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A roadmap made of paper

October 20, 2016

Against all the odds, the Berlin Ukraine summit has yielded a result. However, Russia’s president will have little interest in following up with action, says DW’s Christian F. Trippe.

Deutschland | Vladimir Putin Pressekonferenz nach den Normandie-Gesprächen
Image: REUTERS/A. Schmidt

Rarely was such a summit so overloaded, rarely the expectations so subdued. Hopes of a breakthrough didn't stand a chance with all four leaders, with Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, with Valdimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko. From Berlin's side, it was nothing more than a 'rigorous assessment'. According to the Kremlin, the summit was simply an opportunity for the four to "compare notes.”

In the Minsk Agreement, the framework to settle the conflict in Donbass was laid out in February 2015, with German and French mediation. Political, legal and military statements of intent broken into 13 points. One doesn't have to be superstitious to find something askew with this agreement. As "Minsk" doesn't contain a timetable, it doesn't say what should happen first, or second.

Their respective priorities

Kyiv and Moscow have entrenched themselves behind their own priorities. The Ukrainians want to deal with questions of security first, and then get into the politics. The Russians see it exactly the other way around: they want Kyiv to firstly fulfill its political obligations - and any military talk can come after that. In Kyiv, any political concessions are seen as betrayal and surrender. The Russian leadership, on the other hand, with its shrill rhetoric, has positioned itself on the side of the separatists - whereby it would be accused of betrayal if it allowed the insurgents to fall militarily. The situation could hardly be messier.

Germany's efforts

In the efforts for progress, German diplomacy exhausted itself over the Donbass question over the past few weeks. It put everything at risk, testing the boundaries - of both the negotiating partners and itself - and in doing so, risked a complete belly flop. For example, in mid-September, Germany's foreign minister visited Kyiv. In public, Frank-Walter Steinmeier said his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, had pledged to use the Kremlin's influence on the eastern Ukraine separatists to establish a ceasefire.

Russia's mantra had always been essentially unrelated to the conflict. Rather, the government in Kyiv would have to agree with the separatists to end the 'civil war.' The denial from Moscow followed a day later: Lavrov had never said such a thing, he had not been able to assure such a thing. And yet, the new attempt for a truce - indeed brittle this time - opened the space for an agreement to separate the troops.

Moving forward?

They've continued their work on this, and have made good progress on troop disengagement and working on a concrete roadmap and a timetable for Minsk: The German chancellor and French president as intermediaries; the Ukrainian president, in whose land the war rages; and the Russian president, who will somehow assert his influence on the separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In Berlin, Putin was forced to listen discussions about his role in Donbass and about Russian military operations in Syria. Together with the Syrian dictator, Assad, the Russian air force has been bombing civilians in Aleppo. The French president has called this a war crime. The German chancellor has, as a result, brought new sanctions against Russia into play.

But still Putin came to Berlin. Was this because he was prepared to make new concessions? Was it because he realised that he has got carried away in eastern Ukraine and the Middle East? Or is it because he wants to set his two wars off against each other – the intervention in Syria and the struggle for permanent influence in the Ukraine? This is a fight that Putin will definitely not be giving up  - even though the Berlin summit on Donbass meant more than merely recording the status quo. At least on paper there are a few results.

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