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Why Mediation Around Ukraine Keeps Failing

It’s not just about Moscow and Kyiv but the entire Russia-West relationship.

By , a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute.
Ukrainian soldiers use tanks, self-propelled guns, and other armored vehicles to conduct live-fire exercises in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian soldiers use tanks, self-propelled guns, and other armored vehicles to conduct live-fire exercises in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian soldiers use tanks, self-propelled guns, and other armored vehicles to conduct live-fire exercises near the town of Chuguev, in eastern Ukraine, on Feb. 10. Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

As military buildups continue by both Russian and NATO forces around Ukraine, European leaders have gone into diplomatic overdrive this week in an effort to mediate the Ukrainian standoff and avert war. French President Emmanuel Macron held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Feb. 7 before visiting Kyiv the next day to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz traveled across the Atlantic to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden and try to get on the same page as Washington.

Such mediation efforts are likely only to intensify in the coming days, with many observers circling Feb. 20 as a potential decision point for Russia. That date marks the end of Russian military drills with Belarus, the end of the Beijing Winter Olympics, and the anniversary of Moscow’s invasion of Crimea back in 2014.

And that last anniversary is a reminder that the Ukrainian conflict has endured for nearly eight years despite various efforts at international mediation. Why has peace proved so elusive and mediation largely failed? And does that offer any lessons, other than pessimism, for moving forward?

As military buildups continue by both Russian and NATO forces around Ukraine, European leaders have gone into diplomatic overdrive this week in an effort to mediate the Ukrainian standoff and avert war. French President Emmanuel Macron held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Feb. 7 before visiting Kyiv the next day to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz traveled across the Atlantic to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden and try to get on the same page as Washington.

Such mediation efforts are likely only to intensify in the coming days, with many observers circling Feb. 20 as a potential decision point for Russia. That date marks the end of Russian military drills with Belarus, the end of the Beijing Winter Olympics, and the anniversary of Moscow’s invasion of Crimea back in 2014.

And that last anniversary is a reminder that the Ukrainian conflict has endured for nearly eight years despite various efforts at international mediation. Why has peace proved so elusive and mediation largely failed? And does that offer any lessons, other than pessimism, for moving forward?

A useful starting point to answer these questions is the origin of the conflict in Ukraine, which did not begin in early 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and supported a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine. Rather, it started in November 2013 with the decision of then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to abruptly pull out of talks with the European Union over a free trade and association agreement and instead turn to closer integration with Russia. This move led to monthslong mass protests in Kyiv, which in turn led to the ouster of Yanukovych in February 2014 and his replacement with a pro-Western government in Ukraine, in what came to be known as the Euromaidan Revolution.

From the outset, Russia and the West had very different interpretations of these developments. The United States and EU viewed Euromaidan as a grassroots triumph of democracy over a corrupt and authoritarian government. Russia viewed Euromaidan as an illegal coup, one that was backed by the West—and especially the United States—in efforts to expand its influence eastward. Subsequently, the separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine was viewed by the United States and EU as Russia’s direct participation in the conflict as a belligerent, while Moscow painted this uprising in the same terms that the West used in Euromaidan: a grassroots rejection of a Ukrainian government that local citizens did not support and viewed as illegitimate. While there is no question that Russia supported and participated in the separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, Moscow’s view—however questionable—is that this was no different from Western support for the protests in Kyiv that led to the downfall of the Yanukovych government.

These different public interpretations between Russia and the West over the origins of the Ukrainian conflict have in turn clouded the mediation process to resolve the conflict from the beginning. After the initial months of fighting in the Donbass region, a negotiation format was established in June 2014 in the form of the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine, which consisted of three parties—Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as a mediator. In parallel to the Trilateral Contact Group, another negotiating format was created that same month in the form of the Normandy Four group. This format included Ukraine and Russia as parties, with Germany and France as mediators. While the Trilateral Contact Group focused primarily on tactical and security issues, the Normandy Four talks were more strategically focused and were intended to deal with the broader political issues pertaining to the conflict.

The biggest complicating factor in the mediation process for both the Trilateral Contact Group and the Normandy Four was around the role of Russia in the Ukrainian conflict. Unlike in Crimea, Russia did not conduct a formal military intervention in eastern Ukraine. Instead, Russia participated in the conflict in a hybrid capacity, covertly supplying the separatists with weaponry and deploying thousands of unmarked military and security personnel to bolster separatist forces.

This had important implications for the mediation process, as the roles of the various parties were not clearly defined or mutually accepted nor was the nature of the Ukraine conflict itself. According to Russia, the conflict in Ukraine was a civil war between the Ukrainian government and the separatists, and Moscow thus advocated for the direct participation of representatives of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic (the Russia-backed separatist statelets in Donbass) in the negotiations. According to Kyiv, whose position was supported by the United States and EU, the war was an international conflict between Ukraine and Russia, with the separatists serving as Russian proxies.

As such, Ukraine would not accept direct negotiations with the separatists, seeing their participation as an acknowledgement of their political legitimacy. Taking Ukraine’s position into account, the separatists were excluded as formal participants from the selection process for the Trilateral Contact Group and Normandy Four negotiations, which would impact both the culture and the process of the negotiations moving forward. As a result, Russia was seen as representing the separatists within the talks by both Ukraine and the mediators, while Moscow never formally acknowledged this role and insisted on recognizing the separatists as independent actors. In a de facto sense, Russia played both mediator and belligerent, using coercive diplomacy in the form of military and financial support of the separatists as a power mediator while also formally engaging as a participant in both negotiation formats.

Despite these ambiguities, negotiations led to an agreement to end the conflict, known as the Minsk Protocol, in September 2014. The Minsk Protocol was an ambitious peace agreement, consisting of 12 points of implementation spanning the security, economic, and political spectrums. This included an immediate bilateral cease-fire, the monitoring and verification of said cease-fire by the OSCE, the release of hostages, the decentralization of political power in Ukraine via the adoption of a law on self-governance for the separatist regions, and early elections in these regions in accordance with the same law.

However, the Minsk Protocol collapsed almost immediately, with neither side adhering to the very first point of upholding a cease-fire. A renewed mediation effort to end the conflict was made early the following year, this time with the formal inclusion of France and Germany as mediators alongside the OSCE within the Minsk process. This produced the Minsk II agreement, whose provisions were largely similar to those of Minsk I, though there were more specific details on aspects such as troop and weaponry withdrawal from the line of contact. The key difference of the agreement was the timing. By the time of Minsk II, the warring parties were exhausted by fighting, military positions had become more entrenched, and the exchange of territory had become less frequent. That created some opportunity for discussion—but nevertheless, the Minsk II protocols were also not implemented, and a cease-fire broke down soon after signing.

The failure of Minsk II—which remains the theoretical basis for a political settlement in Ukraine to this day—was significantly influenced by different interpretations of the sequencing of implementation. As with Minsk I, it was not clearly agreed on whether the political components of the agreement, which included the establishment of a special status for the rebel-controlled regions, preceded the security components, which included the removal of all foreign military personnel from the region, or vice versa. According to Ukraine and the West, Russia must be the first to offer security concessions, namely in the withdrawal of its military personnel and access to monitoring of its border, in order to move forward on the political components of Minsk II. Conversely, Russia and the separatist leadership have called for political concessions by Ukraine to be made first before any security components are implemented.

These different interpretations of the Ukrainian conflict—both of its origins and in the sequencing of how it can be resolved—underpin the current standoff between Moscow and the West over Ukraine. But they also point to something much deeper that drives this standoff, which is a clash in the worldviews of Russia and the West over the entire security architecture of Europe. The Kremlin has never been comfortable with the expansion of the EU, and especially of NATO, into former Soviet territories in the post-Cold War era, and Putin views the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine as merely another precursor to such an expansion, whether formal or de facto.

As Ukraine’s relationship with the West and with NATO has only increased in recent years, Putin has decided there is no more time to waste and is attempting to redefine the security architecture of Europe. Ukraine is crucial, yes, but it is just one part of the real negotiation process that Russia is trying to drive, which explains the comprehensive security demands that Moscow presented to the United States and NATO in late December 2021. That the Ukrainian crisis is about much more than Ukraine thus explains why mediation efforts have proved so difficult to produce any progress, much less breakthroughs. But this could also explain why Russia’s military buildups are not necessarily just for the sole purpose of invading Ukraine but rather to force the West to reframe its functional and institutional relationship with the entire post-Soviet space.

This seems to have worked to some degree, as Macron acknowledged following his latest talks with Putin that “the geopolitical objective of Russia today is clearly not Ukraine but to clarify the rules of cohabitation with NATO and the EU.” It will be difficult for negotiations over Ukraine to make real progress unless both sides acknowledge that such negotiations aren’t just about Ukraine but about the entire relationship between Russia and the West. Reframing the standoff could avoid its most dangerous outcome, as the stakes for both sides have never been higher.

Eugene Chausovsky is a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute. Chausovsky previously served as senior Eurasia analyst at the geopolitical analysis firm Stratfor for more than 10 years. His work focuses on political, economic, and security issues pertaining to Russia, Eurasia, and the Middle East.

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