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19 September 2017
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OpinionWill U.S. join Normandy format

When MFA Ukraine talks about a possible U.S. participation in the Normandy format of talks on Donbas settlement (Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said that Washington might go for such move) it’s more like wishful thinking. However, this is the idea by President Petro Poroshenko so the country’s top diplomat cannot run in a different lane, therefore being forced to repeat this "mantra".

Donald Trump’s Administration is primarily focused on internal political issues and key foreign challenges facing the United States. I don’t believe Ukraine takes up any extremely important spot on the Americans’ world map for them to get involved in the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

From the beginning, the U.S. has been a major player, not some formal participant, in the negotiation process, and most importantly, they were involved in building up the system of deterring Russia

Obama made quite a reasonable move when he did not formally join the stillborn process of drawing up Minsk agreements. But we shouldn’t forget that in all previous negotiations, including those in the Normandy format, the United States has maintained its invisible presence. It was the U.S. government who first introduced Russia sanctions. Washington consolidated and disciplined Europeans on the issue of keeping united front with the U.S. on the implementing sanctions and maintaining them. It was Washington’s efforts that weighed more than those made by European capitals. However, I would never underprize the efforts by Angela Merkel, who realized the threat Russia and Putin actually pose and really did a lot for Ukraine. But without the U.S., a large number of European countries would have treated the issue of Russia sanctions with less optimism and enthusiasm. So, from the beginning, the U.S. has been a major player, not some formal participant, in the negotiation process, and most importantly, they were involved in building up the system of deterring Russia.

I should note that many people tend to cling to the format, but the format is in fact only a minor thing, while much more important is the essence of arrangements. Minsk agreements don’t reflect the essence of the conflict, contributing to the shaping of a false impression that there is civil conflict in Ukraine, while Russia plays only a certain role in it. But it is definitely not the case. We have witnessed Russian aggression, which was launched in Crimea, and then spread to the territory of Donbas. If Ukraine gives some additional powers and autonomy to these regions, this will resolve nothing, that’s because Russia actually wants to restore political control over the whole of Ukraine. For Ukrainians, it is absolutely unacceptable, therefore Kyiv can’t agree to give these regions any veto powers in Ukraine’s foreign and security policy. Besides, Kyiv cannot agree to granting amnesty and non-persecution of those who committed grave crimes, and a number of other things Russia seeks from Ukraine. What Russia really seeks is to politically subjugate Ukraine, secure its subordinate role, and limit its sovereignty. Of course, Kyiv has quite a different vision. But the norms spelled in Minsk agreements are still there, and they don’t play in Ukraine’s hands.

Thus, Minsk agreements fail to properly reflect the nature of the conflict, so no format of negotiations, even with the U.S. involvement, will be able to address the core of the problem.

As long as the Kremlin manages to exploit weaknesses of other countries, including in the West, they will keep doing it

We definitely should not expect from Russia, which ignores international law and bilateral goodwill agreements, fulfillment of its obligations. Russia shows similar behavior toward Ukraine, Syria, EU, and the United States. So it’s not about Ukraine, it’s about Putin regime which saw an opportunity to improve their status in the international arena through Ukraine, Syria, Baltic States, and the Balkans. We shouldn’t expect that the Kremlin will give up on its goal to gain weight. So Moscow will continue to raise tensions using different methods ranging from the escalation of the armed conflict in Donbas, the Victory Day controversies, and other "soft power" tools to rock Ukraine from within.

As long as the Kremlin manages to exploit weaknesses of other countries, including in the West, they will keep doing it. That’s as long as they have the resources. The only way to stop the war in Donbas is the internal economic and political crisis in Russia, where Putin will have to switch his focus and redeploy resources to deal with internal challenges and suppress domestic protests. That is, Putin will only stop when Russia is inundated with internal problems that will not allow him to play his dirty games in the international arena.

But will the United States be of any help? There is no specific top official in the new U.S. administration who would supervise the Ukraine line. President Trump is not doing it, not because he doesn’t care, he just has no comprehensive knowledge on the issue and no time for such things. Vice President Pence, who met with Klimkin recently, is not doing it either. Klimkin’s White House meetings with Trump and Pence are an extremely positive step for our diplomacy, but Pence will not be keeping Ukraine high on his agenda on a daily or even weekly basis. And it’s not Tillerson, because he deals with a bunch of other challenges like China, Russia, North Korea, and others.

Washington believes the Ukrainian crisis can be resolved only when Russia goes for certain concessions and becomes more constructive on Syria and other major issues such as strategic arms reduction or violation by the Russian Federation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT). During the Obama tenure, the latter problem was discussed behind closed doors, but now the issue has spilled over the non-public edge – Washington openly says Russia is violating these agreements. Besides, Moscow poses a threat to European allies such as the Baltic States and Poland, as well as for the Black Sea region. All of this is more important for Trump administration than Ukraine. But in this context, Ukraine is kind of built into the process, because without Ukraine there can be no European security whatsoever.

Therefore, if Russia continues the escalation, additional measures will be taken, which will certainly reflect positively on Ukraine.

Oleksandr Khara heads Multilateral Relations Dept at the Maidan of Foreign Affairs Foundation

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