Three years have passed since the start of Ukrainian-Russian talks in the Normandy format. They began in 2014 after the start of Russian agression, with the first meeting of Ukrainian and Russian presidents, Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin, along with German and French leaders. Then followed the Minsk I and Minsk II agreements, which appear to have reached a stalemate.
What does the future hold for the Minsk agreement? In which direction should the Normandy Four move in order to break the stalemate? What political issues have to be solved? Hromadske spoke to German Ambassador to Ukraine Ernst Reichel to clarify the status of the Minsk agreements and what they mean for the future of Ukraine.
It's been two years since the signing of the Minsk II Agreement in February 2015 and the direction that talks in the Normandy format are taking remains unclear.
Last month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to the participants, including Ukrainian President Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin. She also met with newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron.
According to German Ambassador to Ukraine, Ernst Reichel, the difference in position between Moscow and Kyiv is "the million dollar question." Nevertheless, he insisted that the participants are working towards a common goal.
He also emphasized that proceeding with the Normandy format is the right thing to do. "Part of the value of this process is that we have a written basis for discussion and that there is a discussion," he said. "Imagine a situation where we did not have a basis of agreed principles, where we did not have a formats to discuss."
Amabassador Reichel underscored that both Germany and France clearly coincide with the Ukrainian position. "We need to improve the security situation. We need to have a sustained ceasefire," he told Hromadske.
The Minsk Agreement is made up of two packages: one of security-related issues and the other of political issues. Security remains of the utmost importance. "There is the abstract level of maintaining cease fire," the Ambassador explained. "Then we have the disengagement of heavy weapons. Then we have the issue of disengagement zones, in particular where people cross the line of contact."
Where and how to implement the disengagement zones remains to be established. This would also require the clearing of mines and allowing Special Monitoring Missions access to all territories in their mandate. Provisions for transitional administration for the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics does not feature in the Minsk Agreement, which is focused on the withdrawal of foreign troops, border control and assisting local elections.
When asked about the idea of a peacekeeping mission, Ambassador Reichel once again emphasized that this would require a real ceasefire.
While the participants in the Normandy format are open to new ideas, the Ambassador claimed the number of fresh but also realistic ideas is limited. "I can only encourage everybody in Ukraine's politics to think in practical and realistic terms," he said.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged the difficulties Ukraine is facing. "That the situation is unfair is out of the question. Of course Ukraine is the side that is suffering from this protracted conflict," he said. However, he also emphasized that the Minsk Agreements will require compromise on Ukraine's part. Despite frustrations with the Minsk Agreement process, the Ambassador insisted that the agreements have had positive effects and that scrapping the agreement is not the answer:
"I would argue that Minsk being in existence and there being an international discussion in existence has at least reduced the level of suffering to a certain degree," Ambassador Reichel said. "Everybody who wants to scrap Minsk or pass a law in parliament that draws red lines and makes agreement on the basis of Minsk impossible or very difficult have to think what effect that will have. Perfect is often the enemy of good. And I would argue that Minsk is not perfect but it is pretty good, if one gets it implemented."
We would like to clarify where we are going with the Russian, Ukrainian, Germany talks in the Normandy format. What will happen next? Because, I think, there is a level of fatigue in the general public and there is less understanding now. We know what German Chancellor Merkel thinks. Last month, she had the chance to talk to most of the participants, to President Poroshenko, to President Putin. She met the French President. So really, what’s new? How does Berlin see the difference in the positions of Moscow and Kyiv? Where do things differ?
Well, you know what you are asking is the million dollar question. We all have, I think we have, a goal in common, but the way to reach this goal is not clear because it is quite apparent by now, say after three years, that there are very divergent opinions on what the actual, how to achieve the goal, and what the content, and kind of, the details of the agreement that exist are. This is in a permanent process and part of the value of the process is that we at all have a basis, a written basis for the discussion, and that there is discussion. Imagine a situation where we did not have a basis of agreed principles and where we did not have formats to discuss.
It is not worthless to reiterate what the basis is, because we of course know that this basis is under controversial discussion, in particular here. But as for what is required next, our position and the French position is very clear and it coincides with the Ukrainian position for that matter. It is that, first of all, we need to improve the security situation. We need to have a sustained ceasefire.
What, for instance, are the demands of the Russian side? Besides the security, which is very clear.
Broadly speaking, we have two packages of the Minsk Agreement : the security-related issues and the political issues. The main debate is about which elements of which package come at what time.
As for instance, beside the security, there are issues about who should control the borders? When are the elections? But these are discussions which have been ongoing for the last two years. So really, what I want to discuss now is what are the issues raised?
Alright, for instance, if we speak about security, there is the abstract level of maintaining ceasefire. Then we have the disengagement of, the moving away of, heavy weapons. Then we have the issue of disengagement zones, that is the idea and it would be very good if there could be disengagement zones, in particular where people cross the line of contact. Where to have them? And how to implement them? One big issue regarding these disengagement zones is the clearing of mines, for instance. Then we have another set of issues that have to do with SMM and the access of SMM to all parts which lie in its mandate, all of Ukraine, their security.
What do we more or less know from the recent Normandy meeting? Of course, not about with leaders themselves, but there were talks about the existence of a kind of roadmap, so is there an agreed roadmap which could be applicable?
No, we don’t have an agreed roadmap. There is a draft, but there is a lot of disagreement on the content of the roadmap.
If we look at the larger issue, at any level in the process, we are not speaking specifically about Minsk, are we talking about the temporary administration which should be in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic, and the possibility that they would be run by the personalities which would be agreed by the Ukrainians and the Russians? Is temporary administration a part of the solution for any conflict?
Temporary administration is not a main feature of the Minsk Agreement. The Minsk Agreement contains provisions about the withdrawal of foreign troops, control over the border, local elections which are suppose to take place. But transitional administration is really not a main feature of this.
I think it makes good to concentrate on the matters that are in principle agreed and how to implement them. And if you introduce new elements into the discussion the effect is likely to be that there is additional disagreement over these things.
How do you see this idea about the parallel tracks? We knew and there is no secret that there was a parallel track with the US Under Secretary Victoria Nuland and Vladislav Surkov. They were meeting and we know that there is no person now who is appointed to this role in the US. But there will be such a person, so how do you see these parallel tracks? How does Germany see them? What can we hope for?
Generally speaking parallel tracks in negotiations are a bad idea because they get exploited by the one or other side, to play the interlocutors against each other. So if we have, on the other hand, parallel discussions, everybody discusses with everybody in international diplomacy. And so what is key is that there is close agreement and close coordination between, in this particular case, the United States and Germany and France in the Normandy Format. And we are very closely discussing and cooperating. We had been during the previous US administration and we are also speaking intensively with the new US administration.
Will we see the US becoming involved in the Normandy format?
I think at this point there are no indications that the United States want to become a full participant in the Normandy Format. Imagine that would mean that if there’s a top-level meeting, we would need the presence of President Trump. President Trump has a lot of things that he needs to take care of and wants to take care of. It’s not quite clear whether by including President Trump we create an obstacle for more frequent meetings at the top-level. This is one of the issues that needs to be careful considered and which may lead to the Americans, still at this point in time under the new administration, say they are comfortable with the way things are set up today.
It’s no secret that for Russian President Putin, and it’s not just with talks, that for Russian, the US is more or less the key guarantee for reaching an agreement. The Russians always want to talk to the US.
I guess you’re right, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they would want the United States in the Normandy Format.
Coming back to the very concrete things which are in Minsk, can we speak about any kind of time framework for when we can expect any kind of elections in Donbas? When we started, and I remember very well, we had this discussion that they should take place by the end of 2015.
Unfortunately not, no. You are right in pointing out that the timelines have expired. I think experience shows we were right not to set new time limits because, in particular, the Ukrainian side keeps pointing out, rightly, that today we don’t have any kind of prerequisites in place for elections.
President Poroshenko has mentioned, and it wasn’t just him, the idea of a peacekeeping mission.
Any kind of initiative to make even the civilian mission more robust meets obstacles. A peacekeeping mission, for instance by the United Nations is of a different quality. One prerequisite which they have in common, the civilian and so, that is also a peacekeeping mission of the United Nations required a real ceasefire which works and the agreement of all of those who can put this peacekeeping mission in danger.
If you speak of the peacekeeping mission as a way, it becomes too complex, maybe you can come back to any other creative ideas on the transitional administration, or anything just to see clearly that there would be some guarantees of security.
I think that as far as Germany and France are concerned we would be happy to consider any original, and at the same time realistic idea. Only, you and I, I think we agree, that for three years we have been running into obstacles. I think we have the kind of amount of fresh ideas that may still be around and be at the same time be realistic is fairly limited.
Is the Ukrainian government coming up with some fresh and new ideas?
Yes, there are fresh ideas but them being fresh is not sufficient. They also have to be realistic or one needs to see a chance to put them into action.
There is some kind of sentiment in [Ukrainian] society that the West is supporting Ukraine but it is tired and tired of this conflict. There is the idea that this war should be over and there should be trade with Russia again, and that Ukraine will be more or less forced to make concessions. How would you explain this to the Ukrainian population? Why should the population accept that if they think that it’s unfair that Ukrainians make concessions?
That the situation is unfair is out of the question. Of course Ukraine is the side that is suffering from this protracted conflict. This is why we are making a diplomatic and very intensive diplomatic effort to find a solution. This is why Chancellor Merkel and the former French President, as well as the new French President, are eager to engage personally in the search for a solution. On top of that we have imposed sanctions on Russia that sees to it that Russia pays a price for the ongoing conflict. If one looks at it fairly there is really a lot of effort going on from the West. But that of course does not offer a guarantee that there will be a quick solution the way Ukraine wants it. The second point is yes, the Minsk Agreements are not one hundred percent the Ukrainian position. They lead to an end result which is the restoration of international law, but there are political provisions that are not to the liking of everyone here in this country, I know. These provisions are the price which Ukraine pays for the restoration of international law. Because it is not realistic to expect that we wake up one morning and Russia, or the separatists, have decided that they will leave and everything will be as before.
I can only encourage everybody in Ukraine's politics to think in practical and realistic terms. Imagine a situation without Minsk. Let’s remember 90% of the civil conflict date from before the Minsk package. You can be annoyed and frustrated about the lack of further implementation of the steps in the Minsk program, but one effect I would argue of Minsk being in existence and there being an international discussion in existence is that it has at least reduced the level of suffering to a certain degree. I am not saying there is no suffering or that it’s not really bad, but it is less terrible than it used to be in 2014. Everybody who wants to scrap Minsk or pass a law in parliament that draws red lines and makes agreement on the basis of Minsk impossible or very difficult have to think what effect that will have. And I would argue that Minsk is not perfect but it is pretty good, if one gets it implemented.
There is this new dynamic with the new French President Macron. He is pretty clear in his relations with Vladimir Putin. We are following the news, there is a new dynamic. He is more pro-active than the previous President Hollande. How do you see this influencing Russian-Ukrainian talks?
I think we also has to be fair to President Hollande, he was also very pro-active and he has done quite a lot. We are very happy that we have President Macron, in particular in light of what the alternative would have been. We will have to see whether this new person at the table leads to a new dynamic, that we don’t know.
/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk
/Text by Eilish Hart & Chen Ou Yang