On June 30, a ceasefire that had been called by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as part of a peace plan to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine expired, three days after the end date initially set. Sporadic clashes had continued during the ceasefire between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists, despite the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic supporting the truce.
These clashes indicate how serious the challenge is of controlling the various armed units in Ukraine, whether state or nonstate actors. Since the ceasefire ended, fighting has intensified again, and Ukraine now seems locked into a vicious spiral of violence. However, for the first time in months, indirect and direct diplomatic links have been established between the Ukrainian and Russian leaderships, and both sides seem willing to continue this dialogue.
While Poroshenko continues to use the language of fighting an “antiterrorist operation”—words reminiscent of those used by Russia in Chechnya—a complex set of parallel negotiations has been under way in connection with the ceasefire.
These multilevel talks are a significant step toward a negotiated solution. Poroshenko has to tread carefully to reestablish a balance between Ukraine’s regional and societal divisions. Calling a temporary ceasefire is as much as he could politically afford for the moment, but it sets in motion a process that has the potential to gradually build trust among different constituencies.
The ceasefire talks were brokered by a presidential envoy, Leonid Kuchma. It came as a surprise to see the former president who was overthrown by the 2004 Orange Revolution reemerge on the political scene in the role of honest broker. But Kuchma, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, and a representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were pivotal for securing the support of Alexander Borodai, the self-proclaimed leader of the separatists, for the ceasefire. Poroshenko has accepted the principle of negotiating with separatists.
Trying to engage different domestic and international interests at once, Poroshenko on June 27 signed the free-trade part of an EU association agreement in Brussels. (The political part had been signed earlier as the EU attempted to signal its support for Ukraine.) The decision of former president Viktor Yanukovych not to sign the accord in November 2013 had triggered the Euromaidan wave of mass protests that led to the current crisis.
Now, it seems almost hard to imagine that the prospect of closer links with the EU could have led to the calamitous series of developments that have enveloped Ukraine, from mass protests to Russia’s military intervention and its annexation of Crimea to conflict in the country’s southeast. Signing the EU association agreement now does little to resolve any of Ukraine’s pressing statehood issues. At best, it commits the EU, Western governments, and international financial institutions to a more consistent political and economic engagement in Ukraine.
Russia did not try to derail Ukraine’s signing of the agreement, even though it could have done so easily by escalating the situation in eastern Ukraine. Russia remains opposed to the accord but opted for a softer and longer-term response by announcing that it might raise import tariffs for Ukrainian imports. Moreover, Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled his willingness to deescalate and engage in negotiations when he asked his country’s parliament to withdraw a resolution that allows him to use force in Ukraine if necessary.
Putin also participated in a series of talks on the crisis with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, and Poroshenko. EU leaders are keen to move beyond the Ukrainian-Russian crisis. While they may be underestimating the change Ukraine has undergone over the past months, international pragmatism is not a bad thing if it finally translates into actual negotiations that can achieve something on the ground.
At a meeting in Berlin on July 2, the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France agreed to hold three-way talks between Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE by July 5–6. The discussions will involve the separatist leaders and are meant to find a way toward a durable ceasefire.
The idea of a “contact group” has been part of various initiatives by the United States, Russia, or Ukraine aimed at stabilizing the situation in recent weeks and months. Russia has officially applied to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly to head up such a group. Putin’s conciliatory gestures and involvement in talks confirm that the eastern regions of Ukraine are different from Crimea, and that Putin is ultimately interested in a Ukrainian state he can still influence but without a military presence in or near Ukraine.
Despite the return to violence in eastern Ukraine and mixed signals from the Russian leadership, it is now possible to talk about Ukrainian-Russian relations again—for the first time since February 2014. The hope is that both sides can build on this step. By extension, relations between Russia and the West have moved beyond the stalemate of Cold War rhetoric and mutual accusations and threats. But it would be shortsighted to believe that this is about returning to business as usual with Russia and Ukraine.
Gwendolyn Sasse is a professorial fellow in politics at Nuffield College and university reader in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford.