Ukrainian Conflict: Moscow and Brussels Preparing to Reset

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Nikolai Tkachev Death of the leader of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk Republic” Alexander Zakharchenko can accelerate the change in approaches to the conflict settlement in eastern Ukraine One of the most talked about news of this week was the murder of the head of the so-called “DNR” Alexander Zakharchenko that markedly inflamed the situation in the Donbas. Both sides have already exchanged mutual accusations, and representatives of the self-proclaimed republic announced possible early resumption of active hostilities. Zakharchenko is an iconic figure for the breakaway Ukrainian territories: he for a long time managed not only to keep the reins over the uncontrolled regions of the Donetsk region and influence economic and political processes. Zakharchenko managed to gain popularity among the broad masses of the local population, which at least somehow ensured the de facto legitimacy of the authorities and relative stability in the conditions of the heterogeneous power structures in the DNR. In addition, Alexander Zakharchenko was one of the signatories of the well-known Minsk agreements, which laid the foundation for the process of peaceful conflict settlement. It is significant that after the death of the Donetsk leader, all international participants in the negotiations on the Donbas almost unanimously affirmed their commitment to the Minsk format. “The conflict in the east of Ukraine has led to the loss of too many lives. We, as the European Union, continue to work on the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements, which remain a reliable basis for a sustainable political settlement of the conflict, respecting the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine,” the EU representative in Ukraine reacted to Zakharchenko’s death. The diplomatic agencies of France and Germany spoke with the same spirit; Russia in the person of the Foreign Minister stressed the need for further implementation of the Minsk agreements – although Sergey Lavrov, taking advantage of this occasion, nevertheless reproached Berlin and Paris that “they cannot influence the Ukrainian leadership”. Despite the apparent unanimous support of the Minsk Agreements and the standard assurances of “no alternative” to them, it is obvious that the settlement process in Ukraine has reached a deadlock. The conflicting parties do not fulfill their obligations, interpreting the contents of the Minsk documents in their own way. This is not surprising: experience shows that the warring parties, especially in the situation of armed confrontation, can rarely overcome the accumulated contradictions by themselves. Only global players can show such necessary political determination, therefore the key to the conflict settlement in the Donbas today is their ability to formulate fundamentally new approaches and an action plan, and to do it sincerely and together. Creation of such a model of international cooperation can be seen already today – take a look at least at a common commitment to Minsk after Zakharchenko was murdered. Given the objective factors, the axis of this cooperation will pass through Moscow and in a broad sense Brussels – Europe is interested in stabilization in Ukraine hardly less than Russia. To a large extent, this is due to the growing contradictions between the US and EU. The breakdown by Washington’s fault of the established “patriarchal” system of relations, where the European Union acted as a younger and more often a guided partner, launched the processes of “geopolitical renaissance” and the restoration of the EU as an independent actor of international politics. Getting used to this unusual role, Brussels is deliberately, though cautiously, trying to prove itself in solving complex geopolitical problems autonomously from Washington. It is logical that the focus of these efforts was primarily the hotspots of conflict in the European space itself next to the borders of united Europe. The EU even engaged in the challenging troubled and difficult-to-manage case of Kosovo, expressing its readiness to mediate in the negotiations between the Serbs and Kosovars on the territorial division. Brussels also does not ignore the Transdniestrian settlement – a less conflictual and more stable situation in which the EU has longstanding stable positions with good prospects. As RTA wrote earlier, the OSCE mission to Moldova was headed for the first time by the European diplomat – German Claus Neukirch. This reflects the ambitions of the EU and, in particular, its leader – Germany – to play a more significant role in the dialogue between Moldova and Transdniestria. In addition, this is a good chance to try to establish contacts with Moscow, to reset and normalize relations, which Berlin and other European capitals noticeably lean toward due to geographical proximity and pragmatic trade interests. Russia and the EU have no obvious antagonism on the Transdniestrian track. This makes it possible without obvious difficulties (and with the political will) to bring them into accordance and develop a single viable approach, the purpose of which is to push the sides to compromise solutions that remove foci of conflict and lead to negotiations for a final settlement. Experts suggest that the future Transdniestrian model will not be applied only to the banks of the Dniester and soon can be tested in Ukraine. It is no accident, diplomatic sources say, that one of the key topics of discussion during the last meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the search for ways out of the “stagnation” of the Minsk process. This is especially in demand now, after the death of Zakharchenko, who was a compromise figure, balancing several local groups of influence, who are actively fighting for political power and financial flows. Since the leader of the “DNR” passed away and in the absence of equally strong candidates for his position, this struggle is likely to become even more acute, leading to inevitable internal turmoil in the leading circles of the self-proclaimed republic. A considerable temptation to take advantage of the current situation will appear in Kyiv, especially in the light of the upcoming presidential elections, as the Donetsk, the conflict agenda will be one of the key ones because of its propaganda nature. To sharpen the situation in the East for the sake of solving electoral problems is a very real and predictable step, all the more so in the context of the stalled Minsk process, which the parties themselves seem to have long given up. Obviously, circumstances require international mediators to be more active: it is clear that neither Europe nor Russia can radically change the current conjuncture of the conflict. Ultimately, at this stage it is not so important what formal framework of the settlement process will be – it can be existing Minsk agreements and some of their updated version. The main thing is to bring the parties to the negotiating table, create conditions for a civilized dialogue that is consistent and effective. As it is done in the same Transdniestrian settlement, where there has finally been some progress after years of stagnation and ‘no way out’. Brussels and Moscow noticeably softened mutual rhetoric in the context of the situation in Ukraine. Of course, Russia is still criticized for annexation of Crimea and support of the Donbas separatists, but it is already obvious that they need a tangible mutual success that could begin the process of rethinking the relations ‘after Ukraine’. The logic of confrontation and struggle of the past gradually fades into the past and is replaced by a willingness to interact. Moreover, even the news about sending of a Russian FSB group to the DNR to investigate Zakharchenko’s murder, which would earlier become clear evidence of Moscow’s control over the separatists, went unheeded in Europe in 2018. As you can see, there is the political will for rapprochement of these important geopolitical players – let’s see how it will be implemented in practice.