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Normandy Four – 19th October

October 12, 2016

Having not mentioned the “Minsk document” for some time, and on the last occasion being/remaining somewhat dismissive, the Normandy Four will meet in Berlin on 19th October.

That the meeting occurs when President Putin was originally due to be in Paris (opening a new Russian Orthodox Church among other things) boils down to the fact that France accused the Kremlin of war crimes in Syria and wanted the bilateral agenda to focus accordingly – an agenda which President Putin was not going to accept.  Thus the Paris trip was called off and the 19th October witnesses a gathering of the Normandy Four to discuss The Kremlin’s denied war in eastern Ukraine.

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That said it seems unlikely that President Putin would head to Berlin and a Normandy Four meeting without something to talk about – and The Kremlin will only talk if it believes that its agenda upon its terms will be furthered.

The options for his attending may be one of PR for domestic (and certain foreign) audiences turning out to be nothing more than a photo op to belie the impression of isolation and/or complete belligerence but that seems less likely than there being something to talk about (on Kremlin terms).

It may also be that the Kremlin thinking is that it is overdue another round of “make it, break it, counter-accuse” negotiation made in bad faith.

Kremlin momentum is currently behind forcing Ukraine to adopt an election law for the occupied territories prior to Ukraine regaining control over its borders.  Both Germany and France whose diplomats have hardly gained any concessions from The Kremlin in more than 2 years of talks seem to have decided that when faced with a belligerent Kremlin it is far easier to press Ukraine to therefore meet Kremlin terms with regard to Minsk event scheduling.

A reader may perceive this (rightly) to be a reflection of the problem of handing policy to diplomats who instinctively want to talk (and prize contacts highly) whilst simultaneously displaying an unwavering and almost principled refusal to learn from experience when it comes to interaction with the current Kremlin.

The out-going US Administration with only 2 months left in office also seems to suffer the same western diplomatic stubbornness when it comes to refusing to accept that the only terms acceptable to The Kremlin are its own – particularly in what it still firmly believes to be its rightful and indisputable sphere of influence.

It is also a US Administration that would like to leave office with something of a foreign policy gain to hand on to those that will follow.

As such this twilight US Administration is going to be tempted to also quietly push Ukraine toward the Kremlin terms regarding the adoption of an election law for the occupied Donbas – even if the US political class more broadly is far more unlikely to agree with such maneuvering in accordance with Kremlin terms.  After all, officially the US is not involved in the “Minsk document” or associated negotiations, so the ability to blame Paris, Berlin, Moscow or Kyiv for any failures to solutions it may quietly push exists and may blunt wider US political unease at such a strategy.

Ukraine for its part has actually managed to defend its current diplomatic position for more than a year when it comes to a ceasefire actually commencing and in which the fire actually ceases, the verified removal of Kremlin personnel and weaponry, and the regaining of control over its borders occur before passing election laws and establishing the conditions of holding free and fair elections.

At no point during the past two years has The Kremlin actually bothered to progress “Minsk” issues over which it has control.  To be entirely blunt, the immediate future and beyond also provides little reason for the Kremlin to seriously pursue doing so either.

Further, The Kremlin’s “conversation” with the current US Administration is over – unless that conversation relates to unilateral US concessions, either directly (Syria) or by influence over third parties (Ukraine), to Kremlin interests.  Both existing and new levers will currently be being prepared for use upon the in-coming US Administration in the New Year.  Kremlin contempt for the current US Administration is crystal clear.

A reader may therefore ponder the content of any on-going Surkov-Nuland diplomacy with regard to Ukraine.  It seems unlikely that they would be unambiguously to the benefit of the Ukrainian State if any negotiating ground is to be given to The Kremlin that forces the order of “Minsk” implementation per a Kremlin list of priorities.

The 19th October therefore may be a severe test of the Ukrainian position if “progress at any cost” tops the German, French, Russian and behind the curtain US agenda – for “any cost” will be borne by President Poroshenko who is eyeing ever-poor popularity figures while already positioning for a run at a second term.

If the assumptions described above are even halfway accurate and Ukraine is forced to cede to a Kremlin led Minsk implementation timetable (which The Kremlin probably wouldn’t fulfill on its part), what wiggle room is available to the Ukrainians regarding any proposed law that would stand even the remotest chance of getting through a Verkhovna Rada vote?

(A reader will note that this is a statutory law requiring 226 majority rather than any Constitution changing vote that will simply not see the required 300+ votes no matter how much money or coercion was offered to vote “the right way” to amend the basic law of the land.)

Firstly the Ukrainian State and any “special” statutory electoral legislation has to try to avoid stating a definitive date around which circumstances can and will be manipulated.  Rather, it may be prudent to consider a definitive set of circumstances that automatically trigger the election date.

A definitive set of circumstances may include a consolidating and verifiable time period based upon an absolute and verified ceasefire.  For example 100 days (or whatever) from a complete and strictly observed ceasefire becomes election day.  Any breach of ceasefire resets that clock.

During the electioneering Ukrainian and international media has full and free access to the occupied Donbas.  Should that freedom be curtailed, the 100 day clock is reset.

International election observers have unconditional access during the electioneering period, on election day, and during vote counts – which in turn demands a security environment that facilitates such freedoms.  Any failure resets the election day clock.

Who can actually vote needs to be unambiguously stated.  Perhaps only those voters registered in the occupied territories on 1st January 2014 in order to avoid “constituency stuffing”.  IDPs wherever their location, if registered as a genuine resident upon any specified historical registered voter date will need to be afforded the maximum opportunity to vote – be they displaced within Ukraine or have left for other nations (including Russia).

In short it could be possible to write an election law that may possibly be forced, coerced and bought through the Verkhovna Rada and that possess enough “snap-back clauses” to prevent a volatile reaction among the more militant of Ukrainians, and which would also avoid the most serious of political damage within the majority of the Ukrainian constituency.

Naturally the Kremlin would not be keen on such a law, but it may be enough to appease the “friends of Ukraine” all of whom have domestic political reasons to push the Minsk timetable and proclaim “successes” no matter how small, and yet avoid being perceived to cave into the Kremlin.

(For the sake of sarcasm – Alternatively, following the experience of the Budapest Memorandum, perhaps Ukraine should agree to a Kremlin timetable only and exclusively under the explicit guarantee (not assurances or other woolly terminology) from Berlin, Paris and Washington that should the Kremlin fail to abide, a very specific set of actions would occur.  Naturally none would agree to providing such guarantees when there is no trust in the current Kremlin – so why should Ukraine be any more trusting?)

As 19th October is unlikely to be a PR exercise for President Putin, and neither is any pretense at being constructive likely to seriously influence western capitals regarding sanctions or increased top level interaction, there is probably something else that brings President Putin to the Normandy Four gathering.  Thus questions as to what degree of further concessions and/or appeasement does he expect, what if any will be given with regard to and/or by Ukraine, and what is the substance of any Surkov-Nuland deals behind the curtain?

Will there be another Normandy Four meeting before the year end?

If so will there be yet another official rolling over of “Minsk” as there was last year?  Will somebody within the EU see any wisdom in loosening the rhetoric that ties sanctions to “Minsk” if its rolling over is not to occur but it is instead finally pronounced dead?  Do such sanctions die if “Minsk” to which they are consistently rhetorically tied dies?

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