Minsk Invitations

Political analyst Denis Denisov on U.S. activity in Ukraine.

U.S. activity in Ukraine and Donbass is attracting increased attention. However, one shouldn’t conclude that the U.S. has somehow changed its position on the issues. Rather, the U.S. is changing its approach, and it has to do with the State Department officials in charge of dealing with the matter.

After the videoconference between the presidents of Russia and the United States, which focused on Ukraine and Donbass, officials announced that the countries would appoint special representatives to conduct more substantive and in-depth meetings intended to form the basis for new discussions between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden in 2022.

The effort will extend to visits by Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried to Kyiv, Moscow and Brussels. As already announced, Donfried will hold talks with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration Dmitry Kozak in Moscow.

The talks are expected to focus on the situation around Ukraine, settlement of the conflict in Donbass and the problem of NATO expansion to the east.

We should certainly not expect any breakthroughs or sensational outcomes from the new talks, since the positions of the two sides have not changed strategically as confirmed by communications among the heads of state. No one should be misled by American rhetoric regarding the comprehensive implementation of the Minsk agreements with the support of the Normandy Format talks.* The fact is that the U.S. considers the Minsk agreements to be a form of pressure on Russia that focuses on terms that suit its plan to resolve the conflict and, in fact, imposes new conditions to contain Moscow. As it stands, the U.S. has never spoken about the crucial issue of changing Ukraine’s constitution to consider the specifics of certain regions in Donetsk and Luhansk, nor consulted with representatives from these regions. This point is the cornerstone for comprehensively implementing the Minsk agreements.

The situation is similar within the Normandy Format talks. Is the State Department talking about the need to fulfill the agreements reached at the last leadership summit in December 2019? Naturally, it’s not, since the key for them is not a specific result that would end the conflict, but rather restoring dialogue in which NATO allies support Ukraine and exert pressure on Russia. And given the completed political transition in Germany and the beginning of the presidential campaign in France, such an outcome is inevitable.

After Moscow, Donfried will go to Kyiv, where Andriy Yermak, head of the presidential administration, will be her main interlocutor. We have every reason to believe she will have a tough and firm conversation, designed to unequivocally compare the Ukrainian position on the conflict with the position of the State Department.

As you recall, since the coup d’etat in Ukraine and the beginning of the conflict in Donbass, there have been several negotiation formats between the United States and Russia that one can hardly recognize as having been successful or effective. During Donald Trump’s presidency, bilateral talks between the United States and Russia on Ukraine and Donbass were effectively frozen, but with the arrival of Biden and other political leaders involved with Ukraine under Barack Obama, the older approaches and former means of dialogue are returning. We should not forget that Victoria Nuland, who is well versed in how the Donbass conflict and the situation in Ukraine began, was appointed undersecretary of state. In many ways, this is a problem, since such officials have already repeatedly demonstrated their professional expertise in containing Russia.

For a more accurate and meaningful understanding of the current U.S. approach and strategy regarding Ukraine, one can look to the situation in the spring of 2014, when the State Department’s main goal was to legitimize the Ukrainian politicians who came to power through a coup. And we must honestly say they succeeded. At a meeting in Switzerland in April 2014, Russia, the U.S., the EU and Ukraine signed the Joint Geneva Statement on Ukraine, although Russia did not recognize the new Ukrainian government at the time. At the same time, representatives of Donbass were excluded from the summit. Consequently, only one side of the conflict was legitimized, namely the Kyiv regime. A month later, presidential elections were held in Ukraine, and Russia recognized Petro Poroshenko as the legitimate president of Ukraine. The problem of the legitimacy of the Kyiv regime was essentially eliminated. At the same time, nothing similar took place with respect to the established Donbass republic.

It should be recognized that U.S. diplomacy was effective in 2014, but in remembering the lessons of seven years ago, there should not be any new mistakes at the moment. We must pay tribute to Russia’s consistently tough stance on the implementation of the Minsk agreements. In order to achieve long-term peace in Donbass, it is necessary to take such a position.

*Editor’s Note: The Normandy Format refers to talks that involve representatives of four countries — Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France — who met informally during the 2014 D-Day celebration in Normandy, and who aim to resolve the war in Donbass.

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