A Diplomatic Solution for Ukraine

"The urgent priority should be to end the fighting."

Ukrainian forces are gaining ground in the country's east, but Russia’s military interference shows no sign of slackening. This is a dangerous moment. Fortunately, diplomacy to alleviate the crisis is intensifying, but negotiation will need to be matched by firmness. It remains unclear whether a political settlement will be possible.

Despite uncertainty about Russian military plans and the outcome of Ukrainian military operations against the rebels in their remaining redoubts, it is not too soon to consider how to lay the foundations for a negotiated solution.

On Saturday, German chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Kyiv, and next Tuesday, European Commission leaders will meet in Minsk with Russian president Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. These contacts offer opportunities to assess whether the conflict can move from the battlefield to the negotiating table.

There have been a number of telephone calls between Russian, Ukrainian and Western leaders—over thirty between Merkel and Putin—but formal negotiations on defusing the crisis are stalled. On July 2, in Berlin, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine met and agreed to create a contact group comprising the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia and Ukraine. Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier gushed that the meeting yielded “a clear commitment to a multilateral ceasefire.” On August 17, at a second meeting of the ministers, he highlighted the ministers’ efforts to devise a “roadmap toward a sustainable cease-fire.” But Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said he saw no “positive results” to this end or progress on a “political process” for resolving the conflict.

In addition to a lack of good-faith participation by Russia, the negotiations have three structural weaknesses: the exclusion of key actors, the narrow scope of the talks and the illogic of pursuing a cease-fire. Talks ought to include the European Union, the United States and Canada. This would bring more leverage to bear in areas beyond the crisis, such as energy and economic assistance. It would also reduce pressure on Ukraine to accept a cease-fire in place, which would create a frozen conflict and permanent instability, as in Abkhazia, Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh. Ukraine has to be able to restore its territorial integrity.

Energy and access to international capital markets offer leverage to help attain a negotiated peace. Russia faces huge financial problems in maintaining and expanding energy production. Technology from the Western oil majors is vital to the exploitation of deep-water fields in the Arctic and to keeping old fields productive. In the wake of U.S. sanctions, Rosneft is now asking its government for over $40 billion in aid. A fourth challenge for Russia is obtaining financing for new production in the Arctic and construction of LNG export facilities. If Russia were to cut its gas shipments to Europe—a key income source—it could not come close to making up this revenue through other sales. If oil prices continue to fall, Russia will become even more eager to sustain European gas revenues.

In looking to negotiations to end the crisis in Ukraine, the West should first make clear what steps NATO and the EU will undertake to support Ukraine and, if required, how sanctions on Russia will be intensified if it is unwilling to reach a fair settlement. Without this clarity, Putin may be reluctant to accept that the endgame has begun. At the same time, the West ought to weigh Russian interests and sensitivities that it can accommodate if the Kremlin is willing to reach a settlement.

In pursuing a negotiated solution, the parties might consider several possible elements:

- Russia would pledge not to send arms or regular or irregular forces into Ukraine, and would immediately withdraw its arms and forces now deployed there. To help verify this commitment, OSCE observers should augment Ukrainian border guards in monitoring the Ukrainian-Russian border to detect any flows of personnel or arms. Western states should provide Ukraine with more technical support and information to help it monitor and control the border.

- Ukraine would accept an OSCE mission on its territory and agree to work with the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities. The OSCE could verify the preparation and conduct of free elections in eastern Ukraine, investigate suspected violations of human and minority rights, encourage negotiations on confidence-building measures, and undertake programs to strengthen the rule of law.