In the long-running standoff between Russia and Ukraine, some cautious optimism is emerging. On Wednesday, the two countries reached the final stage of negotiations for a prisoner exchange. On Aug. 7 Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy spoke on the telephone. Following the call, Zelenskiy announced a meeting among representatives of the foreign ministries of the Normandy format countries (France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine), planned for the end of the month in France. French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking at a press conference during Putin’s visit to France this week, confirmed that the four countries’ leaders are indeed considering such a meeting. In a post to the French president’s social media channels, Macron also said that relations between Russia and the European Union are on a good trajectory – something only possible for the EU with a settlement to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. But despite these developments, not everyone is feeling so hopeful. Moscow is harboring doubts that there will be any negotiations in the near future, and it’s not waiting for the West.
Indeed, the positive turn in rhetoric between Russia and Ukraine shouldn’t be overestimated. There are some serious sticking points in negotiations: Putin will not take up the question of Crimea, and Zelenskiy won’t discuss the status of Donetsk and Luhansk. And even if the two are willing to discuss a settlement on Donbass, their options are few: Either the Minsk agreements will be implemented, the military conflict will escalate, or it will reach a stalemate. It’s widely agreed that the Minsk agreements contain the only solution to the conflict, but the agreement grates on Ukrainian policy and is likely unpalatable for Russia, too.
It seems Ukraine is, in fact, girding itself for the military conflict to intensify. Ivan Aparshin, a Ukrainian presidential adviser, said the administration predicts an armed conflict with Russia in the near future. Ukraine has already accused Russia of building up its military presence on the border; Ukrainian intelligence reports say that Russia has 80,000 troops concentrated on the Russia-Ukraine border. And the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service says that Russia has nearly tripled its military presence in Crimea since it annexed the peninsula in 2014.
Russia doesn’t deny that it’s increasing its military capabilities as tensions to its west persist. NATO has a growing military presence in eastern Europe, and the U.S. has deployed missile defense systems in Poland and Romania. But Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu says Moscow is just taking the measures necessary to eliminate emerging threats and that it has no plans for military action. Fighting would only further isolate Russia and hurt its already slowing economy. Annexing Donbass be could be counterproductive too, since it would put more pressure on western Ukraine – and might even spur action from Ukraine’s neighbors such as Poland.
Another option that could be discussed at the next Normandy format meeting: a withdrawal of troops and complete cessation of the conflict. This could be beneficial for Ukraine: Zelenskiy’s key campaign promise was to find peace in Donbass, and it’s what Ukrainians expect of their new government. According to recent polling by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, 48.3 percent of Ukrainian citizens have a favorable opinion of giving autonomy to Donetsk and Luhansk. But considering such a decision could divide the new government, which will convene at the end of August. It’s unlikely that the required majority would be willing to vote in favor of granting special status to the two regions and launch the difficult process of amending the constitution.
The rest of Europe, including Poland, supports Ukraine’s initiatives for peace – and that position is not likely to change. A cease-fire in Ukraine could open the door for modestly strengthened ties between Russia and the EU. Macron might speak of a Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok, but there will still be limits on this alliance. Poland is afraid of rapprochement between Brussels and Moscow, which would undermine Warsaw’s position in the region. Poland is already at loggerheads with the EU over its constitutional courts and media censorship, and improved relations between the EU and Russia would likely only inflame those tensions.
Russia remains free of optimism, and it’s still unlikely to take any game-changing steps in the conflict with Ukraine. It may agree to a cease-fire, but conflict in Donbass or autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk destabilizes Ukraine – which is very much in Russia’s interest. Moscow may once have hoped that a cease-fire would prompt the EU to ease the pressure of sanctions, but Macron made it clear this week that EU has no intentions to lift sanctions, even if it does proceed with economic and cultural cooperation. Putin, then, has no incentive to alter the Kremlin’s foreign or domestic policy.
Despite some cautious optimism in Kyiv, it’s unlikely the Kremlin will make any concessions on eastern Ukraine, especially any concessions on Russia’s control over Donetsk and Luhansk. The parties’ positions remain much as they were several years ago, and there is little room for compromise. Each side may speak of a quick end to the war – but everyone knows there’s no quick end in sight.