Author: Natig NAZIMOGLU
Amidst the deteriorating situation in the zone of the armed conflict in Donbass, the so-called Normandy format including the senior representatives of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France has resumed the negotiations. However, the contradictions between the parties are so deep that it is not yet possible to talk about the prospect a principal long-term solution of the problem.
The specifics of the Normandy format
The first talks in the Normandy format took place in June 2014, during the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the landing of the Allied forces in Normandy. The group achieved a significant breakthrough in February 2015, when a set of measures to implement the Minsk agreements was adopted after 17-hour talks between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France (Petro Poroshenko, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and François Hollande), which had to serve as a basis for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in the Donbass. In October 2016, the leaders of the four countries held a new meeting, which confirmed the need to implement the Minsk agreements. However, no real success, which would bring a lasting peace to the southeast of Ukraine, has been achieved ever since.
Meanwhile, the leadership of France and the U.S. has changed. These are the participants of the Normandy format, and the U.S. is directly involved in the Ukrainian crisis due to the powerful political support they provide to Kiev. During his meeting with Petro Poroshenko, the new U.S. President Donald Trump has publicly supported Ukraine and the preservation of the sanctions against Russia. Even after the talks with Vladimir Putin at the recent G20 summit in Hamburg, Mr. Trump said that anti-Russian sanctions would not be lifted until Moscow fulfilled its obligations under the Minsk agreements. Demonstration of Washington's determination to strengthen the American impact on the Ukrainian situation was the appointment of Kurt Volker as the U.S. President's special representative for Ukraine. Just the other day, Volcker made it clear that Washington was considering the possibility of supplying American weapons to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. According to him, "defensive weapons will allow Ukraine to protect itself."
It seems unnecessary to comment that Washington still associates the need to "defend Ukraine" with Moscow's policy towards Kiev. The American approach complies with the general strategy of the West with respect to the Ukrainian issue, implying a threat from Russia. This is evidenced by the position of the new French President Emmanuel Macron.
During his recent meeting with Petro Poroshenko, Emmanuel Macron directly accused Russia of aggression against Ukraine. However, this did not prevent him from acting as the initiator of the resumption of negotiations under the Normandy format. Macron’s name is even associated with the new formula for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, which is primarily focused on security issues in the Donbass and only then the issues of elections and the status of the region. In other words, the number-one priority for the new French president is the achievement of the "silence regime" to prevent new victims in the conflict zone.
Apparently, this has became the main topic of telephone discussions among the leaders of the Normandy format. According to some reports, they did not have a direct meeting because of the refusal of the Russian President Putin. This immediately triggered the experts who do not see any real initiatives to bring the positions of the conflicting parties closer together. Meanwhile, the inspirer of telephone conversations within the Normandy format, the French president Macron, seems to have been pleased with the outcomes, albeit modest, but still real achievement, which he has described as "a direct dialogue for the sake of concrete actions."
The joint statement of Macron and the German Chancellor Merkel on the results of telephone conversations allows us to judge about these "concrete actions". First of all, the statement is an an appeal to immediately ensure a ceasefire in the Donbass. In addition, Paris and Berlin presented a list of areas in Donbass, where stopping the use of military forces and heavy weapons is of utmost importance. They also called for the restoration of economic ties between the conflicting parties – official Kiev and the separatist formations of the Donbass. The statement also calls for ensuring safe access for OSCE observers to all areas of the Donbass, including the Ukrainian-Russian border that is under the control of the separatists.
Meanwhile, according to the press service of the Ukrainian president, the leaders of the Normandy format agreed to continue working on the roadmap for the implementation of the Minsk agreements. It is planned to hold a meeting of the foreign policy advisers of the heads of the Normandy format in the second half of August. Incidentally, the instructions to develop a roadmap for the implementation of the Minsk agreements were given by the heads of states back in October 2016. The foreign ministers discussed this issue in December of the same year, but they could not agree on the roadmap. However, its development seems to be an extremely important issue, as the parties interpret the terms of the Minsk Agreements, as well as the sequence of steps towards achieving peace in the Donbass differently. Thus, Kiev requires Moscow to give full control over the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russia, on the other hand, insists on the withdrawal of the opposing forces from the line of contact and holding elections in the southeast of Ukraine, taking into account the alleged new status of Donbass, but not Ukrainian legislation.
Yet another obstacle in this case is different approaches of the parties to the idea of introducing the UN peacekeeping mission to the southeast of Ukraine. This idea was expressed by the Ukrainian president but Russia is against this initiative since the deployment of the UN peacekeeping forces in the Donbass can turn into an "internationalization" of the conflict, which Moscow regards as intra-Ukrainian. The Russian side believes that there is sufficient presence of international observers such as OSCE mission in the zone of confrontation.
An important result of telephone conversations that took place on July 24 within the framework of the Normandy format was the confirmation of categorical rejection by both Ukraine and Germany and France of one of the loud initiatives of the last days - the proclamation by the separatists of Donbass of a state called "Little Russia". Both the French President and the German Chancellor stressed the inadmissibility of any statements that undermine the territorial integrity of Ukraine, in particular the creation of the so-called "Little Russia".
Imaginary ideas and real difficulties
Telephone conversations of the Normandy Four took place a few days after the statement of Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), about the creation of Little Russia. According to the statement, this self-proclaimed state considers itself as the successor of Ukraine, with non-aligned status, the course for restoring ties with Russia and joining the Union State of Russia and Belarus, and also claims to all the territories of Ukraine, with the exception of the Crimea.
"We agree that the new state will be called Little Russia, as the name of Ukraine has discredited itself," said Zakharchenko. It is assumed that the capital of Little Russia will be Donetsk, and Kiev will be granted the status of a historical and cultural center. According to Zakharchenko, "the state of Ukraine in the form in which it was is not subject to recovery", the situation in the Donbas has come to a dead end, a "knot that cannot be cut already" has been tied up.
Incidentally, the leader of the DPR presented the idea of Little Russia as a decision agreed with the so-called Lugansk People's Republic (LPR). However, the leadership of the latter reported that this project was not even discussed with LPR
Meanwhile, the Kremlin announced that it had nothing to do with the plans voiced by Zakharchenko. The press secretary of the Russian president, Dmitry Peskov, called the idea of Little Russia a personal initiative of Zakharchenko. It is obvious that Russia, even if it sympathizes with the idea expressed by the leader of the People's Democratic Republic of Little Russia, will show restraint on this issue. Otherwise, Moscow can be accused of undermining the Minsk agreements, which remain the only basis for advancing the peace process in the Donbass. Nevertheless, it is possible that Moscow will use the proclamation of Little Russia as a pressing tool on the West and Kiev to promote the adoption of Russian conditions. Perhaps this is indicated by the call of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced immediately after Zakharchenko's statement, to France and Germany to exert pressure on Ukraine with a view to the speedy implementation of the Minsk agreements.
But the most remarkable thing in this whole story is that "Little Russia" is being presented as the "successor of Ukraine". This is also the responsibility of the very name of the self-proclaimed entity: the "separatists of Donbass" have now bet on the "Little Russia", not "Novorossiia", which was widely spoken about a couple of years ago. It is assumed that "Novorossia" includes a narrower geographical area, while "Little Russia" is associated in the Russian public consciousness with Ukraine itself. Therefore, the statements of the authors of "Little Russia" cover the entire territory of Ukraine (with the exception of the Crimea, to which Moscow extended its "sovereign right"). According to President Putin's adviser Vladislav Surkov, the idea of the "imaginary state" of "Little Russia" means that the Donbass is fighting not for secession from Ukraine but for its integrity. One can imply that the project "Little Russia" is aimed not at realizing this idea but is simply an assertion of the non-separatist nature of the self-proclaimed "people's republics" of Donetsk and Lugansk. It means that they claim to defend the interests of the whole population of Ukraine.
However, the idea of "Little Russia" has the opposite side, considering that it did not cause a storm of enthusiasm in the Donbass itself. Part of the pro-Russian population of the Donbass, those who support joining of the region to Russia, took this idea as a loophole for a return to Ukraine. Those who hope that Donetsk and Lugansk will return to Ukraine did not take the initiative of "Little Russia" precisely because of their Ukrainian identity.
As for Kiev, there is no chance for "Little Russia" on the territory of Ukraine and will never be. The stance of the sides of the Donbass conflict remain diametrically opposed, which is confirmed by different attitude to "imaginary ideas" periodically thrown into the political and information space, as well as by real difficulties in the negotiation process. We can only hope that it will still be possible to work out "formulas" and "roadmaps" that ensure the lasting peace and harmony in the Donbass and Ukraine as a whole.