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On Friday, a senior Kremlin aide announced that the Russian government is ready to resume the stalled Ukrainian peace process with France, Germany, and Ukraine if “concrete steps” are taken before the meeting. These preconditions include separating rival armed forces in eastern Ukraine on either side of the line of contact, agreeing on a special status for the Donbass region, and deciding what the summit’s conclusions should be. Reuters reported that France, Germany, and Ukraine have all called for these peace talks to begin before the end of September.
Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, expressed confidence in the potential talks, saying, “We look forward to seeing the leaders of the four countries in the ‘Normandy’ format… We are waiting for this meeting at the end of September. I think it will definitely take place”. Zelenskiy also said that he expects to meet with Donald Trump this month to help resolve the conflict. Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov commented on the peace talks, saying, “We believe that such a meeting should take place and we agree that it can be held in Paris, as proposed by French President (Emmanuel) Macron”.
The main goal of these peace talks would be to resolve the conflict in Donbass, a region in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian forces have been struggling against pro-Russian separatists in the region since 2014, and the United Nations estimates that over 13,000 lives have been lost on both sides. These conflicts have also affected nearly 4 million civilians in the region. Ukraine and NATO have both accused Russia of sending troops and weapons to support the separatist movement. Russia denies having any involvement in the conflict other than its provision of political and humanitarian support to the separatists. Russia also said that the Russian fighters in Ukraine are volunteers with no connection to the Russian government. In 2015, France and Germany attempted to negotiate a cease-fire and peace deal, known as the Minsk agreements. However, they failed because the governments of Russia and Ukraine continually accused each other of not complying with the deal.
Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France last met in 2016 to discuss the implementation of the Minsk agreements, but they still failed to achieve a lasting ceasefire. Now that Petro Poroshenko, the former president of Ukraine who refused several compromises, is out of office, all four countries seem to be open to resuming peace talks. Bloomberg reported that last weekend Putin and Macron spoke on the phone about Ukraine. During the call, Putin elaborated on his preconditions for peace talks by saying that he wants “written confirmation” of the Steinmeier Formula, a solution proposed by Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2016. The Steinmeier Formula involves the withdrawal of all Russian troops from separatist-held regions and then elections for local administrations. After the elections, Ukraine could reclaim control over its eastern border with Russia.
Fortunately, relations between Ukraine and Russia seem to be improving. Last week, the two countries took part in an exchange of several high-profile prisoners. Ambassador Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, told CNBC that, “This prisoner exchange is a good step that could pave the way for further exchanges, a more durable cease-fire, withdrawal of heavy weapons and – ideally – a decision by Russia to proceed with implementing the Minsk agreements. If so, it would tremendously improve the lives of the local population”. However, others are more sceptical about the importance of the prisoner exchange. For instance, Otilia Dhand, senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence, noted that there are still several major barriers to peace and that the swap does not represent significant conflict resolution.
Whatever the significance of this recent cooperation between Russia and Ukraine, the increasing willingness to negotiate a solution to the Donbass conflict is a good sign. Although there is still a long way to go in improving relations between Ukraine and Russia, the mutual interest in renewing peace talks could be an important first step in normalizing relations between the two countries and ending the violence in eastern Ukraine.