The 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy seems to have given a green light to ending the Ukrainian crisis, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko, left, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, middle, meet at the Benouville Castle. Photo: AP
On June 6 in France, the world leaders celebrated the 70th anniversary of the allied landings in Normandy. The importance and significance of this meeting is difficult to overestimate, as apart from remembering and honoring one of the key events in the fight against Nazi Germany, the meeting gave the world some signals about what might happen next in the confrontation in Eastern Ukraine.
At first glance, the conflict really involves just two nations – Russia and Ukraine. However, de facto, this is a confrontation between the Western world and Moscow and that means that resolving the conflict may be more difficult than first thought.
Putin and Poroshenko: 15 minutes to find common ground
It is obvious that the meeting in France allowed the interested parties to exchange certain signals and views on the situation. Moreover, it contributed to finding solutions to specific tasks facing Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Western counterparts.
For Putin, the meeting in Normandy provided, at least for a short time, the opportunity to escape the stigma of international isolation. Despite the fact that Mr. Putin’s presence clearly did not cause delight among most European leaders – which was reflected in such seemingly small things as their unwillingness to sit next to him at the table – the very fact that on this day the Western world and Russia were recalling how fighting together they achieved victory over Nazism, cannot but give a positive impetus to relations.
Of course, the most important issue, which was decided on June 6 in Normandy, was to gauge the degree of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. At the practical level, broaching this issue was made possible by a meeting, which all the same took place, between Putin and the newly elected president of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko.
The third, but certainly not superfluous, party to the conversation was the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while the very meeting was organized with the mediation of French President Francois Hollande. The meeting lasted only fifteen minutes, but it was enough to catch some of the emotional fluctuations and determine possible directions of further dialogue.
The presidents of Russia and Ukraine both spoke of being in favor of ending the bloodshed and expressed their hopes to resolve the conflict by diplomatic means, and as the journalists noted, they shook hands.
On the one hand, it is obvious that something like this had been expected. It would be strange if, at such a high level, leaders of the two countries would suddenly begin talking about their intentions to continue the violence. Nevertheless, here we have some fully understandable nuances.
Words spoken about intentions to end the shooting, of course, do not mean that the fighting will stop right away, but the messages of being open to dialogue were nevertheless given. At this stage, this is a very important point, which may seem trivial, but nevertheless brings clarity and specifically declares that the parties do not wish to fight a shooting war, and a reason to return to dialogue exists.
Why the destabilization of Eastern Ukraine is likely to continue
At the same time, the same statement made by Poroshenko and Putin about their desire for a ceasefire, sounded different coming from the mouth of each man.
For Poroshenko, who just became Ukraine’s president, it is indeed important to end the conflict as quickly as possible, and finally to bring the country out of a deep crisis. He needs to meet the expectations of his citizens, to show that with him at the helm, Ukraine will receive the needed push towards development.
Moreover, what is happening in the east only exacerbates the position of the government and the new president personally. That said, Poroshenko must not only end the conflict as soon as possible, but also preserve the integrity of his country.
At the same time, for Putin the conflict in Eastern Ukraine might be a continuation of the Crimean campaign, but using other methods, not open and clear intervention by regular armed forces.
In this case, there is no need to build illusions about the innocence of Moscow as to the events taking place in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Putin himself has, after all, acknowledged that Russia has a certain influence on the pro-autonomy fighters operating in Ukraine. In fact, according to the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Putin stated this in a conversation with Mr. Hollande.
Moreover, the financing of this operation, as the Ukrainian security services have ascertained, is being carried out in significant amounts from the funds of Viktor Yanukovych, who escaped to Russia, and his entourage, as well as other non-governmental sources (in particular, there is unconfirmed information about the involvement in the unrest in Eastern Ukraine of Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev).
Moreover, the global geopolitical goal of Russia in the Ukrainian conflict is to stop NATO from expanding to the east, which Putin has repeated many times.
Therefore, as long as the conflict continues, Ukraine will be suffering real financial and economic losses, while Russia, by and large, will suffer only politically. In the future, Russia may suffer from the effect of economic sanctions, but they do not yet have catastrophic character for Russia, at least in the short term.
To achieve its above-stated geopolitical goal, Moscow might seek to continue to destabilize the situation in the eastern regions of Ukraine. However, there is a caveat here. The sharper the conflict becomes in the east, the more reasons Kiev will have to get closer to NATO.
Will Moscow and Kiev come up with a compromise?
At the same time, Poroshenko during his election campaign, made it clear that Ukraine’s joining of NATO at this stage was inappropriate. So that might just prove to be the key to arriving at a compromise.
If Putin and Poroshenko succeed in agreeing, even in an unofficial format, that Ukraine will not join NATO, it is likely that the conflict in the east will tone down, because it was this very issue – the expansion of NATO eastward – that is seen as the main reason for Russia’s current controversial policy towards Ukraine.
There are a number of other reasons as well, including economic and social issues. Here arose the question of the development of gas deposits in Ukraine (most of them located in the east of the country), and the problem of a rupture of relations between the two countries in military-technical cooperation.
The language problem, which was artificially created and inflated by the Party of Regions (PR) and used as the main driving force for the popularity of the PR, also remains on the agenda.
It is a positive sign that the new president of Ukraine seems to be well aware of all these issues and problems. His statements about NATO, as well as his determination to work on the decentralization of power, the settling of relations between the center and the regions, and finding an approach to solve the language “problem” (during his inauguration, Poroshenko when referring to residents of the eastern regions deliberately switched to Russian) are promising steps towards creating a dialogue between Ukraine’s new president and the Russian Federation.
Thus, we can say that the fact that Poroshenko and Putin, in spite of everything, talked personally and openly, showing that they can negotiate. In addition, the very rational position of Poroshenko on key issues of concern to Russia, and the fact that Russian Ambassador Mikhail Zurabov was invited to the inauguration of Poroshenko, gives hope that pure diplomacy will be used in resolving the conflict, and not its distorted form, as happens under wartime conditions.
However, a rapid restoration of relations will not happen, but without steps in the diplomatic field, no progress can be achieved. Differences between the parties will remain.
Although the president-elect has made it clear that the Crimean issue would be resolved, so-called “terrorist” groups operating in the east of Ukraine would be destroyed, and the guilty perpetrators during Kiev events of November and February would be prosecuted according to the law, there is a high probability that, subject to reaching an agreement between Moscow and Kiev on key issues for both sides (NATO, military-industrial complex, and gas), these differences will no longer play such an important role and the conflict for a certain time will tone down. That means that the lessons learned over 70 years may be absorbed.