High hopes, weighed down by cautious cynicism, accompanied a December summit which saw Russian president Vladimir Putin meet with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, alongside Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. It was the first meeting between the Normandy Four since the talks came to a halt in late 2016, and Zelenskiy’s first face-to-face meeting with Putin since his election in April. The meeting marked more than five years since the Russia-Ukraine conflict erupted with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its intervention in separatist disputes in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
Some progress appeared to be made: the group agreed to an exchange of all prisoners and a general conflict line ceasefire by the end of 2019. For Macron, who has made headlines by calling for a renewed European relationship with Russia, the meeting was a positive step forward, he said “the fact that we sat side by side... is an achievement.” Zelenskiy similarly emphasised that “the fact that we were able to start this dialogue... is quite positive.”
Yet long-term issues continue to hang over any temporary achievements. Ceasefires, which have been called 20 times since the start of the conflict, have continually failed to make an impact on the fighting. Ensuring that combatants honour this one will require strict monitoring of the situation by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), alongside harsh punishments if it is broken. Similarly, prisoner exchanges, while important, fail to address the issue at the heart of the conflict – control of, and elections in, the Donbas. On this, the leaders continue to hold irreconcilable positions.
Zelenskiy, whose presidential campaign revolved around ending the conflict and restoring peace, did not back down on Ukraine’s demand for control over its eastern border before any elections are held. He unambiguously proclaimed that “Crimea and the Donbas are Ukrainian.” Yet, Putin gave no indication that he would yield on his call for elections preceding any Russian withdrawal.
This lack of movement on Putin’s part signals that there is little hope for genuine progress. He consistently referred to the Minsk accords as justification for his refusal to back down, arguing that the agreement mandates elections before withdrawal. However, any elections held in the Donbas while Russian troops remain in the area would under no circumstances be free or fair. For one thing, Putin’s interpretation of the accords paint Russia as an apparently neutral arbitrator between separatists and the Ukrainian government. Separatist groups are overwhelmingly backed by Russian funds and arms: Russia is no arbitrator, but rather an active participant in the conflict. Elections without Russian withdrawal would occur “under the barrel of a [Russian] gun,” as Zelenskiy so aptly put it.
The summit, while it did not solve this important issue, gave Zelenskiy the opportunity to make these conditions very clear to Putin and the rest of the world. He demonstrated his ability to stand against Putin to concerned Ukrainians who feared that he would capitulate to Russian demands. Finally, Zelenskiy emphasised that Russian aggression in the Donbas and Crimea cannot be allowed to continue, and its annexation of Ukrainian territories should not be normalised.
Russia poses a threat to the entire European continent. Its foreign policy objectives have become increasingly clear in the past several years. It has interfered in Western democratic processes and made no real efforts toward peace in Ukraine. Therefore, Europe must continue to play an active role in supporting Ukraine against Russia’s illegitimate occupations. Merkel and Macron indicated their continued recognition of Ukraine’s claims to its territories, backing Zelenskiy’s refusal to accept Putin’s call for early elections, which would legitimise the occupations. The EU also plans to extend economic sanctions on Russia, which were imposed in 2014, when they come up for renewal in January 2020. This is another clear sign that European leaders are not convinced that the conflict is nearing its end.
Though plans for the four to meet again by March 2020 give Putin another chance to agree to a full withdrawal of his troops, there is little hope that he will change his hardline position, meaning that peace is still a long way away.
Image - Flickr (Jordan Busson)