Need to talk? Will Putin, Trump and European leaders agree to Zelensky's proposal?
Commenting on the earlier announced TV link-up between Russian and Ukrainian TV channels, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, with a proposal to hold talks in Minsk with the participation of U.S. President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Theresa May, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, and French President Emmanuel Macron. The Ukrainian head of state suggested to discuss the questions of "whose Crimea is" and "who is 'not there' in Donbas".
First of all, it should be noted that the idea of negotiations between the presidents of Ukraine and Russia with the participation of U.S. and major European leaders is not something unique or new. This is precisely the Budapest+ format, of which other Ukrainian politicians and experts previously spoke, stressing the need for the United States to engage in the negotiation process with Russia on Donbas and transforming Washington into a full-fledged official player rather than the backside one.
At the moment, there are three levels of talks on the Donbas settlement: the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk (which in turn is divided into humanitarian, security, economic, and other subgroups), the OSCE negotiating format in Vienna at the consultative level, as well as the Normandy format. Zelensky offers maintaining all present formats and also creating the fourth format, the expanded one, with the involvement of the United States and the United Kingdom.
However, as for me, the timing is not that good for the United States and UK to enter the Donbas negotiating process because the two countries have lately been facing an unstable internal political situation with certain signs of a crisis.
In addition, the election campaign is starting in the United States. Thus, Donald Trump's actions are acquiring the features of campaign logic: if such talks start, he will first of all try to achieve a PR effect, rather than some long-term arrangements. Perhaps a meeting will take place, following which Trump will be able to wave around some memorandum claiming that he allegedly helped move the negotiation process between Russia and Ukraine from the dead spot. And, incidentally, Russia may like this option...
A story may repeat similar to that we have witnessed unfolding between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Yin. The negotiation process between the United States and the DPRK is indeed underway, but it is exclusively in the interests of Pyongyang, which overcomes international isolation and reaches a new level of relations with its neighbors, including regional players. At the same time, Trump receives PR dividends only, showing that it was he who began the denuclearization of North Korea, although this does not correspond to reality...
Something similar may happen in Donbas, that's if the goals match - Trump's tactical goal and Putin's strategic goal.
On the other hand, European players will not be interested in becoming a Trump campaign background. Therefore, I don't think Merkel and Macron will be delighted with the idea of inviting Trump to participate in the negotiation process.
At the same time, engaging the U.S. (as a state or U.S. institutions, in particular the State Department) in the negotiation process would surely be a huge advantage for Ukraine. But one should take into account the format, of which the States will be part of. Moreover, one should not forget that sometimes the statements voiced by Trump and the U.S. Department of State show discord, especially with regard to Ukraine.
Now Europeans have no single vision of a model for the Donbas settlement
In any case, it is first necessary to find out whether the U.S. would like to join these negotiations, and, if so, in what format. Ukraine also needs to ask the European Union of how European leaders treat such an idea. As far as I understand, Europeans now have no single vision of a model for the Donbas settlement, so they are unlikely to support the proposal for such an extended meeting involving May and Trump.
In addition, the question is how Russia will treat this idea. Spokesman for the Russian President, Dmitry Peskov, responded very carefully, promising that the Kremlin would look into the proposal. Moscow needs to find out how expedient it is in terms of Russian interests. Therefore, Russia's cautious attitude toward Zelensky's proposal is due to the fact that the Kremlin began to study the cons and pros of such reformatting.
If Moscow doesn't see the opportunity to exploit such transformation in its interests, it will turn the idea down. Then they will be implementing a policy aimed at escalating Donbas and coercing Ukraine to peace. Hence the shelling in the Donetsk direction and the calm in Luhansk, "flashmobs" for autonomy involving terroris leaders Pasichnyk and Pushiliin, all those fake assumptions that Zelensky "must" meet with the "leaders" of the occupation administrations of Donetsk and Luhansk. That is, this is a game of escalation, the game of creating new challenges for Zelensky. Speculations on the issue of that TV link-up are also part of this game.
I suggest that Russia will choose the line toward escalation rather than finding a new model of the negotiation process.
In general, I have doubts about the effectiveness of Volodymyr Zelensky's statement. Indeed, this is a good political statement for domestic consumption. It went well. His performance was great. I liked the way hid did it. But there are also foreign policy nuances. And these nuances suggest that such an initiative will not be met with a clearly positive response, and it's not guaranteed that it will be discussed at international platforms. This requires the hard work of Ukrainian diplomats, experts, as well as shaping up public opinion in Western countries, "shuttle diplomacy". But this is a complex and lengthy process that should be focused on the ultimate result.
So far, we're only seeing Volodymyr Zelensky's statement and those of the Servant of the People Party's talking heads. What we're not seeing is that work of diplomats, experts, or building platforms and information agenda in European countries, or working with the U.S. lobbyists. If these efforts don't start as an accompaniment to the president's initiative (in general, such work must be done prior to the release of such statement), it will only remain nothing but the president's PR step as a reaction to the TV link-up.
Besides, launching negotiations in an expanded format is not a question to be decided solely by Zelensky and Putin. It's about other players, or how prepared they will be for such a move. For Zelensky and Putin, such talks will not be a big problem, but there should be something signed in the form of an international document (memorandum, protocol, agreements, or, to be more precise, specific sectoral agreements – on political, economic, and security settlement, etc.).
So far, we are seeing only certain cautious initiatives on the part of Kyiv aimed at reducing the pressure of the economic blockade on the occupied Donbas, which was positively perceived by the residents of the occupied territories. But this may not be well perceived by the Russian Federation, which is not interested in half-hearted decisions.
Therefore, I don't think that the decision on such a meeting in the expanded format could be taken by Moscow quite simply and fast. Everyone will boil down to what Moscow wants to get in the end. For Putin to simply have a meeting with Zelensky would not be in the interests of either Russia or Ukraine. Although, of course, it would be interesting to see...
And a couple more words about the reaction of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who enthusiastically met Zelensky's proposal and immediately announced that he was ready to provide a negotiating platform. This is explained by the fact that for Lukashenko himself, this is an opportunity to talk with Trump and European leaders. This is a certain opportunity for Belarus to resolve its domestic and foreign policy problems: sanctions, pressure, access to new quality communication with the EU and the U.S., and an option to break away from the very strong hold of Russia. All this is in the interests of Lukashenko, therefore, of course, he will be interested in having such negotiations being held in Minsk.
Vitaliy Kulik heads the Research Center for Civil Society Problems