Obama Administration Undercutting Ukraine’s Position in the Minsk Armistice Negotiations

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 139

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov in Sochi, May 12

Urged by US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland in Kyiv last week, Ukraine took a first step toward legalizing the secessionist authorities in the country’s constitution (see EDM, July 20). Concurrently, US Vice President Joseph Biden asked Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to accept local elections being held and possibly validated in the secessionist territory (Ukrinform, White House press release, July 17). In the Contact Group, in Minsk this week, Ukraine faced similar pressure to legitimize the Donetsk and Luhansk authorities through local elections there (UNIAN, July 22).

Russia, Western Europe generally, and the Barack Obama administration each seem to favor “freezing” this conflict as fast as possible, on terms acceptable to Russia, since these are the only terms presently available. But there are two possible ways of freezing this conflict.

One way, the Russian “classical,” is seen with local variations in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Karabakh and Crimea. There, the secessionist authorities receive no international legitimacy, no status, no subsidies from the aggressed country, and no chance to subvert the latter’s political system.

The other way to freeze is Russia’s latest innovation, using Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine’s east. This kind of freeze—still not resolving the conflict—would legalize the secessionist authorities and re-insert their entities into Ukraine’s political system, with prerogatives that would ensure instability, Russian influence and even Ukrainian subsidies to the legalized secessionist authorities.

The Obama administration is now pushing for the second version, the one even more detrimental to Ukraine. The United States’ push tips the balance decisively. Berlin and Paris failed on their own to persuade Kyiv to move in that direction, but Washington apparently wields stronger leverage.

The White House has reordered its policy priorities toward working with Russia on the Middle East, correspondingly becoming more accommodating to Russia’s position on implementing the Minsk armistice in Ukraine. From May 12 (Secretary of State John Kerry’s overture to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi) to July 14 (signing of the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program), the rapprochement with Russia looks rewarding to the Obama administration. The latter now hopes for Russia’s “help” on Syria; while the European Union feels that it “needs” Russia on Libya. With or without direct tradeoffs over Ukraine, as Lilya Shevtsova observes, Putin has put Washington “on the debtor’s roll” (Kasparov.ru, July 16).

The administration portrays Russia again as a partner, a difficult but necessary, indeed “indispensable” partner to help “jointly resolve” common problems. It no longer describes Russia as “isolated,” nor as “merely” a regional power. The White House treats Putin as a desirable interlocutor again. Presidents Obama and Putin have conducted two long, detailed telephone conversations focusing on the Middle East. In their June 25/26 conversation, Obama did mention tangentially that Russia ought to remove its forces from Ukraine’s territory. Putin parried, as usual, that Russia has no forces in Ukraine, hence nothing to withdraw. In the July 15 Obama-Putin conversation, Ukraine was left unmentioned (White House and Kremlin readouts, cited by Interfax and RFE/RL, respectively, July 16).

Washington and Moscow have established an unprecedented, bilateral format of negotiations on Ukraine, but in which Ukraine is not represented. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Grigory Karasin and US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland are in charge of this channel. The United States, as leading Western power, had recused itself from both of the existing formats, namely the Minsk Contact Group (Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe—OSCE) and the Normandy Quartet (Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine, where Ukraine is often isolated but at least represented). Kerry and Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov had discussed Ukraine intermittently and inconsistently, never in a dedicated “format.”

Kerry proposed a bilateral US-Russia channel in Sochi (see above). In that location, fronting on the Russian-occupied Abkhazia on one side and on Russian-annexed Crimea on the other side, Kerry mentioned neither. Instead, taking his hosts’ bait at the news conference, Kerry warned Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko preemptively, lest he breaches the armistice (State.gov, May 12).

Putin readily agreed with Kerry’s proposal on the Nuland-Karasin channel. This bilateral format excludes Ukraine while operating without publicity, below the principals’ level. Second, it equalizes Russia with the US in a superior league, above the European powers, while blindsiding these (Berlin in particular). Third, it enables Moscow to play this channel off against the “European” Normandy Quartet. Fourth, and of determinant significance, Moscow insists that the US alone could (if it only would) pressure Ukraine into concessions to Russia, e.g., by changing Ukraine’s constitution and legitimizing the Donetsk-Luhansk authorities.

Nuland and Karasin met several times during May and June on an exploratory basis. The chief of Russia’s presidential administration, Sergei Ivanov, declared the bilateral Russia-US format to be more effective than the Normandy format (Rossiya 1 TV, June 20). In that vein, Lavrov urged Kerry “to influence Ukraine to establish a direct dialogue with Donetsk and Luhansk, which is key to the implementation of the Minsk agreements” (Interfax, July 1).

On June 25/26, Putin called Obama to discuss some details of “helping” the United States in the Middle East (see above). The Nuland-Karasin channel was fully activated as a direct by-product of that telephone call. On July 2, Nuland told a Russian interviewer that Kerry had proposed, and Putin agreed, on the Nuland-Karasin channel “to help facilitate the implementation of the Minsk agreements” (Ekho Moskvy, July 3).

The US, however, had never been a party to the Minsk Two document (February 12), nor to the accompanying declaration by the Normandy group, which pledged to facilitate that document’s implementation. In early July, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande pressured the Ukrainian leaders to meet Russia’s main current demand, namely to start legalizing the secessionist authorities in Ukraine’s constitution (see EDM, July 9, 10). They failed momentarily; but, within days, Nuland scored a first success where Merkel and Hollande had failed (see EDM, July 20).

Washington had retained flexibility by keeping its distance from the deeply flawed Minsk process. The US, with commendable insistence, calls on Russia to remove its forces from Ukraine’s territory, citing the Minsk armistice, although that document stipulates nothing about Russia. The US had not, until now, asked Kyiv to legalize the secessionist authorities in Ukraine’s constitution, or to accept secessionist local “elections” in that territory. But Nuland’s visit to Kyiv and Biden’s phone call from Washington (see above) have shifted that position brusquely (see accompanying article).