Russian President Vladimir Putin met with European leaders and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko Friday to discuss further steps in de-escalating the conflict in Ukraine. The takeaway? The Minsk process, which was to see Ukraine get back control over its eastern border with Russia, will not complete by the end of the year. Part of the problem is that local elections in the breakaway so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics will not take take place this month, as initially envisioned. Reuters:
“On the election issue … it will take longer. We don’t want elections to get held in eastern Ukrainian territories under conditions that would not respect Minsk,” said Hollande, speaking after hosting talks with the Russian, Ukrainian and German leaders.
“It’s therefore likely, even certain now, that — since we need three months to organize elections — we would go beyond the date that was set for the end of Minsk, that is to say Dec.31, 2015,” he told a news conference.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the news conference: “The result (of Friday’s meetings) is that the Russian president committed to working towards … establishing the conditions that would allow elections to take place according to Minsk, based on Ukrainian law, in a coordinated fashion between the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk and the Ukrainian government.”
A ceasefire, which has been more-or-less held since September 1, got another boost earlier this week when both Ukrainian government forces and separatist leaders agreed to pull back all heavy weapons, including tanks and mortars, from the front line. “This could mean the end of the war,” Denis Pushilin, the head of the parliament in the breakaway Donbas People’s Republic, said earlier this week.
But suspicions remain high that this might be more of a tactical pause for Putin rather than an attempt at permanent de-escalation. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said ahead of the meeting that it’s still “all about the Russians turning up or turning down the temperature…creating instability and using this in a bid for trade-offs, concessions.” Poroshenko, leaving the summit, echoed these sentiments. Poroshenko was less sanguine, but nevertheless cautiously optimistic. “This means that there is a truce. The war will be over when the last piece of Ukrainian land is liberated. As long as we have occupied territories, the war is not over,” he said. In a sign that this read might well be correct, OSCE monitors for the first time on Thursday saw an advanced mobile Russian rocket system armed with thermobaric warheads, powerful enough to level a city block, deployed in the breakaway regions.
Still, these early reports indicate that Russia may have convinced some Europeans it is serious about peace. The question is how many and by how much. The sanctions, which have taken their toll on the Russian economy, are due to be reviewed once again by European leaders by the end of the year. Putin doesn’t need to convince every European nation to break ranks for the regime to collapse. And as the fracas over migrant quotas showed, smaller countries no longer feel bound to toe the majority consensus line on hot-button European issues. If Putin plays his cards right, the Russian economy could get a much-needed boost early in 2016.