"Rethinking" has become one of the major words of the year in many areas. The same applies to the negotiation formats aimed at settling the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.
The existing negotiating formats – Normandy and Minsk - have apparently swapped roles. Instead of discussing politics at the Normandy Four platform, the sides seemed to shift these efforts to a political team of Minsk's Trilateral Contact Group, which has gained more significance this year. The current negotiating squad continues to declare the quite rational principle of a political component being a "prerogative of the Normandy format", but these declarations seriously contradict actual practices of the recent negotiation stages. And the problem arose exactly a year ago when a mistake was made by designing a cult of the Normandy summit, for the sake of which Ukraine went for disengagement of troops in Donbas at pilot sites, bypassing the TCG Framework Decision, as well as the approval of the so-called Steinmeier Formula.
Such an approach would and could lead to nothing, except for more and more new conditions put forward by Russians in exchange for the vague prospect of holding a Normandy Four summit. We could recall, the plot to create an "Advisory Council" – the effort that was hindered (at least for now, and regarding this exact title) almost by a miracle, as well as the attempts to draft new roadmaps for the implementation of Minsk Agreements to unblock that very TCG format.
Russia has not abandoned and will not abandon its attempts to reduce the TCG work to a direct dialogue between Ukraine and the illegal armed groups (Russian proxies)
In the wake of such attempts to "intensify dialogue", Ukrainian negotiators tried to "water down the militants' monopoly on representation of the "certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions (ORDLO)" and brought into the process its own envoys who come from those territories. The step didn't result in a demarche on the part of the Russian proxy forces (on which, the reintegration minister said, Ukraine had counted). On the contrary, representatives of the illegal armed groups have been constantly provoking Ukrainian counterparts from Donbas, in hope for an emotional and ill-considered response on the part of the entire delegation.
Russia has not abandoned and will not abandon its attempts to reduce the TCG work to a direct dialogue between Ukraine and the illegal armed groups (Russian proxies). After the failure of the "advisory council" format, the Russian Federation has managed to push the idea through by passing changes to the routine of each of the TCG subgroups. At the level of the security subgroup, this attempt resulted in a project for a joint inspection in the area of Shumy – together with the Russian proxies – the plot that was thwarted due to major public outrage. In many ways, the pretext for pursuing this concept, of which the Russians had started talking about back in spring, was the July decision on additional measures to monitor ceasefire with the more than controversial wording about involving the "Joint Ceasefire Control and Coordination Center in its current composition."
Ukrainian negotiators and the incumbent Ukrainian government as a whole made a big mistake, constantly emphasizing the importance of the humanitarian component
Also, the attitude on the part of the President, his Office, and the Ministry of Defense to what is considered a violation and disruption of ceasefire allows Russian delegates to "sell" the illusion of security for new political concessions – again and again.
The work in the humanitarian subgroup can't be called constructive either: Russia and its proxies demanded from the Ukrainian delegation to ensure that all charges are lifted off the held persons scheduled for swap, and continued their manipulative stunts with handing over to the Ukrainian side a number of persons who have no relation to the ongoing conflict.
Ukrainian negotiators and the incumbent Ukrainian government as a whole made a big mistake, constantly emphasizing the importance to our side of the humanitarian component, presenting the release of the hostages as their greatest achievement, sometimes crossing the line and turning the entire effort into a PR element. Now they are being held hostage by this narrative and political expediency as such, which has been and will be exploited by Russia. As was the case, for example, with the Easter prisoner exchange, when Russian proxies handed to Ukraine some individuals, on whom no clear information had been available – which could only mean one thing: these were not prisoners whom the Ukrainian side had actually put on the swap list.
Ukrainian leaders need to get rid of illusory ideas about the intrinsic value of any kinds of meetings and negotiation formats
The change in position on the simultaneous opening of crossing checkpoints in Zolote and in Shchastia (previously, the latter was considered unacceptable for security reasons) also showed its senselessness: this didn't in any way alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Luhansk region, since the enemy have been blocking the opening of the checkpoint. This once again demonstrated that that Ukrainian negotiators were ready to put security considerations in the background when they needed to show some kind of result before an unrealistic deadline they, themselves, had set.
Today we can say with confidence: 2021 should be the year of farewell to illusions and hopes for an "agreement somewhere in the middle". Ukrainian leaders need to get rid of illusory ideas about the intrinsic value of any kinds of meetings and negotiation formats. Until Ukraine has a realistic strategy for waging this war at the political and diplomatic fronts, no meetings, "intensified work" in existing formats, deadlines divorced from reality, and tactical concessions just won't work.
Maria Kucherenko is a Project Manager at the Center for Civil Society Studies