German Chancellor Angela Merkel took the initiative to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on May 2. The German agenda included preparations for the upcoming G-20 summit in Germany (where the presidents of Russia and the United States will meet), the situation in Syria (in the context of preparing for the G-20 summit), and comparing notes on the “conflict in Ukraine,” in that order of German priorities. The four-hour Putin-Merkel talks behind closed doors indeed adhered to that order of priorities.
In the Putin-Merkel joint news conference, however, international media interest focused heavily on the situation in Ukraine’s east and Russia’s role therein. This persistent line of questioning led Putin and Merkel to declare their respective views at some length. The two leaders last met officially seven months ago (October 19, 2016), in Berlin, for negotiations in the “Normandy” format (Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France), followed by an unusually long hiatus in the Normandy process. Thus, Putin’s and Merkel’s statements in Sochi provide a wide-ranging review on their respective positions.
Putin’s main tactical goal is to pressure Kyiv into starting political settlement negotiations with the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”—a process leading to their de facto recognition by Ukraine and Western disengagement from the problem. Toward that end, Russia persists with attrition warfare on the ground (periodically threatening escalation) against Ukraine (see EDM, March 30) while seeking to align Western diplomacy with Russia’s interpretation of the political terms of the Minsk armistice.
As he stated in Sochi, Putin envisions four initial steps in that direction (Kremlin.ru, May 2; Interfax, May 3):
- initiating a “direct dialogue” between the “parties to the conflict,” namely Kyiv and the (as yet) “unrecognized republics”;
- through that dialogue, enshrine a “special status” for Donetsk-Luhansk in the Ukrainian constitution and legislation;
- work out a special electoral law applicable to those territories; and
- hold local elections in Donetsk-Luhansk that would produce recognized authorities there.
Putin, however, professed to be pessimistic about this scenario. He argued that Kyiv had at one time possessed sufficient domestic leeway to comply with the political terms of the Minsk armistice [as he interprets it], but the Ukrainian government missed that chance, its domestic leeway has since then narrowed, and the prospect of a political settlement is now receding.
That “direct dialogue” means a bilateral negotiation between co-equal parties, Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk, as the first step toward recognition of the latter by the former. Direct dialogue would replace the mediated dialogue in the Minsk Contact Group, in which Donetsk-Luhansk are not co-equal with Kyiv. For all its questionable value, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) mediation would undoubtedly be replaced de facto by Russian arbitration of any direct negotiations between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk.
Putin’s four steps are to be understood cumulatively as the first stage, and thus his interim goal, in the overall settlement process. If Kyiv and its Western partners agree to legitimize the Donetsk-Luhansk authorities through elections (a scenario seriously considered in Berlin and Washington in 2015–2016), then Putin’s next stage would involve negotiations on the delimitation of powers between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk, in the framework of the special status and in the Minsk armistice sequence.
Putin, however, stopped short of invoking that follow-up stage with Merkel in Sochi. Instead, the Russian president affected near-resignation over the receding prospects for a political settlement. Departing from his norm, he did not bother to condemn Kyiv for the deadlock on the Donetsk-Luhansk elections and special status. Putin’s remark, factual and slightly regretful, that the Ukrainian government lacks domestic political leeway to be “flexible” in the negotiations is accurate, though self-serving.
With his seeming equanimity, Putin reinforces Moscow’s recent moves that may, instead of a special status, foreshadow outright secession of the Donetsk-Luhansk territory from Ukraine. Those moves include Russia’s recognition of the “people’s republics’ ” identity passports and other types of documents, go-ahead to takeovers of Ukrainian-owned infrastructure and industrial plants, a switch to the Russian school curriculum, and a full shift to the use of the ruble in that territory.
The message to Ukraine is: either concede a negotiated special status for that territory (resulting in a state within the Ukrainian state), or accept de facto the definitive separation of that territory from Ukraine. And the message to Berlin and other Western capitals implies: either pressure Kyiv to concede the special status and elections for Donetsk-Luhansk, or watch that territory’s full secession and the collapse of a diplomatic compromise between Russia and the West. Hence, Putin’s calculated display of equanimity regarding the stalled Normandy and Minsk processes.
While the Kremlin’s domestic propaganda continues depicting the Ukrainian government as lacking legitimacy, Putin no longer does so in front of foreign audiences (although he still uses the disrespectful term “Kyiv authorities”). By now he would challenge the Ukrainian government’s legitimacy merely to retaliate when journalists or other interlocutors seem to challenge the legitimacy of the Donetsk-Luhansk “republics.” Thus, during the joint news conference in Sochi, Putin found it necessary to retort that “the current Kyiv authorities came to power through an anti-constitutional coup.” He seemed oblivious to the implication—which Angela Merkel instantly grasped—that an illegitimate government (if such it was) could not deliver a legitimate agreement. Merkel therefore interceded that “the Ukrainian government came to power through democratic means, and the president [Petro Poroshenko] now has the responsibility to implement the Minsk agreement” (Bundeskanzlerin.de, May 3).
For, unlike Putin, the German chancellor cannot affect indifference at the possible failure of the Minsk process. Stacked though that process is against Ukraine, the German government (on a bipartisan basis) is firmly beholden to the Minsk process, connecting its fulfillment with the lifting of sanctions on Russia. For his part, Putin never mentioned the sanctions in his remarks, even when Merkel did. He merely alluded once to some “known difficulties,” in spite of which a growth trend has returned to Russian-German trade. The intended signal is that Moscow expects to wait out and ride out the sanctions.