Rebooting the Geneva Negotiations: Ukraine’s Possible Escape From the Minsk Trap

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 205

The Geneva meeting in April (Source: US State Department)

The armistice agreements, signed two months ago, have failed to protect Ukraine from further Russian offensive operations and encroachments on its territory. The Minsk agreements’ failure is a generally acknowledged fact by now. Debates have narrowed down to whether these agreements are irretrievable failures, or still salvageable, and whether agreements torn apart by the Russian side may still be preferable to having no signed pieces of paper at all.

The Donetsk and Luhansk “republics” have directly breached the armistice provisions by staging “elections,” in effect seceding from Ukraine, under Russian protection. Ukraine is confronted with Russian and proxy offensive military actions on a daily basis, threatening deeper advances into Ukrainian-controlled territory.

Anxious to finalize demarcation lines and buffer zones, Ukraine has been cornered into a Joint Coordinating Group, where a delegation of the Russian Army’s General Staff arbitrates between the Ukrainian military and the secessionist forces.

The armistice agreements have not exactly collapsed. They were stillborn, since implementation and monitoring depend entirely on Russia’s and its local proxies’ decisions.

The Minsk negotiation format (also known as the Contact Group format) comprised of Ukraine, Russia, two Russian-controlled “republics,” and an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) hostage to Russia’s veto, has all along been a farcical format. OSCE Secretary-General Lamberto Zannier has finally, if belatedly, admitted that Russia has paralyzed this organization’s mission in Ukraine (RFE/RL, Reuters, November 12, 13).

In sum, Ukraine has been left to face Russia’s aggression one-on-one. For a way out of this predicament, Ukraine is calling on its Western partners to reconvene the multilateral “Geneva format” of negotiations at the ministerial level. Comprised of Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union, the Geneva format operated briefly in April 2014, only to be suspended afterward. Its result was unedifying at that time; but Washington and Brussels have learned some lessons since then (see below). Unlike the Minsk and other unbalanced formats, the Geneva constellation is the only one that can offset Russia’s ongoing blackmail of Ukraine.

US Vice President Joseph Biden’s imminent visit to Kyiv might clarify how Barack Obama’s administration intends to assist Ukraine in re-balancing the negotiation process (Ukrinform, November 17).

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk regard the Geneva format as an escape from Ukraine’s one-on-one negotiation with Russia (Ukrinform, November 5). On November 13, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, Yuriy Sergeyev, using the opportunity of the UN Security Council’s meeting, called on Washington and Moscow to re-start the Geneva process. This could be the only way to kick-start the implementation of the Minsk armistice agreements (Unian, November 13). Concurrently, Ukraine’s ambassador to the European Union, Kostyantin Yeliseyev, circulated a letter to EU member countries and EU authorities in Brussels, urging a return to the Geneva format. This could prevent another Russian military offensive and convince Russia to abide by the Minsk agreements (EU Observer, November 14).

As Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin has noted, while working to re-start the Geneva process, its content is more important than the process itself (Unian, November 7). Russia out-negotiated the US during the Geneva format’s first lease on life in April (the EU played third-fiddle at that time). This produced a document weighted in Russia’s favor. Since then, however, Russian actions as well as internal developments in Ukraine have far outrun the Geneva understandings, rendering them irrelevant in all respects save one: lessons learned and ways to re-start the Geneva format.

Jointly issued by the four sides at the ministerial level (Sergei Lavrov, John Kerry, Catherine Ashton, Andriy Deshchitsya), the Geneva Joint Diplomatic Statement was basically a product of Russia-US bilateral negotiation, to which the EU and Ukraine subscribed. The document treated the ongoing conflict as an internal one in Ukraine (rather than a Russia-Ukraine state-on-state conflict); called for de-escalating tensions within Ukraine (not tracing those to Russian interference); failed to mention the Ukrainian government (it referred instead to “Ukrainian authorities,” dashing Washington’s goal to legitimize Ukraine’s government vis-a-vis Russia); and omitted any mention of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and internationally recognized borders (an inevitable omission, once Washington had given up mentioning Russia’s annexation of Crimea in this document).

The Geneva Joint Statement did not explicitly hold Russia to any obligations with regard to Ukraine or international law. On the contrary, it stipulated certain obligations for Ukraine—e.g., constitutional reforms—implicitly allowing Russia to be one of the judges of Ukraine’s compliance on this and other stipulations. The statement conferred on the OSCE “a leading role” in mediation and de-escalation (sic) measures. Even as Moscow seemed to negotiate about evacuation of public spaces by all armed groups, Russian forces under Igor Girkin/Strelkov launched the full-scale paramilitary offensive, capturing Slovyansk on April 12. And on April 17, when the Joint Statement was signed in Geneva, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his Novorossiya project on that same day in Moscow. The Geneva negotiation turned out to have been a pre-planned deception on the US and the other parties, and a lesson in how not to negotiate with the Russians (see EDM, April 30, May 1).

Washington seems to have learned from that experience. The State Department has turned down Moscow’s serial proposals to have the Geneva document referenced in UN Security Council documents. Meanwhile, Lavrov proposes re-starting the Geneva format, on the condition that Ukraine fulfills its alleged “obligations” under the Geneva document to negotiate with “all regions and political forces” about constitutional reform (Interfax, November 8, 10).

The situation, however, has changed drastically since April. Russia itself has invalidated the Geneva Joint Statement by attacking Ukraine, first with paramilitary and then with regular forces. And Ukraine has successfully held presidential and parliamentary elections, creating the basis for fully sovereign decisions on constitutional reforms, regardless of Russia’s opinion. The Geneva document has lapsed in all respects. But the Geneva format is more balanced in its composition than any of the formats tried thus far, particularly the currently existing Minsk (Contact Group) format.

The Ukrainian government has a convincing case in seeking US support for reactivating the Geneva format from scratch; i.e., without the April 17 document. Russian obstruction of it would confirm that Moscow is not interested in a political-diplomatic resolution but in a protracted conflict. This, in turn, would strengthen the case for a US-led provision of defense assistance to Ukraine.