It's off to Minsk we go

Photographer: Sasha Mordovets

Ukraine Peace Talks Could Be the Real Deal

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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At the time I'm writing this, it's still not entirely clear whether there will be a meeting in Minsk on Wednesday to hammer out a peace deal for Ukraine. But, unlike last Friday, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande flew to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, I believe a deal may be close. The frantic military activity in eastern Ukraine may actually be evidence of that.

Yesterday, Semen Semenchenko, a Ukrainian legislator and field commander, wrote on Facebook that pro-Russian rebels had cut off the road between the railroad junction of Debaltseve and the Ukrainian-controlled town of Artemivsk. "Strategists, damn it!" he fumed at Ukrainian military commanders. The news meant that several thousand Ukrainian troops were effectively trapped near Debaltseve, creating the potential for a major Ukrainian defeat. The Ukrainian military has since announced that the road has been unblocked, but Semenchenko, whose troops are fighting in the area, was adamant: the separatists still controlled, and had mined, the Debalseve-Artemivsk road. He called the defense ministry spokesmen "fairy tale writers in shoulder straps."

At the same time, Ukraine's Azov volunteer regiment -- a unit run, and partly staffed, with extreme right activists and sporting the Wolfsangel on its insignia -- reported, also on Facebook, that it had attacked the pro-Russian forces near the port city of Mariupol, seizing control of several villages. The government in Kiev backed up the report enthusiastically, saying Oleksandr Turchynov, the head of the National Security and Defense Council, was near Mariupol leading the operation.

These are the most significant military developments since last fall in a war that has claimed at least 6,000 lives. The separatist rebels' final push to trap Ukrainian troops and Azov's unexpected headlong rush into rebel-held territory both appear to have been timed to precede the Minsk summit.

If recent leaks from Hollande's team are correct, the proposals put forward by the French president and the German chancellor include the creation of a demilitarized area 50 to 70 kilometers wide around a separation line between rebels and Ukrainian troops. Ukraine has insisted that this line should not deviate from the previous Minsk agreement, signed in September. But both sides are aware that a viable compromise would involve freezing the status quo, which is generally more favorable to the rebels.

The Azov's push only makes sense in this context. The volunteers, psyched and patriotic as they are, cannot hope to hold their positions for long against the Russian-supplied rebel artillery, let alone the regular Russian troops, in the area. Besides, if Ukraine was preparing for protracted war, freeing Debaltseve would have been a much higher priority than retaking a few small settlements near Mariupol.

I believe Russia and Ukraine are jockeying for position in preparation for having to demarcate a new separation line in the upcoming talks. The encircled Ukrainian troops could be a powerful bargaining chip for Putin, while Azov's successful push could allow Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to say Ukraine is still capable of resisting, especially with U.S. military aid.

That hypothetical aid has already been established as a bargaining tool for Merkel and Hollande after the German chancellor's trip to Washington yesterday. After their meeting, U.S. President Barack Obama said he would decide whether or not to arm Ukraine depending on the success of the Minsk talks. That amounted to a U.S. endorsement of Merkel and Hollande's peace effort, a key element that was missing during last week's Moscow talks. While the U.S. doesn't want to get directly involved in the diplomacy -- a wise tactic, given the mutual dislike between Putin and Obama -- it's assisting its allies by handing them a stick to use along with any carrots (such as territorial concessions) they might be packing for Putin.

The talks, then, are shaping up as a good old horse-trading session. Every party has prepared for it as best it could. Now, the negotiators' skills -- and the firmness of their reservation prices, to use a term common in business negotiations -- will be tested.

Poroshenko is the party with the weakest hand but also with the strongest need to resist any watering down of the September agreements: His fiercely patriotic electorate won't abide a defeat (check out the comments under this Twitter post that mentions a possible demilitarized area) and it may cost him his career.

Putin, for his part, will probably be inclined to make a deal if the pro-Russian rebels can secure some gains compared to the September deal. In that case, Russian nationalists won't accuse him of betraying the  rebel cause, and he will be rid of a war he doesn't need as Russia faces the biggest economic crisis of his reign. That's why he agreed to take part in the talks rather than insist his eastern Ukrainian proxies do it for him.

As for Merkel, she has invested so heavily in this latest attempt to end the fighting in Ukraine that she will use all her considerable skill to ensure there's some kind of compromise arrangement. 

If it does take shape, it will probably involve a broad demilitarized zone around the current separation line, an international peacekeeping force with limited Russian participation, and an agreement to hammer out conditions for a lasting peace at a further round of talks.

And if the talks succeed, the past several days' skirmishes won't be long remembered. This map of Merkel's travels over the last few days, however, will probably make the history books:

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net