Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is looking for a breakthrough to bring about the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Donbas in the east of the country, where more than 13,000 Ukrainian servicemen have been killed in the conflict in the last five years.
The Ukrainian president suggested that he was willing to send Nato troops home and said there could be elections in Donbas, as two olive branches ahead of the next so-called Normandy four talks (Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France) that is due to happen in the coming weeks.
"This meeting was planned to be held soon, and the three parties were ready for it," the minister said on TV. "The French president proposed doing this in Paris ... We wanted to do this on [September] 16th. Unfortunately, the Russian side was not able to arrive on that day. We are now actively looking for another date," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said on September 15.
While officially there are no foreign combatants fighting alongside Ukraine’s forces in Donbas against the Russian-back separatist forces, Nato, US and UK all have troops in Ukraine that are nominally there as trainers. Nato has also held extensive troop and aviation exercises with Ukraine this year and Nato officially opened an office in Kyiv last year. However, there is no formal plan for Ukraine to join Nato or its Membership Action Plan (MAP), the first stage of acceding to the military alliance – something that Russia sees as a red line.
Zelenskiy's comments on elections in Donbas have also unsettled Ukrainian nationalists and other EU members that live close to the Russian border, many of which walked out of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in June when Russia was readmitted.
However, Zelenskiy cleared the air over the weekend saying on social media that there would be no elections in Donbas before Russia had withdrawn its troops from the region and that free and fair elections had to be held under Ukrainian law.
"I'll be able to comment on the possibility of the elections in the occupied territories only after we in the Normandy format agree [on holding the elections], because this is part of the Minsk agreements. Therefore, it's too early to talk about this now – you and me can only exchange theories," Zelenskiy said at a joint press conference with his Estonian counterpart Kersti Kaljulaid in Kyiv on September 13. "I think that every Ukrainian knows that Donbas is Ukraine and local elections should take place there, but they should be held under Ukrainian laws. I cannot discuss all the other details and conditions with you now," he added.
Prystaiko also ruled out any changes to the constitution regarding the special status of the Donbas, reported Ukrainian National News (UNN).
"It is recorded in the Minsk agreements that the reform of Ukrainian legislation should take place. Constitutional reform, which is based on decentralisation, will be carried out. We do not make any additional changes to the constitution. We continue our path of constitutional reform, which we carry out ourselves. The foundation of these changes is decentralisation, which has been successfully carried out in Ukraine for many years," said Prystaiko.
One of the possible outcomes of the upcoming talks is to adopt the so-called Steinmeier formula, following former German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who suggested breaking the Minsk II agreements that govern the peace process into bite-sized pieces where each step forward will be met with the withdrawal of a specific sanction.
After the Russian side said they were unavailable to meet on September 16, diplomats are now searching for another date. French President Emmanuel Macron offered to host the meeting in Paris, but a final decision has yet to be made.
As bne IntelliNews was the first to report, clear signs of a thaw appeared earlier this month after Macron started to talk about cooperating with Russia and building a common market from “Lisbon to Vladivostok”, Russian President Vladimir Putin's long-term foreign policy goal and a phrase western leaders typically use when they are trying to warm Russia up ahead of talks. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also used the phrase on several occasions.
Since then the French rhetoric has gone up a notch with Macron later saying that “Europe without Russia’s participation is inconceivable.” Shortly after these comments Russia and Ukraine swapped 35 prisoners each in the first such exchange in five years, gifting a PR coup to Zelenskiy, although 22 of the 35 prisoners Ukraine sent back to Russia were actually Ukrainians and included Volodymyr Tsemakh, a key suspect in the downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. The Dutch authorities have already issued an extradition request to Russia to have Tsemakh returned to them.
Several factors are going into the soup of rapprochement. Now that Zelenskiy is confirmed as president and fully in control of the Verkhovna Rada he has the power to make tough compromises if needed. Zelenskiy made ending the conflict in Donbas a top priority, and bringing peace tops the polls as the most widely sought after desire of voters who swept Zelenskiy and his party into power earlier this year.
"First of all, our president is interested in security-related issues: how to make shelling in Donbas stop, how to disengage troops, how to create conditions for peace. How to extend the [first] three sections [designated for disengagement – the towns of Stanytsia Luhanska, Zolote and Petrovske] to the entire 400 kilometres and make the [Russia-led] troops pull back. And to also try to create conditions for further efforts to succeed," Prystaiko said as cited by UNIAN.
Both Merkel and Macron have made ending the conflict in Ukraine one of their key European foreign policy goals and have seized the new opportunity to revitalise the process. And time is running out. Zelenskiy is currently enjoying a honeymoon period where he can make tough decisions. At the same time Merkel is reported to be suffering from an unspecified nervous disorder that makes her shake in public and has already said that she will step down after four terms in office in the next two years. Macron has been following a greater Europe agenda and clearly want to break the back of the Ukraine issue while Merkel is still available.
In addition to his strong comments concerning improving relations with Russia, he also hosted Putin in France last month, attended the flagship St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) and has agreed to attend a war memorial in Russia whereas European leaders have boycotted such events in the last few years.