Ukraine Needs a Supportive International Format for Negotiations With Russia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 131

Quadripartite negotiations on Ukraine (Source: CNTV)

Yesterday’s terrorist attack that downed the Malaysian Airlines plane, killing approximately 300 passengers, occurred in an area held by pro-Russia fighters on the Ukrainian side of the Russia-Ukraine border. This act illustrates the magnitude of risks ensuing from Russia’s deliberate destruction of border controls in Ukraine’s east in recent months. Beyond Ukraine, the risks affect the international system writ large. Russia’s forces (a mix of own and proxy troops) have systematically targeted Ukraine’s border control system, so as to funnel arms and fighters into Ukrainian territory and seize portions of that territory. Ukraine’s Western partners have been slow to address the international implications of the situation on that border.

One day prior to that terrorist attack, the European Union evidenced concern over that situation. The EU’s summit on July 16 announced that “the EU and its member countries stand ready to consider a substantial contribution” to a monitoring mission on the border between Russia and Ukraine. The reference to member countries suggests that willing countries may take action without requiring the EU’s unanimous consent.

A robust border-monitoring mission could, first, curb or even prevent the cross-border flow of Russian weapons and fighters into Ukraine; and it could then enable Ukraine to create a modern control system on the Ukraine-Russia border. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has attempted to establish a border-monitoring mission unsuccessfully, stymied by Russia’s right of veto. While commending the OSCE’s willingness to undertake such a mission, the EU’s resolution gently alludes to the OSCE’s inability to accomplish this task on its own (European Council Conclusions, July 16).

Meanwhile the OSCE is in charge of facilitating “consultations” and, potentially, full-fledged negotiations between the Ukrainian government and Russia’s armed proxies in Ukraine’s east. A Trilateral Contact Group provides the framework for this activity (see accompanying article).

The Contact Group is the latest of several international forums that have emerged in quick succession to handle the ongoing conflict. Officially, these international forums mischaracterize the conflict as an internal one within Ukraine, so as to avoid identifying Russia as the aggressor. Outside the formal proceedings of these forums, some governments (notably, the United States) share Ukraine’s view of this conflict as a Russian war against Ukraine. With each new forum, however, Russia’s influence and that of Russia-friendly governments has increased at the expense of Ukraine, of the European Union and the United States.

At the end of March, Russia and the United States had opened a bilateral negotiation (at Russian initiative) to handle what Moscow portrayed as a conflict between two parts of Ukraine. The US-Russia negotiation produced the Geneva declaration of April 17, which the European Union and Ukraine joined by invitation. Although flawed in many ways, and soon disowned tacitly by the US (Washington now opposes Moscow’s attempts to resuscitate the Geneva declaration), that quadripartite document had at least created a negotiating format in which the US and the EU could buttress Ukraine vis-à-vis Russia. Yet that quadripartite format never became operational (see EDM, April 30).

In early June in France, during the Normandy landing anniversary celebrations, the “Normandy” quadripartite format was set up by Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine. With this, the United States and the European Union faded out of the picture. The Russia-friendly governments of Germany and France do not represent a common EU policy. The Normandy format operates mainly through telephone calls between the Ukrainian, Russian and French presidents, the German chancellor and their respective ministers of foreign affairs. Ukraine finds it hard to protect its interests when Russia, Germany and France present a common front. At the foreign ministers’ meeting in Berlin on July 2, the Germans and French closed ranks with the Russians to pressure Ukraine into concessions. Had Ukraine obeyed, five districts in the Donetsk province would not have been liberated (see EDM, July 3, 10).

In choosing that four-party format, Germany and France have helped Russia to exclude Poland from the diplomatic process on Ukraine. This shift has seriously damaged the Franco-German-Polish partnership in the “Weimar Triangle.” As recently as February of this year, the Weimar Triangle’s countries had acted together during the Ukrainian Maidan crisis. Although Ukraine is vitally important to Poland, and vice-versa, Poland has been left out of this forum on Ukraine, “most likely at Russia’s request” (Gazeta Wyborcza cited by EuObserver, July 9).

Within the “Normandy” quartet, the Russo-German bilateral channel predominates. The ministers of foreign affairs, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Sergei Lavrov, steered the quadripartite Berlin meeting and declaration (see above). Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Vladimir Putin them met on July 13 bilaterally to coordinate the further course of negotiations regarding Ukraine (see accompanying article).

Russia can only welcome this burgeoning bilateralism with Germany. It helps to reduce the influence of US-friendly countries (who are the same as Ukraine’s friends) in the EU, and by the same token to erode US clout in European affairs. For its part, Germany advances its ambition to handle security issues in Europe’s East on a bilateral basis with Russia (as foreshadowed in the 2010 Meseberg Memorandum), keeping the US at arm’s length and bypassing the EU. In the Normandy quartet, France acts as a token player, putting a Europe veneer on German leadership in return for a French seat at the top table.

The European Union currently plays no direct role in these negotiations, nor in Ukraine’s external security arrangements. Although it was the leading Western actor on Ukraine in the last few years, the EU seemed to lose that role with the collapse of the EU-Ukraine association process in late 2013. But that process has strongly rebounded, the signing of the association and free trade agreements has been completed on June 27, and a firmly Western-oriented Ukrainian government is in charge.

In this light, the OSCE’s involvement in Ukraine’s security affairs (conflict management in the Contact Group, border monitoring subject to Russia’s conditions) is anachronistic. A Western-oriented country cannot entrust its security arrangements to an organization that can only operate with Russia’s prior consent, as the OSCE’s charter and ground rules require. This has pre-determined the OSCE’s failures as security provider for Moldova, Georgia, or Azerbaijan, let alone resolving those conflicts during a 20-year time span. At present, Ukraine confronts the risk of a Transnistria-type entity emerging in Ukraine’s east under Russia’s sponsorship. Ukraine needs far more effective organized support than the OSCE has ever been able to offer.