On January 15, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland met with a key Kremlin adviser at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s beach front residence on the Baltic Sea. Nuland, the top US diplomat responsible for European affairs, had travelled to Russia’s heavily militarised Kaliningrad region to sit down with Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s lieutenant overseeing the rebel regions in eastern Ukraine. Their six-hour “brainstorming” session, Surkov later told Russian journalists, touched on the thorniest issues of Ukraine’s tenuous peace process and proved both “constructive and useful.” As President Barack Obama starts his last year in the White House, Washington is leading a final effort to defuse the still ticking time bomb that is Ukraine. Key allies- German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande- have been seriously distracted by the continents refugee crisis and newfound terrorism threat. The Kremlin, chastened by low oil prices and a dim overall economic outlook, has signalled its readiness to implement the so called Minsk peace agreement. On the eve of Nuland’s peace mission, Obama picked up the phone to urge Putin to do his part. After the meeting, Secretary of State John Kerry held talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and declared that Ukraine-related sanctions could be eased if the Minsk deal gains traction in the coming months.
The Minsk accord consists of two separate documents: the Minsk Protocol, the original ceasefire agreement from September 2014, and the follow-up “package of measures for implementation” hammered out by Putin, Merkel, Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in an all night negotiating marathon in the Belarussian capital last February. Known as “Minsk 2,” the additional document set out a sequence of measures, starting with a phased-in ceasefire, greater autonomy for the Donbas region, the withdrawal of Russian troops (“foreign armed formations”), local elections and, finally, the restoration of Kiev’s control over the border with Russia. The deadline was the end of 2015. But because not even a lasting ceasefire is yet in place, all sides agreed to extend the Minsk into 2016. The West has accepted Minsk 2 as the only game plan in town, and there is no serious discussion of a plan B or, say, a Minsk 3. The new urgency for a resolution stems from a fear in western capitals that Poroshenko may now play for time, which would turn Minsk into an endless blame game between Kiev and Moscow. The Kremlin, for its part, is jumping on an opportunity to repair relations with the West at a moment when the European Union is preoccupied with other challenges. If it starts to seem like Putin is cooperating and Poroshenko stalling, Brussels will likely find it difficult to maintain unanimity on renewing economic sanctions against Russia this summer. Ukrainians view the continuation of sanctions against Russia as crucial to their own national survival. The hope in Kiev is that as the Russian economy contracts, so will Putin’s ability to wreak havoc on Ukraine. Conversely, should the West decide Russia is fulfilling the Minsk agreement and relax sanctions, Poroshenko faces the prospect of being left alone to deal with Putin.
Poroshenko’s dilemma is that he has a legal deadline this week to pass a constitutional change that paves the way for giving the breakaway regions “special status” as forseen by Minsk 2. Currently, the Ukrainian President doesn’t have the necessary 300 votes in parliament to pass the amendment. Wether he loses or delays the vote, Poroshenko will end up looking like he’s not holding up his end of the deal. “Minsk” has become a bad word in Ukraine. People are increasingly frustrated by the West’s focus on a constitutional ammendment when more basic conditions of the peace process- a complete ceasefire, aggressive international monitoring, prisoner exchanges- haven’t been achieved. Many Ukrainians increasingly feel their country’s fate is being decided abroad. At the same time, they are afraid that Ukraine will be forgotten by the West, as yet another struggling state on Europe’s borders. Merkel was driven to negotiate Minsk 2 by her panicked realisation that Ukraine’s war could turn into a European conflagration. That’s how Putin managed to plant bobby traps in the deal that are practically impossible to avoid: concessions to the rebel regions are highly unpopular in Ukraine, and holding local elections in accordance with national law is infeasible. The worst case scenario in the German foreign ministry is that if Poroshenko fails to make the necessary legal changes the separatists will go ahead with their own “elections”, which would bury the Minsk agreement and revive calls in Washington to arm Ukraine.