Going into negotiations Wednesday in Minsk — to find an effective ceasefire for the tragedy unfolding in Eastern Ukraine, and to set some goals and timelines on a more durable settlement of issues in what has become something between an externally aided insurrection and a civil war — Angela Merkel offered little hope there would be an outcome but said she was duty-bound to try.
As a sober political player, she knows the value of keeping expectations low so that even a temporizing outcome is going to look good. As someone who has talked with Vladimir Putin 40 times in the last year, she knew she was up against double talk, denial, and the daunting age-old Russian techniques of negotiating until exhaustion.
But at the end of an overnight 17-hour session, she got a paper that did the most vital, urgent thing. It called for a ceasefire, a pull back of heavy artillery, and a non-military buffer zone, all on the ground lines of the September agreement that both sides repeatedly broke.
It is the most vital because the suffering in Donetsk and Lugansk that threatens now to expand is unendurable. Armchair commentators from Ottawa condos like Conservative pundits Hampson and Burney in The Globe and Mail wouldn't know what a war zone looks like. Their focus as always is on their ideological foe, the "supine" U.S. president who dared to get himself twice elected without their say-so.
Obama wasn't personally part of the Minsk negotiating ordeal but he agrees with Merkel that there is no military solution to the conflict in Ukraine. The whip to resolution is the prospect of more death for Ukrainians. That being said, Obama has been willing to dangle the possibility of "lethal" defensive military assistance for Ukraine that could, if extended, change Putin's calculus. Compulsive competitor that he is, his assessment has to be already shifting because of the deterioration in the Russian economy from a combination of sanctions, oil price, and the general evacuation of confidence and trust in Russia from world markets.
Of course, the wild men on both sides could bust this truce open by noon on Sunday. But I doubt that will be Putin's doing. Burney/Hampson would presume that's because he has won from the Western "appeasers" what he wants. It's more likely that it is because he knows it has all gone too far even for his own political good, as some of his aides have hinted to Western contacts.
If the truce holds, negotiation will proceed on the key issues of the status of the Eastern regions within Ukraine — how much autonomy, etc. What isn't clear is who will be negotiating for the Eastern side. Kiev has said it won't negotiate with the rebels who are in their view illegitimate interlocutors and who are in any case vindictive and unruly (as are some of the militias they are fighting). But Russia won't come to the table and thereby admit they can control what's going on. They can but the negotiation has to be mediated. There are tough issues, including the integrity of the border with Russia under reasserted Ukrainian control that is scheduled to follow agreement on the constitutional issues. It won't be an easy path. These are real issues.
Sums of $40 billion over the next few years are being seriously considered at last. They will be contingent on Ukraine improving its deplorable culture of systemic corruption that has bedeviled the country since its flash independence in 1991. Young officials are working on that intensively.
The outcome of their work is what will worry Putin the most. The anti-corruption insurrection of the Maidan threatens his own crony world by contagion, which is why he was so eager to paint it as outside regime change, containment of a reviving Russia, and communal hostility to the Russian minority. Most Ukrainians know better and hopefully Russians themselves will before long get past the state-funded Russia Today bluster and bias and see a more nuanced view. There is a deep tear in the deeply intertwined identities of Ukrainians and Russians and at some point Russians are going to get past their sorry victimization and regret it.
Putin doesn't want to own Eastern Ukraine. He can't afford it. There is no drumbeat heralding a fall of dominoes that restores the USSR. Putin's ambition to restore Russia's "greatness" is an issue of restoring pride and identity effaced by all-embracing communism. To the extent that territory comes into it, the improvised bite of Crimea is in their view uniquely entitled. The world's freeze on Crimea will make it expensive.
Putin does want a guarantee that Ukraine won't join NATO, whose expansion eastward has been cited by Russians as their main source of national humiliation and trickery at Western hands. Putin can't get a guarantee on Ukraine, but the geographic reality is that Ukraine has to live with only associate status with NATO and the EU. Their best integrating guarantee will come from improving their governance reality, connections, and networks with the West, joining the forward-moving developed world. That is partly up to us. That will be the challenge for Russia's own governance.
This will be the contest that matters, not Cold War II chest-beating from throwbacks on both sides.