What’s the issue? In September 2017, Moscow proposed the deployment of UN peacekeepers along the line dividing Ukrainian from separatist and Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. Such a mission would not help end the conflict. To do that, peacekeepers would need a greater role, including helping secure the Ukraine-Russia border.
Why does it matter? The Ukraine conflict has killed over 10,000 people and provoked a humanitarian crisis. It undermines Ukrainian sovereignty and is hugely detrimental to relations between Russia and the West. There are good reasons to suspect Russia’s intentions, but with implementation of the Minsk peace agreement stalled, its proposal provides a slim opening for diplomacy.
What should be done? Kyiv and its Western allies should further develop ideas on how peacekeepers might help. Discussions with Russia should continue and a more central role for Europe would make sense. Western powers must, however, better factor in developments on the ground, notably increasing resistance to the Minsk agreement in Ukraine itself.
In September 2017, Russia circulated a draft UN Security Council resolution proposing a peacekeeping mission in Ukraine’s breakaway eastern regions. There are good reasons to suspect its motives for doing so, not least that the narrow mandate and lightly armed force envisaged would do little to resolve the conflict. At most, it could establish just enough security to pressure Kyiv into making concessions to separatist held areas, which would weaken its hand and strengthen that of Russia. Moscow’s proposal does, nevertheless, present an opening for dialogue and for Kyiv and its Western allies to explore how peacekeepers might facilitate return of those areas to Ukrainian authority, including by helping both secure the Ukraine-Russia border and unblock implementation of the February 2015 Minsk II agreement. In so doing, however, their diplomacy should factor in developments on the ground, including growing Ukrainian resistance to Minsk, by promoting a more nuanced debate on the agreement and thus helping tackle this animosity. Without that, even a credible peacekeeping mission could provoke a nationalist backlash.
Peacekeepers might offer a way to help settle the conflict, but would almost certainly need to fulfil at least three core tasks: securing the line that divides Ukrainian from separatist and Russian forces after withdrawal of heavy weapons; helping secure the Ukraine-Russia border; and fostering Kyiv’s implementation of Minsk, particularly by creating conditions for credible local elections and the reintegration of breakaway areas into Ukraine. Kyiv’s and Moscow’s consent would be critical: not only to avoid a Russian veto on the Security Council and enable a mission’s deployment, but also because peacekeepers could not operate without a reasonable degree of support from both capitals. Even then, they could face considerable local hostility and potentially violent spoilers. A force would need to be relatively large and capable, but with troops from neither NATO nor Russia.
Moscow’s proposal contemplates little of that. True, it comes after three years of diplomatic deadlock; implementation of the Minsk Agreement, which foresees reintegration of separatist held areas into Ukraine, has stalled. Kyiv insists it cannot fulfil its Minsk commitments while the east remains insecure and Russia controls the border; Moscow says it cannot cede border control to Ukraine until political conditions for the breakaway regions’ self-governance are in place.
But the small, lightly-armed force that, under the Kremlin’s proposal, would protect Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitors in the conflict zone does not help bridge this gap. In particular, it denies peacekeepers a role along the Ukraine-Russia border, essential for reestablishing Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. Moscow’s intentions in submitting the proposal are uncertain too. While, in principle, there may be reasons for it to seek a way out of a costly intervention in eastern Ukraine, the small force proposed would more likely freeze the conflict than resolve it. The draft resolution more likely served to highlight Kyiv’s failure to implement its side of Minsk, play for time and test Western resolve after U.S., French and German elections.
While Western diplomats regard Moscow’s proposal warily, some also view it as an opportunity to engage. U.S. Envoy Kurt Volker has met several times with Vladislav Surkov, aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, to discuss peacekeeping options. Europeans for the most part have supported his efforts. Some privately express concern that American diplomacy is insufficiently inclusive, but European leaders themselves have provided few fresh ideas on how to break the deadlock.
In Kyiv, suspicion of Moscow’s draft runs deeper still, particularly given the narrow mandate and deployment area envisaged. Many Ukrainians fear Moscow intends to create just enough security to compel Kyiv to implement Minsk while retaining leverage in the east. Peacekeeping talks that fail to address this concern risk escalating violence on the front line, or even in government-controlled areas.
Talks also need to factor in other critical developments in Ukraine: anger at elites; mutual distrust between not only Kyiv and separatists but also Kyiv and other parts of the east; and, especially, mounting resistance to Minsk. Many see that agreement, signed in the wake of two disastrous military defeats, as reaffirming Russia’s gains in the conflict rather than guaranteeing a just resolution. Minsk political provisions – notably on special status; local elections; amnesties; and reintegration of separatist held areas – are widely disparaged. Even reformist politicians denounce them, while heated parliamentary debates on related legislation provoke nationalist protests. Anger at Minsk could colour the 2019 election campaign and strain Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s ruling coalition, which comprises the only parties – bar pro-Russia ones – that still support the agreement. Absent efforts to reverse it, the deployment of peacekeepers, even were Moscow to concede to their role on the border, could provoke a backlash.
Reaching consensus on peacekeeping for now appears a stretch. But Western allies are right to try; indeed, they should expand efforts. The Volker-Surkov meetings provide a useful direct U.S.-Russia channel. Europe’s influence in Kyiv and enormous levels of assistance to Ukrainian development and reform should give it a more central role; appointing a high-level European Union (EU) envoy could complement Volker’s diplomacy. The Normandy Format, currently comprising French, German, Russian and Ukrainian leaders, could be expanded to include both the EU and U.S. (at least at ministerial level). For now, neither an EU envoy nor expanded Normandy Format appears likely, but Europe’s diminished involvement leaves a gap; genuine progression in negotiations will require it to play a more active role. Too many parallel tracks also risk forum shopping by Moscow or Kyiv.
Continued discussions require Western diplomats to develop incentives for Russia. They could, for example, specifically address the concerns (whether genuine or not) that Moscow raises about the risk of reprisals in separatist areas. The core incentive for Russia’s withdrawal must remain the prospect of lifting sanctions only once Minsk agreements are fully implemented or once Russia gives up its military and political interference in Donbas and facilitates the return of the Ukrainian side of the Ukraine-Russia border to Kyiv's control. At the same time, Western diplomats should reassure Kyiv that Ukrainian security concerns lie at the heart of negotiations. They should also promote debate in Ukraine on Minsk by encouraging leaders currently stoking resistance against it to instead clarify measures – whether peacekeeping modalities or forms of Western support – that could make its implementation more palatable.
After several years of deadlock, Moscow’s proposal opens a window, however small and potentially disingenuous, for diplomacy. Developing peacekeeping plans would be valuable: were Moscow ever to seek an exit, a neutral, UN-mandated force would likely be required to facilitate its withdrawal and the return of Ukrainian authorities. Kyiv’s Western allies should redouble diplomatic efforts, but also better factor in conditions on the ground. For Ukraine, the only scenario worse than continued Russian interference in the east would be nationwide civil unrest over a mismanaged rollout of Minsk political provisions.
Brussels/Kyiv/New York/Vienna/Washington, 15 December 2017
The conflict in Donbas is entering its fourth winter and has claimed over 10,000 lives. Implementation of the February 2015 Minsk II agreement, which Ukraine’s Western allies and Moscow still insist is the only way to end the crisis, has stalled. In fundamental breach of that agreement, high concentrations of heavy weapons and forces persist along the line of separation, leading to daily exchanges of fire and cutting off the separatist-controlled areas – the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk – from the rest of the country.
Normandy Format meetings, which comprise Ukrainian, Russian, German and French leaders and give a political steer to the Minsk process, have helped hammer out a number of partial ceasefires. OSCE Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) working groups, consisting of representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE and primarily responsible for implementing Minsk, have met dozens of times and provide a forum for valuable exchanges. But progress – whether withdrawal and cantonment of heavy weapons, agreement on procedures for local elections, hostage exchanges, even the provision of humanitarian assistance – has been minimal. Talks are stalled too: Moscow points to Kyiv’s lack of progress on Minsk political provisions; in turn, Kyiv argues it cannot implement those provisions while there is no security in the conflict zone and adjacent segment of the Ukraine-Russia border.
Given this deadlock, Russia’s circulation in September 2017 to other members of the Security Council of a draft resolution for peacekeepers in Donbas came as a surprise. The draft went through two iterations. The first called for lightly-armed UN forces along the line of separation to provide security to civilian teams working with the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM). Kyiv and Western powers on the Security Council rejected this: not only did it not envisage peacekeepers securing the border, a critical step toward reestablishing Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, but it also fell short of providing security throughout the zone of conflict, where heavy weapons are the greatest risk, including to SMM monitors. In the words of a UN diplomat, the draft was a non-starter because it would “effectively freeze the conflict” and legitimise the de facto entities.
The content of Moscow’s second draft has not been widely publicised. It appears, however, to have conceded to UN deployment throughout those areas covered by the SMM mandate (in principle all of Ukraine),without explicitly foreseeing a role for peacekeepers along the border.By suggesting willingness to extend peacekeepers’ area of operations – and thus potentially some readiness to compromise – this draft generated more interest among Ukraine’s Western allies.
Moscow’s proposal was all the less expected because it followed repeated Russian rejections of calls by Kyiv for peacekeepers. President Poroshenko first floated the idea, which Russia at the time opposed, of deploying UN forces to the Ukraine-Russia border in spring 2015. In September 2017, he pressed the issue again at the annual high-level UN General Assembly meeting, though Kyiv, perhaps pre-empted by Moscow’s draft, has yet to submit its own. In November 2017, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin announced a fresh Ukrainian proposal was ready, but the U.S. reportedly discouraged its submission, opting to focus instead on further diplomacy with Moscow. With little progress made on the margins of the General Assembly, negotiations moved from New York to capitals: Moscow, Washington, Berlin, Paris, Vienna and even Minsk and Belgrade, both of which have hosted meetings in which Kurt Volker, former U.S. ambassador to NATO and now special representative for Ukraine negotiations, and close Putin aide Vladislav Surkov have attempted to tease out common ground.
This report examines the extent to which Moscow’s proposal represents an opportunity, particularly for Kyiv’s Western allies, to explore how peacekeepers might play a role in Donbas. It looks at competing perspectives from Moscow, Washington and European capitals, the gap between negotiations in those capitals and developments in Ukraine, challenges on the ground that peacekeepers would have to overcome and options for the role and composition of such a force. It draws on interviews with Ukrainian civilian and military officials; U.S., UN, OSCE, EU and Russian officials; Donbas residents; and Russian experts.
II.Competing Perspectives in Capitals
Russia’s proposal has generated a mixed response in the capitals of Ukraine’s Western allies. Distrust between the West and Moscow, the Kremlin’s rejection of the idea of peacekeepers in the past and doubts that it genuinely intends to facilitate the return of separatist-held areas to Kyiv mean that many Western officials are sceptical about its intentions now. A wide gulf still separates what Russia has proposed and what Ukraine and Western powers would accept. Absent better alternatives, many Western diplomats have been willing to explore whether Moscow’s proposal represents an opening, however small, to break the deadlock.
The U.S. has been particularly active, mainly through Volker’s meetings with Surkov. European officials have supported U.S. diplomacy, even as many privately express concerns it has been insufficiently inclusive. Some argue, too, that European security mechanisms should lead efforts to resolve the Ukraine crisis. But while Germany and France provided decisive leadership to contain the conflict through the Minsk I and II agreements, neither they nor the EU have actively proposed ways to unblock the stalled settlement process. The appointment by the EU of a new envoy and the expansion of the Normandy format to include the EU and U.S. might be ways to reinvigorate discussion of peacekeeping options, although both for now appear unlikely.
Moscow’s peacekeeping overture is, on paper, a notable shift in posture, but the intentions behind it are far from clear. The proposal could have been a first step in a genuine attempt to find a way out of an increasingly expensive entanglement in Donbas, a way to test the West’s appetite for compromise – particularly with a view to sanctions relief – after U.S., French and German elections, or simply a tactic to divert attention from the question of its withdrawal from Donbas by burying the conflict in negotiations over peacekeeping modalities. Russia’s willingness to compromise on a mission’s strength, composition and mandate clearly hinges on what kind of role for peacekeepers, and what outcome, it seeks. A Russian diplomat confirmed to Crisis Group that Moscow preferred a limited mandate, along the lines formulated in its draft resolution, with the force protecting, not replacing, the OSCE SMM. This does not indicate much flexibility. Regardless, Moscow’s proposal opens up opportunity for discussion of what role peacekeepers in Donbas could perform should that option be seriously considered.
There are reasons why Russia might, at some point, seek a face-saving way out of eastern Ukraine. Its role in Donbas incurs a significant financial toll. Some costs are direct; a leaked September 2017 Russian finance ministry memorandum, which calls for Moscow to move funds away from Donbas into Crimea and Kaliningrad, suggests Moscow funding keeps the self-proclaimed republics afloat. Russia spends over $1 billion a year on pensions, social benefits and salaries to de facto officials and the separatist forces and even more on the military. These direct costs may be significant but are unlikely decisive. More significant are indirect costs, related to sanctions. While the Russian economy has largely stabilised, thanks to consumer borrowing and higher oil prices, experts suggest Putin is increasingly eager to have sanctions lifted. Russian experts say that Moscow knows Donbas is a liability, not only financially, but also to Russia’s reputation on the world stage at a time when it seeks greater recognition as a global power. The intervention in Donbas drives a significant anti-Russia backlash in the rest of Ukraine; in that sense, too, the deadlock incurs costs.
A peacekeeping compromise could serve Russian interests in other ways. A mission could increase pressure on Kyiv to implement the Minsk agreement’s political provisions, which until now it has deferred, citing the security situation and Russia’s continued influence in Donbas. Such an operation might force Poroshenko to start rolling out those provisions during the run-up to the 2019 Ukrainian parliamentary and presidential polls, potentially jeopardising his and his party’s chances to continue leading the government. Donbas elections, required by Minsk, would likely result in local authorities friendly to Moscow winning power in the east; pro-Western politicians are unlikely to fare well even in credible local polls.
Moscow also retains other forms of leverage over Kyiv that could prove more effective and less costly than direct engagement in Donbas: cyber-attacks; manipulation of the oligarchy; strategic business acquisitions; clandestine support to far-right groups; extensive information and influence operations via Russian government-controlled broadcasters RT and Sputnik, or social media bots and troll factories. So in principle, there are reasons to think Russian openness to compromise might not be completely off the table.
That said, Moscow’s track record suggests there are also good reasons to regard it warily. For now, it appears more plausible Putin was testing the waters after French and German elections, almost a year into a new U.S. administration initially expected to be friendlier to Moscow, and ahead of Russia’s March 2018 presidential election. In this light, the peacekeeping proposal served as a trial balloon. It arguably aimed to give Moscow a clearer reading on how flexible the U.S. and EU might be, prospects for sanctions relief and how united a front they present overall, thus allowing Putin to better assess his options, especially after his widely expected re-election, even as they served as a dilatory manoeuvre.
Whatever Moscow’s intentions, its proposal creates a tactical window in a diplomatic process that has been stuck for three years. This is particularly true because, by citing concrete reservations (regardless of how genuine) over Ukrainian and Western red lines for peacekeepers, Russia is presenting Ukraine’s Western partners with the opportunity to develop counterproposals that explicitly address them and thus put the ball back in Moscow’s court. In response to demands that peacekeepers patrol the border, for example, Moscow expresses fear of reprisals against the population of the breakaways. If Russian and separatist forces withdraw, Moscow claims Ukrainian nationalist forces may exact revenge on those they perceive as separatist collaborators, with peacekeepers unable to protect them. Putin himself suggested such a scenario could lead to another Srebrenica, referring to the failure of UN peacekeepers to prevent atrocities in Bosnia.
Such comparisons are farfetched, but reprisals are a concern, given the presence of Ukrainian nationalist paramilitaries along the line and dehumanising language some use to describe inhabitants of separatist-held areas (see Section III). According to Russian experts, a peacekeeping mission that deploys in phases, securing areas as Russian and separatist forces withdraw, could better guarantee the safety of inhabitants of the self-proclaimed republics. Indeed, one option floated by an expert close to the Kremlin is three-phase deployment: first along the line, consistent with the first Russian draft resolution; then a second phase involving peacekeepers occupying a 50km zone beyond that line in areas currently outside government control; and a third involving deployment up to and including the border, if and when political provisions of Minsk are met. The downside of such an option would be that it delays deployment along the border, and potentially gives Moscow the opportunity to block latter phases after peacekeepers’ initial deployment.
In sum, while reasons to regard Russia’s proposal cautiously are many, the West should, nonetheless, continue to test Moscow’s willingness to compromise and, in turn, develop its own thinking on how peacekeepers could create conditions in the east that encourage Kyiv to advance Minsk political provisions. Russian calculations may also evolve. Some Russia experts, for example, suggest new opportunities could open up after Putin’s re-election, especially if downward economic trends compel him to launch long-discussed economic reform. Such reform could require improved cooperation with the West on issues like technology transfer that in turn could create incentives for compromise on Donbas. Again, prospects appear slim but, in a crisis with few openings, are worth pursuing.
More than any other Ukrainian ally, the U.S. appears willing to test whether a UN-mandated force could help in Donbas. President Trump himself may have inadvertently played into Ukrainian fears that the U.S. and Russia might strike a deal behind Kyiv’s back when he reportedly told Poroshenko during their September 2017 meeting that the U.S. wanted peace in Ukraine, suggesting that his administration was particularly vested in capitalising on the current diplomatic opening. Meetings between Volker and Surkov, which take place in parallel to the Normandy Four and TCG, have become the main venue for discussion of potential peacekeeping modalities. Thus far these talks appear to have yielded little, despite positive official statements. Washington reportedly is now deliberating whether to table or ask an ally to table its own draft Security Council resolution.
The renewed energy Volker has brought to U.S. diplomacy on Ukraine stands in stark contrast to the past few years of Minsk deadlock. The political capital invested in his efforts suggests that the U.S., at least initially, found grounds to take Moscow’s proposal seriously, or at least viewed it pragmatically as the only opening for discussion with Russia over Ukraine. State and Defense Department officials assert that Russia “needs a way out” of eastern Ukraine, though some admit that remains an assumption. Volker himself portrays the proposal as an opening to explore whether a peacekeeping mission with the right strength and mandate might give Kyiv sufficient confidence to implement Minsk political provisions, even if reaching consensus with Moscow subsequently proves impossible.
Volker and Surkov have met three times, once in Minsk and twice in Belgrade, where they held a “discussion of principles”, according to Volker. A joint statement released by the U.S. embassy in Moscow after that November 2017 meeting was reasonably positive. Behind closed doors, however, U.S. diplomats admit it is easier to agree on principles with Russians than concrete measures, and that the last meeting was tense.For his part, Surkov told reporters that Volker presented 29 paragraphs of counterproposals to Russia’s second draft resolution, of which the Russians accepted three, illustrating the distance remaining between the sides. Strained U.S.-Russia relations reportedly complicated this latest round of talks.
For Kyiv and Western allies, the red line for any mission is that peacekeepers secure the Ukrainian side of the Ukraine-Russia border, a basic premise of national security for Kyiv that should ultimately lead to hand-over of control to Ukraine, as per Minsk. Without control of the border, Moscow could provide political and economic support to the self-proclaimed people’s republics, supply weapons and rotate forces in and out without consequence. Peacekeepers deployed without a clear mandate to control the border risk freezing the status quo in the conflict zone.
Volker envisages a robust peacekeeping force, potentially comprising some 20,000 peacekeepers, a number floated not only by him but also Ukrainian diplomats in New York. Such a force would help stabilise Donbas, secure the border, oversee cantonment of weapons and withdrawal of forces from the line and potentially administer elections. Volker’s vision is, in other words, almost the polar opposite of the lightly armed force Russia suggested to protect OSCE monitors.
After the November 2017 Belgrade meeting, U.S. officials indicated they or an ally may table a new Security Council resolution in New York. One option would be for Volker to prepare a draft that lays out, in response to Moscow’s proposal, a peacekeeping force with the strength and mandate he envisages as necessary to create conditions for Minsk implementation. Moscow may, however, reject it outright. A second option could be to explore a phased approach, though with clear language in the resolution that guarantees subsequent phases will follow initial deployment. This approach might plausibly win Russian consent or at least continued discussion, but could encounter Ukrainian resistance. Either of these options also risk parties getting stuck in debates over peacekeeping minutiae without evidence Russia genuinely seeks a mutually acceptable compromise.
The U.S. reportedly hopes a resolution can be tabled before Ukraine relinquishes its Security Council seat at the end of the year, possibly in December when Japan has the presidency of the council. Whether Volker will remain in the job past March 2018, when his post formally closes, is unclear. U.S. officials report that newly confirmed Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Wess Mitchell may assume management of the Ukraine file.
There are important limits on the extent to which the U.S. would be willing and able to offer sanctions relief in return for a Russian compromise. A senior U.S. diplomat noted sanctions should only be lifted once main Minsk provisions were implemented – after credible local elections – rather than partially, in parallel with incremental progress on benchmarks. State and Defense Department officials similarly stress that only full Minsk implementation would enable lifting sanctions, an important qualification that could help allay fears in Kyiv that the U.S. and Russia might strike a deal on Donbas behind Ukraine’s back.
Moreover, even then, only sanctions related to Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine would be lifted; sanctions related to Russian actions in Crimea, 2016 election interference, or the Magnitsky Act would not be affected.Finally, Congress could complicate any effort to lift sanctions for reasons including recent legislation that requires the president to notify Congress if he intends to proceed with any significant lifting of Russia-related sanctions.
U.S. officials present cooperation with EU and OSCE counterparts as close, and the latter view Volker as a serious, clear-headed negotiator. That said, some European diplomats privately express concern that the U.S. risks monopolising diplomacy on peacekeeping; is insufficiently inclusive of the OSCE, the EU and its member states, which tend to lead efforts to end or manage crises on the continent; and does not have an adequate feel for what an endgame acceptable to Ukrainians looks like. One EU official, who stressed the need for more multilateral cooperation, said that – without more direct channels at the time – EU and German counterparts went to an October informal meeting in Stockholm organised by a European think-tank in order to better understand Volker’s vision. For their part, however, Europeans have provided little recent visible leadership on Ukraine, and the OSCE has allowed the settlement process to be bogged down in often inconsequential details without addressing bigger picture challenges.
This is unfortunate. Greater European involvement could bring valuable perspectives and influence to talks on peacekeeping, even if many in Europe doubt this is a genuine opening. Many Europeans, especially those from newer EU member states better understand Ukrainian sensitivities and are keenly aware of the obstacles peacekeepers would face on the ground. Some worry that direct U.S.-Russia diplomacy raises the potential for a deal without sufficient Ukrainian and or EU buy-in. A former European leader said the EU is well aware Ukraine could be pushed over the brink if Ukrainians do not believe their security concerns are addressed. However sceptical they are about the prospects for a peacekeeping mission, EU and OSCE officials should express their concerns clearly and directly with the U.S. if they are not yet doing so. Better to do so now, than for discussions on peacekeeping to progress without these concerns being factored in.
The EU Association Agreement with Ukraine, which entails political association and economic integration between the EU and Ukraine, and related cooperation on security and governance reform also should, in principle, give the EU a prominent voice in discussions on peacekeeping. EU officials privately admit the crisis chills nearly every area of reform: principles such as civilian oversight of the security sector, judicial presumption of innocence, press freedom and even anticorruption all fall casualty to real or perceived national security threats. At the same time, the EU’s framework for cooperation and vast bilateral support to Ukraine give it leverage and a practical way of nudging Kyiv forward on sensitive issues, if and when it implements Minsk political provisions.
Europeans, like the U.S., must hold the line on sanctions. Only were the Minsk agreements to be completely implemented or Russia to end its military and political interference in Donbas and facilitate the return of the Ukrainian side of the Ukraine-Russia border to Kyiv’s control should sanctions aligned to the implementation of Minsk be lifted. In other words, there should be no partial lifting with partial progress. Moreover, even with complete implementation of the Minsk agreements, the EU and European governments should uphold restrictive measures linked to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol. It is important for European security to maintain them.
In short, European powers could and should better use their influence to further negotiations. One idea would be for the EU to appoint a special envoy for Ukraine. For now, there is little appetite in Brussels to do so. But an envoy could play a useful role as a European counterpart to Volker and work closely with him to ensure talks benefit from both U.S. influence and authority and the EU’s leverage and close ties to Ukrainian institutions.
Optimally, too, Germany and France, together with the EU and U.S., would push for an expanded Normandy Format, adding EU and U.S. participation to that of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine. This would reinforce Euroatlantic solidarity, centralise diplomatic efforts and signal to Russia Western commitment to resolving the conflict. Although a protocol discrepancy would exist without U.S. presidential participation, Normandy Format meetings between heads of state have only taken place five times, whereas regular meetings at the foreign ministerial and working levels offer another platform to engage. Volker has expressed public opposition to U.S. participation. But, together with the EU, the U.S. could bring new gravitas and momentum to those meetings. At a minimum, Washington and Brussels should work more closely with Berlin, Paris and the OSCE to ensure a substantive link between diplomacy and bilateral cooperation, including on reform. By cooperating more closely, Kyiv’s allies also could guard against forum shopping by Moscow and Kyiv.
While Russia’s proposal provides an opportunity for Western allies to explore what role peacekeepers could play, the discussion risks overlooking important dynamics in Ukraine itself. Ukrainian diplomats mostly express concerns about security in Donbas, which would require peacekeepers controlling the border. Kyiv, they say, could implement Minsk political provisions once Donbas is secure; even if this will be a tough sell at home, they insist Ukraine will stick to its commitments.
Behind these statements, however, lies a complex reality: increasing resistance in Ukraine to Minsk and the presence of potential spoilers on both sides. Even were Russia to consent to peacekeeping at the border, Kyiv might still struggle to implement Minsk political provisions in the face of domestic opposition. Minsk is likely to become even more salient as Ukraine’s 2019 elections approach. Bar pro-Russia parties, Poroshenko’s ruling coalition is Minsk sole defender; were it to lose the 2019 vote, implementation of Minsk’s political provisions could be harder still.
A.Kyiv’s Sensitivities on Minsk II Political Provisions
Ukrainian concerns about Russia’s proposal are not only motivated by distrust of Moscow. They are also rooted in the domestic unpopularity of the Minsk agreements themselves. Many see Kyiv’s obligations under Minsk as concessions that would grant the Kremlin continued political and military leverage in eastern Ukraine even after reintegration of separatist held areas. Kyiv thus far has deferred its fulfilment of these obligations by appealing to insecurity in Donbas, Russia’s continued influence and Ukrainian authorities’ lack of access to those areas. Ukrainian officials fear that the Kremlin could create enough of a semblance of normalcy in Donbas, through the limited deployment of peacekeepers, to spotlight Kyiv’s deferral of its own Minsk commitments.
Much domestic opposition to Minsk stems from the circumstances in which it was devised. The first agreement was signed in the wake of Ukrainian forces’ August 2014 defeat in Ilovaisk, when Russian-backed militants encircled 1,400 Ukrainian troops and volunteers, negotiated a ceasefire and then opened fire on them as they withdrew. Minsk II was negotiated after the Donetsk airport and Debaltseve debacles of early 2015, which saw Ukrainian forces lose strategic territory. As a result, many Ukrainians feel both agreements’ cemented Russia’s gains more than they provided for just resolution of the conflict.