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Could the Next 'Normandy Four' Summit Bring Peace to Ukraine?

For the first time it appears everyone is aware it is in their interest to see the Minsk II agreement is held up

This article originally appeared at The National Interest

The announcement that the “Normandy Four” summit on Ukraine will be held in Paris on October 2, 2015 gives the best possible evidence that the four leaders not only have issues to discuss, but that decisions will be made during these meetings: Russian diplomacy is a consistent successor of Soviet diplomacy with its “no summits without meaningful decisions” principle.

More proof of this is the “Normandy Four” foreign-ministers meeting in Berlin on September 12—the ministers are working on decisions to be made by the leaders in Paris. And their preparatory work will continue on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York in late September.

The nature of the “Normandy Four” format is very mysterious. Since the Ukraine crisis is a highly emotional topic for the public in Russia, Ukraine, Europe and the United States, it is no wonder that the leaders prefer to discuss the current situation, their positions, and agreements behind closed doors. It is better for their countries’ respective domestic politics.

Despite the enigmatic nature of the “Normandy Four” talks, we can still evaluate the current state of the Ukraine conflict and the various options available.

First, we must acknowledge that the aforementioned emotional feelings of the public and aspiration of both media and “experts” to sensationalize the issue to garner public attention make understanding of Ukraine conflict very difficult. We ought to remember how intense the war buildup was in the media at the end of August 2015.

Several times a day, reporters and “experts” promised the renewal of hostilities. One could read daily about tens of thousands of troops on both sides, about their strategies and tactics. It seemed that everybody knew the “secret” plans of offense and reported “unprecedented” movement of the troops.

...Yet, nothing happened.

The reason for this is simple: In reality, nobody is interested in a renewal of hostilities. Neither Ukraine nor Donetsk and Lugansk can win militarily, or even significantly improve their positions. To find an assessment of the state of Ukrainian forces, we can simply cite President Poroshenko. During his recent interview on Ukrainian TV, he explained why Europeans and Americans refused to provide weapons to the Ukrainian army citing three reasons. The first: “you [Ukraine] do not have an army”; the second and third were connected to the presence of Russian agents in Ukraine and Ukraine’s corruption. Obviously, it is hard to fight without an army.

Furthermore, it is difficult to see how Ukraine can get efficient military forces quickly. Since the beginning of the conflict, there have been six waves of mobilization in Ukraine. The pure fact that there were six of them means that first five were not enough. The result of the sixth wave was not impressive: even according to the Ukrainian General Staff, the mobilization brought only a maximum of 60 percent of the necessary personnel.

But to create an army, even from these recruits, Ukraine needs money. And here the situation becomes even more difficult. Currently, Ukraine is spending about 5 percent of its GDP on defense; the military budget for the next year is $4 billion, a $1.6-billion increase from this year. And this budget is being passed while Ukraine continues to ask for bailouts from foreign creditors, and there is not even enough money in the budget to cover the costs of vaccination needs during a critical time when polio has resurfaced in Ukraine.

The chances are even smaller that an offensive campaign will come from the Lugansk and Donetsk People's Republics. What would be goals for these campaigns? Would it be to defeat the fifty to seventy-five thousand Ukrainian forces? Or, to take Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov, Odessa? Kiev? One can argue that these goals are reachable, but nobody can prove it will be easy.

Even this brief analysis shows that the renewal of hostilities is the last thing on Kiev’s, Lugansk’s and Donetsk’s agendas. But this does not mean that both sides will find ways to reconcile. With each day, the conflict resembles the Cold War—a competition between a pro-Western government in Kiev and the leaders in Lugansk and Donetsk, who pledged their allegiance to the “Russian World.” Of course this competition is not about the amount of weapons and sophistication and attractiveness of ideology, but about how those conflicting sides present their populations with at least minimally functioning state.

If Ukraine becomes a prosperous and democratic state, safe for its citizens, respectful of its cultural diversity, and fully integrated with Europe, the “Russian World” will lose its appeal to the populations of the Lugansk and Donetsk Republics. And vice versa—if the east-Ukrainian republics are able to provide their populations with natural gas, fuel, electricity, jobs and social services when Ukraine is plunging into economic and political turmoil, no number of volunteer and oligarch-sponsored battalions (even with the best Western weapons) will be sufficient to stop the populations of territories closer to these republics from switching loyalties from Kiev to pro-Russian formations. (Especially, when these battalions are needed in Kiev to prevent another Maidan or fight for power.)

Understanding the current state of conflict in Ukraine as a mostly nonviolent competition of two sides gives us a good premise to analyze the “Normandy Four” talks.

First of all, it is obvious that the Normandy format is missing the United States as the chief supporter of the current regime in Ukraine. In the spring, Ambassador Tefft claimed that the United States was not invited. However, several questions remain unanswered. Will the members of “Normandy Four” refuse President Obama’s participation if he asks to be involved? Is President Obama ready, not only to sit for hours of strenuous talks, but also to accept that the situation is a bit more complicated than officials in Washington portray it (that the democratic Ukraine is successfully fighting Russian aggression and developing its economy while Western sanctions against Russia also work successfully)? Furthermore, is President Obama ready to take the full responsibility for the results of such talks and their implementation?

Second, chances are high that sooner, rather than later, the leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics will be part of the “Normandy Four” negotiations. Clearly, it will be hard for President Poroshenko to be at the same table with politicians he considers to be terrorists. But he can understand the advantages such talks may bring, especially when they result in a stable ceasefire and further steps in the implementation of the “Minsk-II” agreement. This will mean that Russia and the West are negotiating and looking for long-term solutions with their proxies. Again, it is hard to refrain from Cold War parallels of two competing proxy-states that existed in Germany, Vietnam, Yemen and on the Korean Peninsula. At that time, conflicts between these proxy states were to a significant degree regulated by Moscow and Washington. Today, the conflict in Ukraine is dealt by Moscow and the Western capitals.

Third, Russia has been and is in a better position to support the east-Ukrainian republics than the West is able and ready to support Kiev. Russia not only has a geographic advantage and provides humanitarian aid to the populations of the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, but it also supplies them with electricity and natural gas, finances their budgets and helps construct a functional state apparatus. According to Aleksander Khodakovsky, the secretary of the DNR Security Council, Russia provides about 70 percent of the Donetsk People's Republic’s budget.

The winter is coming, and natural gas from Russia will be necessary not only for Donetsk and Lugansk (leaders of which can count on Russia), but also for Ukraine. The last winter was mild, and Ukraine received help from its other neighbors sanctioned by Berlin, Brussels and Paris. But this time around, the coordination between Brussels and other EU member-states to provide support to Ukraine will be complicated. On the one hand, the EU needs to pay closer attention to the situation in Greece; on the other, the showdown between Western European and Eastern European members on refugee quotas is getting fiercer. With those issues unsolved, the crisis in Ukraine will remain on the back burner, more so if large combats do not resume.

For the “Normandy Four” talks, such a situation means that Russia will be in no rush to make new decisions, thus significantly changing the situation in eastern Ukraine—as dire as the economic situation in the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republic is, they have Russia’s back, and Ukraine lacks sufficient help from the West, still stranded with its own bigger problems.

In conclusion, we can state that the October talks in Paris will be significant because both sides of the conflict acknowledge the “Minsk-II” agreement. We can expect that in Paris, the future of “Minsk-II” will be decided. What could be the results of these talks? There is no reason to expect any crucial or substantially new decisions because neither the United States, the chief patron of Kiev, nor leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics will be represented in Paris. Regardless, all sides are interested in making sure that “Minsk-II” is being implemented. The latter means that most likely several benchmarks and deadlines for the implementation will be agreed upon in Paris to extend the life of “Minsk-II.” And this particular development will be in Russia’s interest, since the more time passes, the stronger the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics become.

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