Volker – Surkov: endless diplomacy

The chances of reaching a mutually acceptable compromise on the Donbas are still flimsy

As it was expected, another round of the Donbas negotiations between Kurt Volker, the US Special Representative for Ukraine, and the Russian president’s aide Vladimir Surkov, held on January 26 in Dubai, produced no results. The US representative characterized the talks as “open and constructive” but admitted that Surkov and he had failed to fix the date of the next meeting. Translated from the diplomatic into the common human language, this means that they did not manage to agree on anything.

Volker said he had conveyed to his Russian counterpart “a very strong sense of disappointment and frustration in Washington that Russia has done absolutely nothing to end the conflict, or to withdraw its forces.” It is unlikely that the US diplomat is so naive that he expected Moscow to make such a broad gesture after their previous meeting with Surkov in Belgrade, all the more so that Moscow still does not admit officially that any Russian troops are in the Donbas at all. In this case, Volker only wanted to reiterate that America is still seeking a complete withdrawal of Russian troops from the occupied territories.

The words of the US special representatives that the US side is demanding that Russian officers return to the Joint Center for Control and Coordination (JCCC) in the Donbas mirror the real American efforts aimed at making Russian representatives return to the JCCC. For their presence there is sort of a guarantee that there will be no unexpected escalation in the Donbas. For this to be done, Volker says, “Ukraine will have to fulfill the political part of the obligations prescribed by the Minsk agreements.” But, as no concrete demands were made to the Ukrainian side, and the Minsk agreements are a very loose concept, Washington does not seem to be going to seriously pressure Kyiv in this matter.

The US representative also repeated that the US favors the deployment of a UN mission on the whole territory of the Donbas, including the border with Russia, but he named no concrete dates for this project. What he said refutes Kremlin experts’ allegations that Volker agreed in Dubai that the UN mission should be at first deployed along the frontline, on which Russia insists. In reality, he said the contingent’s mandate should include not just defense of the special OSCE Monitoring Mission, as the Russian side suggests, but much broader powers to control the Donbas situation. Besides, the US representative insisted that the mission’s composition and strength was not discussed in Dubai. Clearly, there is no question so far of deploying peacekeepers in the Donbas.

And differences between the US and Russia over Ukraine’s Donbas reintegration law is of a purely propagandistic nature. Washington argues that it was adopted as a follow-up to the Minsk agreement, whereas Moscow claims that it totally runs counter to them. As a matter of fact, the reintegration law has nothing to do with reaching a US-Russia agreement on Donbas settlement. The White House wants the Russian troops to leave the Donbas and this region to regain, one way or another, the status of a part of Ukraine, which would lead to the settlement of the Donbas conflict. From the American viewpoint, the peacekeeping mission is a certain stage of the region’s gradual return to Ukraine, which, at the same time, allows the Kremlin to save face. However, the Kremlin is prepared to withdraw its troops from the Donbas only on condition that the pro-Russian authorities continue rule in Donetsk and Luhansk and can make a decisive impact on the foreign and domestic policies of Kyiv. But this pattern is unacceptable not only to Kyiv, but also to the US because such a serious domination of Russia in Ukraine would destroy the system of European security. This is why the Volker-Surkov negotiations produce no results.

The pro-Kremlin political scientists in Russia are trying to present the Dubai talks on the Donbas as Russia’s success because, you see, the US dropped “an exorbitant demand that the Donbas be immediately placed under control of the UN mission.” In reality, Washington had never spoken of the UN Donbas mission as a demand, especially an exorbitant one. It is only in the shape of an ultimatum that one can demand deploying an armed mission in one place or another. This implies that, in case the US demand is rejected, very tough measures can be taken, including the deployment of US troops in the Donbas. But the Americans are absolutely unprepared for this scenario now. They are only prepared to exert economic pressure on Russia in order to force it to pay an increasingly high price for aggression and finally leave the Donbas. The new US economic sanctions also serve this purpose.

It is beyond any doubt that Putin would like to achieve some kind of breakthrough in the Ukrainian question on the eve of the presidential elections – but on his conditions only. But, as he has failed to achieve a breakthrough and, as it is clear now, will not achieve one by March 18, Kremlin propagandists are trying to present the Dubai meeting of Volker and Surkov as at least a partial success of the Russian side whose firm position allegedly forced the Americans to ease the conditions of the Donbas settlement.

“By doing so, they want to convince voters of the everlasting wisdom of Putin’s foreign policy. For the next meeting of Surkov and Volker is very likely to take place after the elections in Russia. It is possible that the date of that meeting will directly depend on how harshly the police will be treating the followers of Navalny, who will be protesting against unfair elections. Trump would also like to settle the most acute conflict in Europe before a rather likely armed conflict on the Korean peninsula in order to improve relations with Russia. But he is clearly unprepared to do so at any price and at the expense of Ukraine. I think the chances of reaching a mutually acceptable compromise on the Donbas are still flimsy and will remain such as long as Putin stays in power.

Boris Sokolov is a Moscow-based professor