Politicians need almost 16 hours of intense talks to settle Ukrainian conflict in favour of peace

Minsk hosted the meeting attended by Belarus, Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine, attracting global attention
Minsk hosted the meeting attended by Belarus, Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine, attracting global attention

Delegations from ‘Normandy Four’ countries meet in negotiation hall at Palace of Independence

The meeting culminated intense multi-lateral efforts to settle the Ukrainian situation, hosted by Minsk. The leaders of member states of the ‘Normandy Four’ arrived at the Palace of Independence, with host Alexander Lukashenko welcoming first Angela Merkel, who sweetly smiled on receiving a bouquet of flowers from the President. Meanwhile, international media (around 500 received accreditation) conducted live reporting from the Minsk negotiation venue.

It’s clear that the leaders communicated behind the closed door and the delicate nature of what has passed will take some time to reach the public domain. However, it is clear that the Minsk talks are now a fact of global politics, endeavouring to help Donbass’ long-suffering citizens. The UN hopes that, following the results of the ‘Normandy Four’ talks, a ceasefire will soon begin in Eastern Ukraine.

Stephane Dujarric, the Spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General, told journalists, “We are pinning our hopes on positive results, wishing to see a ceasefire and an agreement for all parties.”

Crisis participants view Belarus as a real player in helping achieve peace in Ukraine, as was clearly noted by Petro Poroshenko, in his address to Alexander Lukashenko. He said that the global process is now connected with Minsk’s Protocol of September 5th, with Minsk’s Memorandum of September 19th and with February 19th: dates of significant global diplomacy. “You have been doing everything possible,” the Ukrainian President added, speaking to Mr. Lukashenko.

Preparations for Minsk’s summit were intense since it was unclear until the last moment whether the heads of state would conduct talks. No clear information was available on who would arrive in Minsk and what proposals they might make. It was absolutely impossible to guess at summit results, as the situation in Ukraine is too changeable and wayward: a tangle of contradictions between negotiation participants. With this in mind, meeting was vital, to try and find points of tangency and mutually acceptable decisions to settle the Ukrainian crisis. Belarus’ position in this respect is clear: the conflict must be solved as soon as possible, peacefully and while preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Before Vladimir Putin’s arrival in Minsk, Mr. Lukashenko spoke to him by phone, with both presidents expressing mutual interest in a prompt cease of the military conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Before talks began, Mr. Lukashenko assured his Ukrainian colleague (during a bilateral meeting with Mr. Poroshenko), “We’ll be doing everything to ensure peace and calmness in your country and our land. We’ve already proven this with our actions and will continue.” The decision is pragmatic, since Ukraine is no stranger to Belarus and our country cannot but feel involved in its neighbour and brother’s affairs. Moreover, Ukraine is a major economic partner within the post-Soviet space. Mr. Lukashenko stressed, “Surprisingly, we haven’t ceased trading; this continues. Pleasingly, we have received quite a few orders from Ukrainian enterprises.”

Mr. Poroshenko admitted that he had arrived in Minsk with great hopefulness, believing that the Minsk talks could be a turning point for the country. The Ukrainian President explained, “The whole world is waiting for a ceasefire, the ‘pull-out’ of weaponry and to see the end of people dying. Alternately, the situation will run out of control.”

Before the start of negotiations

Belarus’ consistent and well-considered policy regarding the Ukrainian issue was a decisive factor in choosing Minsk as a venue for the ‘Normandy Four’ meeting. The negotiation process has been delicately handled, which is worthy of praise. Virtually no information discussed behind closed doors was made public until the last minute of talks, although such cases often see information leaked to the media (as can be advantageous to one side). The strict silence confirmed the sincere and deep interest of all parties in gaining constructive results.

While the top leaders were negotiating, journalists endeavoured to guess at final results and what the future holds for south-eastern Ukraine, and the country in general. They wondered at why Minsk had been chosen, recollecting the President’s words: during his recent open dialogue with the media, Mr. Lukashenko said that talks in any other place would set back the process of gaining peaceful settlement of the conflict. The contact group of Russian, Ukrainian, OSCE and self-proclaimed DNR and LNR has already developed its algorithm of action in Belarus, with some positive results. If this work fails to be further developed in Minsk, all will need to be built from scratch.

This statement has been well proven in Minsk, with the contact group continuing its session on the summit day. Official Kiev fails to recognise DNR and LNR and views it as impossible to share a single table with representatives of these self-proclaimed republics, despite them being backed by a great share of the population and army, and enjoying Russia’s support. Dialogue was conducted remotely, but the work of those two formats was closely interconnected, with final documents resulting from talks between heads of state and the contact group being harmonised. Held at two independent venues, the single summit succeeded in delicately and civilly settling a major contradiction. Clearly, Moscow, Kiev, Donetsk, Lugansk, Berlin and Paris trust Minsk.

Backstage journalistic discussion resulted in another interesting motif in choosing Minsk as the key negotiation site. Shortly before the summit, the USA expressed its readiness to supply weaponry to Ukraine. Germany opposed the notion, disliking the idea of America playing its game from beyond the ocean, bearing virtually no risk. The Ukrainian conflict puts European security in danger, since supplies of weaponry would act as oil on the fire. No one can guess how such a dangerous precedent will pan out.

Ukraine has twice seen a power shift, with many blaming the ‘import’ of foreign influence: during the first, ‘orange’ Maidan revolution, which began relatively calmly; and during the second, which spiralled out of control, plunging the country into war. Probably, Brussels did not expect such an outcome. Belarus has experienced a similar situation, but, happily, all failed. Games should not be conducted carelessly and we can only hope that Europe has gained understanding of how interference can be malign.

After 15 hours of talks, Mr. Putin and Mr. Poroshenko came to reporters almost simultaneously, although in different rooms. They spoke almost identically about the ceasefire and the ‘pull-out’ of weaponry: fixed as a package of measures for the implementation of the Minsk agreements. They have been adopted by the contact group and approved by a joint declaration of Russia, Ukrainian, German and French leaders. However, some variants remain regarding the definition of troops’ line of contact. Russia recognises the Debaltsevo ‘cauldron’ and Ukraine does not. According to Mr. Putin, the answer to this question should be found by attracting military experts. Moscow regrets that Kiev refuses to make direct contact with the DNR or LNR. Nevertheless, constitutional reform must be conducted in Ukraine by late 2015. As Mr. Poroshenko has stated, no autonomy or federalisation is possible without this.

François Hollande and Angela Merkel also spoke to media representatives, expressing satisfaction with the summit’s results. Before leaving the Independence Palace, the European leaders thanked Mr. Lukashenko for providing such good working conditions.

P.S. The Presidents of Russia, Ukraine and France — Vladimir Putin, Petro Poroshenko and François Hollande — left Minsk in peace, as did German Chancellor Angela Merkel. However, this word needs to be pronounced with caution. The marathon lasting almost 16 hours was challenging and, as Mr. Lukashenko noted, issues of war and peace can take months or, even, years to solve. With this in mind, only a short period of time has passed. Nevertheless, a step has been made in the right direction, with political will demonstrated. It’s now necessary to find the wisdom to follow through in action, as the Belarusian President emphasised, commenting on the summit’s results.

To the point:

After the summit, the President of Belarus gave an exclusive rapid-fire interview to the host of Vesti v Subbotu (News on Saturday) programme, on Rossiya-1 TV Channel, Sergey Brilev. Mr. Lukashenko stated, “I’d love you to know, though we’ve not made it public, that we expressed our position and proposals regarding the talks to settle the Ukrainian crisis; all participants were aware and I’m convinced that our position on Ukraine will become highly sought after in the days to come. Probably, this has influenced talks in this format taking place in Minsk.”

The President also answered some questions on prospects for the further development of Belarus’ relations with the West and the development of the Eurasian Economic Union.

Minsk venue is ideal for negotiations

Experts, politologists and journalists share their opinions on events in Minsk

Sabalsa HAREIRO, correspondent with Mediaset Espana TV Company (Spain): Interest in the current meeting of the ‘Normandy Four’ is great. I think that politicians and journalists have arrived in Minsk with hopes for maximum results. Of course, the road towards peace in Ukraine will be long but we can’t hesitate: each hour is precious. It’s vital to bring about a ceasefire and to adopt measures to realise previously reached agreements.

Olga VOLKOVA, correspondent with Channel 17 (Ukraine): If course, we want peace. However, in order to achieve this, we need to sit down at the discussion table and agree. I’m very glad that such a meeting has taken place in Minsk. Why can’t we, Ukrainian journalists, conduct a TV bridge with Kiev and Donetsk. It’s vital to use any opportunity for peaceful regulation of the crisis.

Yuri KRUPNOV, Chairman of the Development Movement (Russia): The peacekeeping efforts of Belarus are colossal. Belarus is a member of the ‘Global Five’ to regulate the Ukrainian conflict.

Jeff WITTENBERG, France TV Company (France): In my opinion, Minsk is an ideal venue for negotiations. Belarus has proven in practice its interest in a speedy ceasefire in Ukraine. The organisers of the meeting have tried to organise everything at a worthy level, enabling every participant to feel comfortable. It’s significant that all interested sides have been present in Minsk since this enables us to hope for continuation of the peace process.

Nikolay SHCHETKIN, Candidate of Philosophical Sciences and Associate Professor (Belarus):
It’s known that President of Russia Vladimir Putin, during the meeting in Sochi, asked Alexander Lukashenko to provide assistance in organising the ‘Normandy Format’ meeting regarding events in Ukraine. This request, made by the Russian President publicly, shows recognition of Minsk as the most promising venue for a solution to the Ukrainian crisis.

Kirill KOKTYSH, a politologist and Associate Professor of MGIMO (Russia): The ‘Minsk Format’ may serve as a functional foothold for Brussels and for European leaders. It is vital to Russia, which lacks channels of substantial communication with Europe. Of course, the expanded ‘Minsk Format’ will be relevant to the Eastern European region as a whole, giving the chance to create and launch regional mechanisms for maintaining peace and stability.

Extracts from the ‘Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements’

• There will be an immediate and full ceasefire across certain districts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine, with strict fulfilment as of 00 hours 00 minutes (Kiev time) on February 15th, 2015.

• The removal of all heavy weapons by both sides, to an equal distance, with the aim of creating a security zone of at least 50km  for artillery of 100mm calibre or more, of 70km for MLRS and of 140km for MLRS Tornado-S, Uragan, Smerch and Tochka (Tochka U) tactical missile systems:

— for Ukrainian troops: from actual line of contact;

—  for armed formations in certain districts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine, from the contact line, in accordance with the Minsk Memorandum of September 19th, 2014.

The removal of the above-mentioned heavy weapons is to commence no later than the second day after the ceasefire and to be completed within 14 days.

• On the first day after the ‘pull-out’, dialogue is to commence on conducting local elections, in accordance with Ukrainian legislation and the law of Ukraine ‘On Temporary Order of Local Self-Government in Certain Districts of the Donetsk and Lugansk Regions’.

• Without delay, but no later than 30 days from the date of signing of this document, a resolution is to be approved by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, indicating the territory which falls under the special regime in accordance with the law ‘On Temporary Order of Local Self-Government in Certain Districts of the Donetsk and Lugansk Regions’, based on the line set up by the Minsk Memorandum, as of September 19th, 2014.

• To provide pardon and amnesty, the law should forbid the persecution or punishment of those involved in events across the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine.

• To provide release and exchange of all hostages and illegally held persons, based on the principle of ‘all for all’, with the process completed by the fifth day after the ‘pull-out’ (of weapons).

• The removal of all foreign armed formations, military equipment, and mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine, under OSCE supervision, and the disarmament of all illegal groups.

• Constitutional reform in Ukraine, with the new Constitution to come into effect by the end of 2015: a key element of which will be decentralisation

An extract from the Declaration of Heads of State

The President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, the President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, the President of the French Republic, François Hollande, and the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Dr. Angela Merkel, reaffirm their full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. They firmly believe that there is no alternative to an exclusively peaceful settlement. They are fully committed to undertaking all possible individual and joint measures to this end.

Against this background, the leaders endorse the ‘Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements’ adopted and signed on February 12th, 2015 by all signatories — who also signed the Minsk Protocol of September 5th, 2014 and the Minsk Memorandum of September 19th, 2014. Leaders will contribute to this process and will use their influence on relevant parties to facilitate the implementation of that package of measures.

European diplomats accept news of Minsk’s new agreements with cautious optimism, many immediately sharing views on Twitter or in interviews to information agencies. Below are some common online assessments:

• The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, appreciates the ‘achievement of an agreement in Minsk to cease fire’;

• The Prime Minister of Italy, Matteo Renzi, names the outcome of Minsk talks ‘a great result’;

• The German Government’s official representative, Stefan Zaibert, writes in Twitter: ‘Talks are over after 17 hours: a cease of fire from February 15th and then a pull-out of all heavy weaponry. We pin full hope on this’;

• German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier believes, ‘Minsk-2 could be the step taking us away from spiralling war escalation towards political impetus — after weeks of violence’;

• The Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, hopes that ‘Minsk-achieved agreements can lay a path to a new political solution via the process of constitutional reform, making it possible to ensure decentralisation — under the full observation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty on the basis of European standards’.

Some assessments by leading media Bloomberg Agency, USA:

It’s quite probable that the results of this summit will shape the future: a fragile peace or a wider war, with the USA and some European allies supplying weapons to Ukraine during the conflict. The failure of talks would have tested the strength of trans-Atlantic unity, since discord regarding economic sanctions against Russia is already becoming evident in Europe.

Die Zeit newspaper, Germany:

Angela Merkel’s long journey to Minsk could be the last chance to peacefully settle the conflict. Ms. Merkel — who almost always prefers vague phrases and lets events develop on their own course — has acted decisively and purposefully. Europeans and Americans have entrusted her with a leading role in the crisis situation. As a result, she’s taken on a huge responsibility: Berlin’s policy and her own. Neither obstacles created by the Kremlin nor American senators’ insults have prevented her from believing that the Ukrainian crisis should be solved exclusively politically.

By Vladimir Khromov
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