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How to Make Sense of Ukraine Peace Talks

Important points to remember:

  • Ukraine is on the brink of disaster,
  • which is why the German-French initiative is sincere.
  • Russia has the stronger hand,
  • but could not say no to talks.
  • US and China are certainly being kept in the loop
  • Ultimately no peace possible without Poroshenko-Yatsenyuk and Donbass rebels

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

For what it's worth, though it is too early to be sure before we know their outcome, I suspect that these negotiations like the ones that took place in Minsk in September are being over analysed. As happened with the text of the Minsk Protocol people are pouring over the meaning of words which will most probably mean little in the end because they will not determine the eventual outcome.

Negotiations are the usual pattern in wars. It is a myth that wars and negotiations are alternatives to each other. The more common pattern is for negotiations and fighting to happen in parallel, with the one having an influence on the other.

1. Negotiations are taking place and Germany and France are involved in them because Kiev is losing the war and is staring defeat in the face. If the government in Kiev was winning the war negotiations would not be happening. If the war was in stalemate and the government was holding its own, Germany and France would not have to be involved in them. Germany and France are involved because their Ukrainian protege is losing and they are trying to rescue something from the wreckage. The weakness of their position is that they cannot take an active role in the fighting (they know their publics would not stand for it) whilst their sanctions policy has failed. Though they still have some cards left to play, they are playing from a weak hand and they know it. Thus the grim faces. The longer the war continues the weaker their hand gets, so they need a deal now more than the Russians do.

2. The Russians are in the stronger position, and in a much stronger position than they were in during the negotiations last spring and summer, because the side they support is visibly winning whilst the side Germany and France support is visibly losing. The question for the Russians is how far do they push their advantage now in order to achieve whatever objectives they have? If they push too aggressively and too far the whole process could collapse in recriminations, which might upset some of Russia's allies and cause the Russians problems down the line. The whole Russian approach has been an incremental one - seeking an advantage they can exploit later - and I don't expect that to change, especially as I believe their objectives extend to the political alignment of the entirety of the Ukraine and not just to Novorossia or the Donbass (on this I fully agree with the Saker, Patrick Armstrong and Petri Kohn).

3. These negotiations are a German-French initiative. Moscow did not seek them or initiate them. Moscow could in theory have refused to go along with them but this would have so completely contradicted Moscow's longstanding position that I don't think that was ever a serious or realistic option. I don't see how Putin could realistically have refused to meet Merkel and Hollande when they initiated this process by saying they were coming to Moscow to see him. Nor can I see how the Russians could have refused an offer of negotiations when they have been insisting on negotiations since the February coup. To have reversed positions so completely on such a serious issue would have put Russia in an extraordinarily difficult position which would have upset Russia's allies and caused Moscow acute problems down the line.

4. Despite claims to the contrary, even if the negotiations in Minsk fail (or fail to end the fighting) I expect more negotiations down the line. As I have said, that is the normal pattern in wars. The Germans have all but said that they will go on negotiating whatever happens and I don't see the Russians saying no. Nor do I see it in Russia's interests to say no.

5. The two "silent partners", China and the US, are I am sure being kept fully informed of all that is going on and are having their say behind the scenes. We can be sure that Moscow and Beijing are at the very least in daily contact with each other and that Moscow is keeping Beijing informed of every step it takes and is making sure that it has Beijing's full understanding and support before it takes any important step. Anybody who thinks otherwise has simply not understood the nature of this relationship.

6. If there is an agreement it will only succeed if it has the backing or at least the acquiescence of both of the two actually warring parties: the NAF and the Kiev government. I think the chances of that are minimal. I still don't see the Europeans applying real pressure on Kiev to comply with whatever is agreed in Minsk, despite some indications to the contrary, and for all the fact that it is losing I don't see the powers in Kiev settling for anything less than total victory. I therefore strongly doubt that we will see a conclusive settlement emerge tomorrow whatever is formally "agreed". On the contrary I think it is more likely that the terms of the agreement will themselves become a subject of future argument and contention as was the case with the agreements made in Kiev on 21st February 2014, in Geneva on 17th April 2014 and in Minsk on 5th September 2014. In that case the negotiations will simply form another episode in the ongoing war.

7. The rebels claim that 2,300 Ukrainian troops have been killed over the last 25 days. That is a death rate of just under 100 hundred men a day. We are approaching - and may soon exceed - the death rate of the summer. That is the single biggest and most important fact in this conflict, which is shaping events in Minsk today and elsewhere.

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