WASHINGTON – Ukrainian officials are warily watching the U.S. impeachment inquiry as they prepare for a crucial four-way negotiation with Russia, France and Germany next month.
The meeting of the so-called Normandy Contact Group, set for Dec. 9 in Paris, is aimed at easing the conflict in the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed separatists. More than 13,000 people have died in the fighting, which began in April 2014.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has outlined four issues he wants to raise at the meeting — an exchange of prisoners, a ceasefire, a restoration of Ukraine’s control over the Ukraine-Russia border, and holding local elections in rebel-held territories. Ukraine and the separatists have already withdrawn their forces at three sites in Donbas as a precondition for the meeting.
Analysts contacted by Voice of America’s Ukrainian Service say the novice leader who came to power promising to bring peace to his country will be hard-pressed to emerge with a deal that doesn’t leave the nation weaker than it is now.
Trump ‘doesn’t care’ about Ukraine
The impeachment probe undermines Ukraine’s position because it exposes Trump’s lack of commitment to defending Ukraine, said Mark Simakovsky, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Atlantic Council. U.S. diplomat Gordon Sondland has been quoted in testimony to the inquiry saying that Trump “doesn’t care” about Ukraine.
“I think the casualty of this relationship between Trump and Zelenskiy will be that there’ll always be questions about how far the United States and this president are willing to go to support Ukraine,” Simakovsky said.
The analyst noted that several U.S. officials with leading roles on Ukraine policy have provided testimony that is embarrassing to the administration and are no doubt being “looked at skeptically” by the president. That will make it hard for them to “have the confidence of the White House” as they seek to implement U.S. policy.
David Kramer, a former high-ranking State Department official in the George W. Bush administration, said the Republican-led defense of the president in the impeachment probe has hurt Ukraine even further.
“The Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee continue to peddle disproven conspiracy theories that paint a very negative picture of Ukraine,” he said.
Kramer added that Kyiv will “be under greater pressure from France and Germany to resolve the conflict” in eastern Ukraine, and that the recent resignation of U.S. special envoy Kurt Volker has made the United States less effective in the region.
“So, should [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy try to make the best of a bad situation with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin or hold out until all Russian forces leave Ukrainian territory? Cutting deals with Putin is likely to be a riskier proposition,” he said.
Simakovsky agreed that France and Germany appear to be looking for an excuse to ease sanctions on Russia.
“The challenge I think is Ukrainian people being convinced and frustrated with the lack of support from the West. If they are going to be left alone, then they need to accelerate the path toward peace because they have to make some sort of [accommodation] with Russia,” Simakovsly said.
A win for Russia
Nataliya Bugayova, a Russia team lead at the Institute for the Study of War, said Russia is taking advantage of the West’s eagerness to see the war ended.
“Russia is exploiting the narrative of both urgency to deliver on peace internally in Ukraine and in Europe,” she said. “Russia is also attempting to use the upcoming Normandy talks to cast itself as a mediator in the conflict where it is a belligerent.”
Russia has made no meaningful concessions leading to the summit, Bugayova added.
“There is no indication of Russia’s intent to give up control of its forces in Ukraine. In fact, we have seen Russia’s efforts to further integrate its proxies over the past few months,” she said.
Michael Carpenter, managing director at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and a former high-ranking Pentagon official in the Obama administration, said there is a risk that the Paris meeting will allow Russia to transfer some responsibility for the conflict to its separatist proxies.
The details of any agreement reached in Paris on elections and a special status for the disputed regions will have to be worked out by a Trilateral Contact Group, which is comprised of Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Representatives of the self-proclaimed Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics will also be involved.
Carpenter said Russia has similarly manipulated an international forum on Georgia, allowing it to “normalize” its relations with that country without making any meaningful progress on the status of the disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“If the same thing happens in Ukraine, it will set the stage for an unwinnable negotiation with Russia’s proxies that lasts years or even decades,” he said.
Elections a sticking point
The proposal for local elections in eastern Ukraine will be a major sticking point in the Paris talks. Zelenskiy has said elections will be held only after Ukraine regains control over the disputed territory and its border with Russia.
There is little chance that Moscow will agree to that, but Bugayova said Zelenskiy cannot afford to give in on the point.
“If elections take place under Russia’s influence, whether it’s direct military pressure or the absolute information control that Russia has over the territories, that means that the proxies and somewhat intervention will be legitimized,” she said.
“The biggest risk … is that if Russian proxies are legitimized, there is no going back. This is a non-reversible process that can open opportunities for Russia to regain control over Ukraine’s decision-making in the long term.”
Kramer is also dubious about possibility of holding successful elections in the east.
“How can one conduct an election when more than 1.5 million have been displaced, when Ukraine doesn’t control the territory, and when Russian forces continue to occupy the territory?” he asked.
A former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, said he is skeptical that the Paris talks will produce any settlement that leads to a restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty.
“For more than five years, the Kremlin has used a simmering conflict in Donbas to put pressure on Kyiv. The big question is whether Mr. Putin is ready now to change course and seek a mutually acceptable settlement of the conflict that Russia has inflicted on Ukraine.”