Ukraine Progress Stalls on Inflexibility and US Uncertainty

German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin tp a meeting of the Normandy Format countries. Berlin, Germany, October 19, 2016. (Markus Heine, NurPhoto)

Negotiations on the conflict in eastern Ukraine are blocked on all fronts. A meeting of foreign ministers from the so-called Normandy Format countries of Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine achieved no major breakthrough on November 29 last year. This was not only due to the opposing views of Russia and Ukraine, but also the parties waiting to see what the new United States administration’s position on the crisis will be. European Union leaders are also waiting in the wings and may need to take a more active role in any absence of Washington. In a sign of unity, the EU leaders agreed in December to prolong economic sanctions against Russia until at least July 31 this year.

Implementation of the Minsk Agreements has been stalled for several months due to Kiev’s and Moscow’s opposing positions on the sequencing of necessary steps. This frustrated plans for a roadmap agreed by the Normandy Format leaders in Berlin in October. Ukraine first wants a list of security aspects to be implemented as a precondition for allowing local elections in Donbas and for awarding a special status to the region.

This list includes the full implementation of the ceasefire mandated by the Minsk Agreements, complete withdrawal of foreign troops and weapons, release of prisoners of war, clearance of mines, and enhancement of verification conditions for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), including full access to all of Donbas.

Russia, meanwhile, is demanding more political concessions from Ukraine, such as constitutional reform and laws on local elections, before agreeing to Ukraine’s demands. The November meeting in Minsk confirmed that the two sides are not ready to compromise.

Discussions are also stalled on humanitarian aspects, including the release of detainees, improvement of water and electricity supply in parts of the rebel-held areas, and improved crossing opportunities for civilians across the line of contact. At the foreign ministers’ meeting the sides did, however, agree to grant the International Committee of the Red Cross full access to all prisoners, in order to prepare a prisoner exchange.

The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine has been recording a significant increase in ceasefire violations since the summer of 2016. In order to increase trust between the parties and to alleviate the situation for civilians, an attempt was made to achieve mirrored withdrawal of armed forces and military hardware from three so-called disengagement areas in Stanytsia Luhanska, Zolote, and Petrivske.  Yet the disengagement process has achieved limited progress so far and access for the SMM remains restricted by continued presence of mines and unexploded ordnance.

As long as this military logic prevails and the ceasefire remains fragile, it will be difficult to move forward on political issues. A stable security situation is necessary for credible local elections to be held, in line with the standards of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. According to this body’s Election Observation Handbook, “election observation is a civilian activity. Nevertheless, election observation can take place in post-conflict situations, so long as minimum standards for credible election observation are met. This assumes that an appropriately secure environment exists, allowing for a meaningful election process to be conducted and for free, unimpeded movement for election observers.” Hence, first security and stability is needed before progress can be made on the political front.

Apart from stalled negotiations, it is still unclear how President-elect Donald Trump will position the US in relation to the Ukraine crisis. There is widespread fear in Kiev and many European capitals that Washington could abandon its role of protector of Ukrainian territorial integrity.  Trump frequently stressed during his election campaign that he wanted to improve relations with Russia and President Vladimir Putin. He hinted that he could even recognize a Russian sphere of influence, which would mean officially giving up Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The choice of Rex Tillerson, chairman and chief executive of ExxonMobil, as the new US Secretary of State, only confirmed this fear for many. Tillerson forged close ties with Putin when ExxonMobil entered into a joint venture with Russian oil and gas giant Rosneft to extract oil from the Arctic.

If the US is indeed to abandon its support of Ukrainian territorial integrity, it would put the onus on European countries to take a stronger position. The EU possesses a powerful instrument of applying pressure on Russia, in the form of economic sanctions. The bloc will need to maintain unity and keep up a sustained effort to have any impact, which will very much depend on the outcome of important elections in 2017, including in Germany and France.

Austria will also play an important role, as the country’s Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz is chairing the OSCE in 2017. In his capacity as OSCE chairperson-in-office he visited the frontline in Ukraine on January 3-4 in order to refocus attention on the conflict and the situation of civilians living in difficult conditions in the war zone.

He also announced that he was in favor of a step-by-step lifting of economic sanctions in return for positive developments on the ground in Ukraine. While Kurz believes that this could lead to an overall “positive dynamic,” it remains to be seen whether this approach will be accepted by his EU partners. Some may question this move at a time when Ukraine needs strong support from Western partners. While it seems that some are in favor of a pragmatic, business-like deal on Ukraine, others may think that this could be interpreted as a sign of weakness and of rewarding “bad behavior,” such as the breach of international law.

Whatever the approach will be, striking a deal on Ukraine does not in any way address the bigger, underlying European security issues, such as arms control, of which Ukraine is a symptom rather than a cause. Therefore, it would make sense for the West to maintain its unity and to enter into a structured dialogue on some of these, a mandate which was given to the OSCE at its ministerial council meeting in Hamburg in December. This would be of immense importance as it would help the West and Russia address fundamental issues of their common security.

Stephanie Liechtenstein is Web Editor and Editorial Board Member of the journal Security and Human Rights. She previously held several positions at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.