, as well as a factor in the approaching presidential campaign, the extension of the law, without meaningful progress in the peace process, it may be unrealistic the political commitment to Poroshenko. Ukraine is a parliamentary-presidential Republic, and if the Ukrainian President will realize that you will not be able to carry through Parliament the renewal of the special status, there is no guarantee that he will not sacrifice the Ukrainian commitments under the Minsk agreements in exchange for victory in the next election.

The upcoming elections in DND and LNR in November 2018. In November of the following year in accordance with the legislation of the Republic of Donbass expire chapters and national councils (parliaments) of the DNI and LC. Elections in the republics in a situation when within the unfolding presidential campaign of Poroshenko will require demonstration of resolve to protect the Ukrainian sovereignty, can provoke not only the strengthening of elements of distrust, reinforce negative background information, but also to lead to new steps the political and economic pressure on the Republic and Russia. However, these effects apparently, all parties are ready.

Presidential elections in Russia. Obviously, before March 18, 2018, the Russian side will not go to any excessive (or perceived as such) steps in the direction of Kiev and Washington, which, if opublikovanie, can be interpreted as concessions on the part of the Kremlin or as a revision of the Russian position under external pressure. It is not on any account mean that after the presidential election, such steps are possible or will be made. But factor in the presidential campaign, forcing Russia to occupy, on the one hand, pointedly consistently tough and uncompromising stance in defending the interests of Donbass, and on the other to tread carefully in the negotiation process, giving Americans the opportunity to interpret reasonable steps as concessions.

Midterm elections in the U.S. Congress November 6, 2018. Considering the factor of the “Russian question” and the risk of losing the majority, the American administration has motives to speed things up, as quickly as possible to solve the “Ukrainian question” and to seek to trump foreign policy victory, which could be interpreted the defeat of Russia. It is unlikely in the context of the unfolding conflict between the two American political parties will be able to demonstrate the establishment of relations with Moscow as a foreign policy success.

The beginning of preparations for the presidential elections in Ukraine. 31 Oct 2019 Ukraine will be the next elections of the President, and later in October – elections to the Verkhovna Rada. Presidential campaign actually kicks off in the fall of 2018, when all the decisions will start to be discussed and approved through the prism of electoral strategy Poroshenko. The Ukrainian President is interested in the introduction in the Donbass UN peacekeeping mission before the campaign began. However, Poroshenko may also be advantageous to enter into a coalition with the radical forces and to distance themselves from “Minsk”, especially given the lack of progress in the Donbass.

The expiration of the term of office of the Verkhovna Rada leaves open the question of the fate of a constitutional amendment on the special status, which was adopted in the first reading on 31 August 2015, but a further passage which was blocked. In addition, the future composition of the Ukrainian Parliament is unlikely to lead to the formation of Ukraine’s influential political coalition for peace with Donbass, which can facilitate the implementation of commitments under the Minsk agreements. It is not excluded that all will be exactly the opposite – a future Parliament may further complicate the implementation of peace agreements.

Thus, to achieve real progress in the peace process, all parties to the negotiations and parties to a conflict have a very narrow window of opportunity to take the necessary decisions. Until the fall of 2018 full implementation of the Minsk agreements, completely unrealistic. However, by this time the parties to the conflict fully able to take steps that will allow you to get rid of the most serious current limitations, to reduce political (i.e., external) pressure on the peace process, to bring specific positive results and lay the groundwork for further settlement further.

Possible scenarios

At the moment (early December 2017) viewed four scenarios for the development of the negotiations within the framework of the Russian-American track Donbass in 2018.

Scenario 1. The failure of the talks. The American side (K. Walker) has already stated that it currently believes the failure of the talks, the most likely scenario – at least 80%. Given the weakness of the “Normandy format”, the failure and the termination of the negotiations will mean the continuation of the current impasse in the implementation of the Minsk agreements and the possibility of renewed trench warfare in the Donbass. Saved and high risk expansion of the conflict and return the parties to the fighting, during which they will make efforts to expand their zone of control. The Russian-American track – it’s the only thing that keeps Minsk afloat. However, given all the problems between the two countries and the reluctance of Americans to compromise with the Russian position, this development is the failure and exit of parties from the talks – do has the highest probability, although perhaps not such high, as defined by Walker.

Scenario 2. Stalled negotiations. With the same probability, the Russian-American track can come to a standstill when negotiating, as in “Norman format”, without definite results will continue indefinitely. In this sense, a key test for the track will be not so much to achieve concrete agreements as their ability to precisely perform the negotiators. “Norman format” at an impasse, because although the Quartet with difficulty, but agreed to certain actions (formula Steinmeier, parallel political moves and steps in the security sphere), but the parties to the conflict did not commit. The format didn’t work in the sense of coercion of the parties to the conflict to implement the agreements if they are not implemented. The current Russian-American track has not yet passed such a test of strength. Russia and the United States continue to exchange views without any mutual action.

Scenario 3. Approval of the Russian version of the resolution. Given the tough stance of Russia and the lack of external and internal reasons for its correction, the approval of the Russian draft resolution on the deployment in Donbass the UN mission to promote the protection of the Special monitoring mission of the OSCE is the only real and the quickest option of restarting the peace process. Again, taking into consideration the pressure of the time factor, the agreement on a Russian draft resolution beneficial to all parties, including Ukraine itself. Parties to deescalate the situation in the conflict zone due to the ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons, as well as to provide the SMM OSCE full access to the whole conflict zone, including monitoring the Russian-Ukrainian border. The introduction of security of the UN mission for the OSCE to reduce pressure on Poroshenko in the country and will not leave Kiev’s arguments not to fulfill the Minsk agreements in the political part.

Scenario 4. The adoption of the resolution, the USA and Ukraine. Russia’s agreement with a peacekeeping mandate of the UN mission and the transfer of this mission control over the Ukrainian-Russian border is the least likely scenario. Russia has publicly indicated his position and that is not going to make concessions. Vladislav Surkov directly stated that the Russian draft resolution need to accept and move on, not wasting time. “The position of Russia on the final pacification of Donbass very clearly expressed in our draft resolution of the UN security Council. What is there to discuss? You have to take,” said he on November 30. Therefore, Washington remains or to meet the Russian position or be forced to choose between a deadlock in negotiations.

In the end, the first and the second scenario can be considered equally likely, and the third more likely than the fourth.