Presidents Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine and Vladimir Putin of Russia met with top European leaders in several overlapping formats on October 16–17, in Milan. The tenth Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), a talk shop of more than 50 heads of state and government, provided a convenient occasion to collect the key European leaders for a separate conclave on what they tacitly recognize as a Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Their conclave was pre-planned and sequenced. Poroshenko, Putin, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, prime ministers David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Matteo Renzi of Italy (currently the EU-presiding country), as well as the European Commission and Council presidents, Manuel Barroso and Herman van Rompuy, first held a multilateral meeting to discuss this crisis. Poroshenko, Putin, Merkel, and Hollande followed up with a meeting in the “Normandy format” (created by those same leaders on June 6 during the anniversary of the 1944 Normandy landing). They held the meeting in this format in Milan at Putin’s residence in deference to him. Poroshenko and Putin then met separately, in private the Ukrainian and Russian presidents, each, held a meeting bilaterally with the German chancellor, who was generally viewed as the pivotal figure throughout these proceedings, and who did act in that spirit.
Three issues topped the agenda of the Milan talks by prior arrangement:
— Armistice Violations: The continuing fighting stems in part from the lack of a final agreement about the demarcation line between opposing forces. Russia’s proxies seek to advance further by attacking Ukrainian positions. Putin stated in Milan that establishing a clear demarcation line is a priority issue for Russia. This is credible, inasmuch as Moscow seeks confirmation of its gains on the ground, the dividing line signifying de facto recognition of this “new reality.” At the same time, in Milan, Putin endorsed the “Novorossyia” forces’ claims to some localities that the armistice line had attributed to the Ukrainians. He argued that “Novorossyia” units cannot be asked to hand over certain (unspecified) localities that are home to those units. Recognizing that some Ukrainian units in Donbas (eastern Ukrainian region including the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk) face a similar problem, Putin offered to “help and mediate” in such cases (kremlin.ru, October 18; Ukrinform, September 20).
This proposal looks like a recipe for increased Russian influence over the situation and heavier leverage on the Ukrainian side. In Poroshenko’s account of the Milan meeting, Putin proposed that Ukraine give up the Donetsk International Airport in return for some compensation elsewhere. Poroshenko rejected this or any attempt at revising the Minsk agreement, on this or other issues (Ukrinform, October 19). Meanwhile, a Russian military commission is actually arbitrating between the Ukrainian military and Russia’s proxy forces in drawing the demarcation line across Ukraine’s Donbas (see EDM, October 1, 10).
— Monitoring Mission: The ceasefire in Donbas is unmonitored, open to breaches by Russia’s proxies without accountability. During the Milan meeting, Poroshenko expressed “indignation” at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) failure to monitor the situation with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) due to Russia’s veto and organizational problems. Germany, France and Italy consider providing the OSCE with UAVs for monitoring the military demarcation lines and the ceasefire zone (although the German UAVs’ operability is limited in winter weather). As discussed in Milan, those countries do not propose to themselves conduct the monitoring by UAVs. This would be a component of the existing OSCE mission in Ukraine, subject to negotiations with Russia inside the organization. Russia will undoubtedly use its blocking power to shape the UAV-operating mandate restrictively.
Using its veto, Moscow has already blocked the OSCE’s use of UAVs to monitor the Russia-Ukraine inter-state border. The Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” control what is legally the Ukrainian side of that border along a 300-kilometer stretch. Armistice monitoring and border monitoring are being treated as separate issues. The latter was not tackled at the Milan meeting. Russia is freely flying its own UAVs over the demarcation lines and along the inter-state border. Moscow wants the OSCE to seek the Donetsk-Luhansk “people’s republics’ ” consent to any armistice or border monitoring mission, including the UAV aspect of such missions (Interfax, October 17, 20; Ukrinform, October 18–20).
— Local Elections in Russian-Controlled Territory: The Milan meeting participants welcomed Ukraine’s law on local self-administration procedures, granted to “certain districts” (i.e., Russian-controlled areas) in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces on September 16. Moscow had demanded a “special status” law, and Berlin had encouraged Kyiv to go along; but Kyiv ultimately conceded less (see EDM, September 19, 23). Under this law, Ukraine has scheduled local elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, including their Russian-controlled areas, to be held in accordance with Ukrainian legislation on December 7. The two “people’s republics,” however, do not recognize Ukrainian jurisdiction. Instead, they have scheduled their own “presidential” and “legislative” elections for November 2 and/or November 9 in the areas they control. Thus far, they have refused to invite international observers.
In Milan, the European leaders told Putin that elections held under such circumstances cannot be recognized as valid. Intriguingly, however, they asked Putin to use his influence with de facto authorities in Russian-controlled territory to hold “legal” elections, i.e. under Ukrainian law and OSCE observation. Putin welcomed Ukraine’s September 16 law as “a step in the right direction,” but implied to the Milan meeting participants the Donetsk-Luhansk “republics” would themselves decide whether or not to observe that law in regard to local elections (kremlin.ru, Interfax, October 18; Ukrinform, September 19).
Apart from those main topics, the Milan summits touched on Russian gas supplies to Ukraine and to European Union territory via Ukraine. The unprecedented concentration of top leaders notwithstanding, the Milan conclave could only look at the impregnable position that Russia has achieved in Ukraine’s Donbas thus far. Putin repeatedly used the term “Novorossiya,” referring to the Russian-controlled territory in that part of Ukraine. The deadlock in Milan, however, has persuaded all European participants to maintain the economic sanctions on Russia. Moreover, it helped persuade Europe to collectively to uphold the existing sanctions at the EU’s October 20 ministerial meeting. To that extent, Poroshenko brought home a success from the Milan summit.