The negotiations in Berlin, despite the low expectations and seemingly modest results, were very important. The “Normandy format” proved its viability as an important platform for high-level discussions involving Russia.

Normandy format talks in Berlin, Oct. 19, 2016. Photo: Kremlin

A meeting between the leaders of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia in the so-called “Normandy format” took place in Berlin. Even before the talks, all participants said they did not expect to achieve a breakthrough in the German capital. This is not surprising, given the profound differences in each country’s understanding of what is happening in Ukraine.

Shortly before the talks, the authoritative newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published its study based on OSCE daily reports concerning the situation in the Donbas. According to the survey, in the period from Sept. 22 (immediately after the signing of the Framework Decision on Disengagement of Forces and Hardware under the mediation of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier) to Oct. 14, Ukrainian troops violated the truce 1,030 times, while the pro-Russia militias only violated it 79 times.

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These statistics clearly show that the Ukrainian army is ready to go on the offensive. The reasons for Kiev to violate the agreement are abundant.

First, Ukraine is taking advantage of the alleged contradictions in the ranks of the militia leaders. It is making every effort to move the front line deeper into the territory of the Donbas and prevent the possible loss of territory in the area of ​​Mariupol.

Second, the continued fighting allows Kiev to postpone the implementation of the political part of the Minsk agreements, particularly after the so-called primaries in the southeastern regions of Ukraine on Oct. 2.

However, Western leaders persuaded Poroshenko to arrive for the talks in Berlin. Obviously, the West increasingly understands that Kiev bears much of the responsibility for what is happening in Donbas.

Despite some skepticism about a new round of negotiations in the “Normandy format,” the four leaders managed to agree on two important points, even if no written documents were adopted. First, an agreement was reached to work out a specific roadmap based on the Minsk agreements by the end of November. It is no secret that differences over what points of the agreement must be realized in the first place have become a major obstacle to the implementation of the Minsk agreements.

Russia insists on simultaneously implementing both the “political” and “military” provisions, while Ukraine demands that the control of the border between Russia and the Donbas should be handed over to the Ukrainian customs service first. Only after that, Poroshenko will seriously consider an option of holding local elections in the region as well as passing a law on the special status of the southeastern regions of Ukraine.

Another important achievement of the negotiations in Berlin was an agreement to expand the role of the OSCE mission in the peaceful settlement of the crisis. However, the press conferences of the leaders after the talks made it clear that the parties viewed this role differently. Ukraine still hopes to station an armed OSCE police mission, which, in Ukraine’s view, would monitor the local elections and the Russian-Ukrainian border.

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Yet, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted in his speech that only the extension of the OSCE mission in the area of ​​disengagement and storage of heavy arms was meant. Interestingly, the OSCE itself is hardly interested in establishing a mission as per the Ukrainian model. Such a scenario would become a breeding ground for provocations, with the aim of transforming the conflict in the Donbas region into a major international conflict.

Anyway, Germany, which is currently chairing the OSCE, is likely to raise the question of the extension of responsibility of the observer mission on the front line. This extension will increase transparency and reduce the likelihood of further provocations. It will be harder for the Ukrainian army as well as the militia to put the blame for violating the truce on each other, and the West will be able to form a more objective vision of the crisis in the Donbas.

Syria crisis

After Poroshenko left the Federal Chancellery, the leaders of Russia, France and Germany discussed the situation in Syria and, particularly, the situation in besieged Aleppo. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in her characteristic manner, harshly criticized the actions of the Russian Air Force in Syria and claimed that Russia should influence Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The concerns of Western leaders are clear, as Aleppo is experiencing a grave humanitarian crisis, with civilians being killed.

Russia, in turn, expressed its willingness to extend the truce, but again stressed the need to ensure the separation between the terrorists and the forces of the moderate opposition. Unfortunately, the West clearly shows no interest in this, even during the meeting in Berlin.

Ahead of the upcoming EU summit, Angela Merkel also noted that one could not rule out sanctions against Russia in connection with the Syrian crisis, but acknowledged that at the moment it was not a priority. For sure, she is well aware that the sanctions do not produce the desired effect and, in fact, are detrimental to the German economy.

It is noteworthy that shortly before, Social Democrat Gernot Erler, the representative of the German government, who is in charge of relations with Russia, had stated that he regarded the introduction of new sanctions against Russia as counterproductive. Erler’s statement once again proves that there is no unity as regards the policy towards Russia in Germany’s ruling coalition.

The meeting in Berlin will bring political dividends to the German Chancellor. Her political opponents and potential rivals in the upcoming elections to the Bundestag, the Left, demand from Merkel that she renounces her confrontational course towards Moscow and embrace a more peaceful policy that is typical for post-war Germany. In addition, amidst the refugee crisis, it is important for Merkel to show that she is taking steps to resolve the armed conflicts in Europe and the Middle East.

To sum up, the negotiations in Berlin, despite the low expectations and seemingly modest results, were very important. The “Normandy format” proved its viability, as the leaders demonstrated that they are closely monitoring the situation and are ready to modify the peace plan, based on the Minsk agreements, with a view to the new changing circumstances.

At first glance, the decisions to work out a road map on the basis of the Minsk agreements and to extend the OSCE observer mission are of secondary importance, yet they can have significant added value. Now, it is necessary to hope that the leaders’ verbal agreements will soon be put into practice. As Merkel commented on the negotiation process, "There is a thick board, and we need to drill a hole in it." It would, however, be even better if then a nail were hammered in that hole. Just to be on the safe side.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.