Merkel-Hollande plan. Why now?

The initiative seems quite unexpected and Hollande said: Peace is under threat at the borders of Europe. In Ukraine, there is a war. It sound pretty urgent. So what you expect from this initiative, and why we see it now? Read few comments.

Sergey Utkin, Head of Department of Strategic Assessment, Centre for Situation Analysis, Russian Academy of Sciences

Yes, I follow the news, and think that the fact that the situation in the conflict zone is horrible and cannot be tolerated is obvious and undisputed. The dispute is not about the necessity to exit the crisis but a particular exit strategy that would be acceptable for all parties involved.

We have ever more appeals to provide arms for Ukraine, which might be a highly destabilizing move but the source of the idea is the same – this is how some people see the way to end an unbearable situation. And as the patience is running out, the time is high for another effort to negotiate a peace deal. I hope that the shuttle diplomacy by the leading European politicians might help in this regard. The Minsk negotiations have got stalled but they may probably be saved if the implementation of the Minsk initial agreement becomes a part of a package deal, accepted by Russia, Ukraine and the West. That might mean for Ukraine that it could be able to use preferential trade arrangements with both the EU and Russia, which could play a positive role for its economic development. NATO membership for Ukraine, which is in any case not realistic by most accounts, could be used as a bargaining chip – Hollande practically gave a hint that this is possible, admitting the impossibility of Ukraine’s membership in the Alliance. An agreement would also require a peacekeeping operation to separate the conflicting parties and a boost to the mandate and staff of the OSCE monitoring mission to watch over security situation to the East and West of the line of contact.

The most important factor which has been lacking in the course of negotiations is trust, which at some point seemed to be lost completely at the level of heads of state and government. And it is at the same highest level that the attempts must be made to restore this basic prerequisite for successful talks.

Maksym BugriyResearch Fellow, International Centre for Defence and Security

This could be another attempt to freeze the conflict and the key question is on what terms. Remarkably, some Russian media emphasize that President Putin would meet with the German and French leaders not mentioning Secretary of State John Kerry as a party to the negotiations format. It looks however like Kyiv has assembled more US political support. While the discussion over the supply of lethal weapons for Ukraine is something German and French leaders would like to avoid and it could become then one of the bargaining arguments. At this moment, I would not exclude that Russia-supported insurgents would like to use the momentum to gain more territory. Yet, the Ukrainian military demonstrates the ability to produce fair resistance.

Marek Menkiszak, Head, Russian Department, Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW)

There is no clear picture of a preparation of a new deal on Ukraine between Germany (representing EU) and Russia. Some news suggest initiative was on the Russian side, with Putin sending letter of invitation to visit Moscow. Other sources suggest some plan crafted in recent days in Berlin (in some consultation with Paris).

There is also still very unclear of what the new deal should encompass. Whether it is merely about immediate ceasefire and evacuation of Debaltseve; about freezing the conflict in Donbas with undecided political status and possible introduction of UN peacekeeping forces or it is of more strategic nature, involving a Western pledge of neutralization of Ukraine (denying its possible NATO membership), complemented with establishment of formal links between the EU and Eurasian Economic Union with a view of a common economic space.

It remains to be seen, depending also on level of transparency concerning the possible deal by the parties involved.

What seems to be the case is that Kremlin has an initiative and psychological upper hand in this situation, with the EU and Germany afraid of uncontrolled escalation of the conflict and possibly ready to have “peace at any cost”. The part bearing the cost would be in such case Ukraine. It’s difficult to predict concrete outcome but most probably it would be more advantageous to Russia than Minsk accords, which Moscow is not willing to implement (at least those points which are the most important for Ukraine).

The question is what are the concessions president Poroshenko and Ukrainian government are ready to accept, putting their internal credibility at risk (of possible popular outrage). Kiev’s desperate need of financial support from the West is on the other side of this equation.

So there is a very interesting and politically dangerous dynamics here.

Without prejudicing the result, we may face certain game of Moscow with partial agreement on some deal and “independent” separatists as stumbling block (obviously on Moscow’s shadow demand), aimed at squezeeing more concessions from Kiev and Berlin.

Sean KayProfessor, Department of Politics and Government, Ohio Wesleyan University

The French and Germans – and surely the Americans too – understand well that ultimately there will have to be a negotiated settlement. The Germans are also, as I read it, increasingly concerned about calls in Washington, D.C. to escalate the conflict by sending defensive, but lethal, weapons to Ukraine – which in my assessment would risk blowing up the existing consensus in NATO and the EU towards the crisis – which is something Putin would surely like to see happen. Ultimately, the Germans and the French also are going to have their hands full with the Eurozone for some time to come. My guess is they are eager to see what can be done to limit the damage in eastern Ukraine, while continuing to use sanctions to make Putin pay a price for the damage he is doing to not only Ukraine – but to the Russian people.

Juliane Fürst, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, University of Bristol

Purpose of initiative and timing

1. renewed attack by separatist forces in East – urgent humanitarian intervention needed
2. demonstrate unity after Greek election
3. assure Russia that Europe does not seem Ukraine Nato integration – indeed Hollande explicitly said so.
4. to demonstrate diplomacy in face of USA considering delivering weapons (now decided against but was debated all week)

Success unlikely since there is no indication that Putin is acting to any schedule apart from his own. But I guess this is an exercise in ‘we have done all that we could.

Sean RobertsLecturer in International Relations and Politics, University of Portsmouth

It is difficult to read between the lines with visit of Merkel and Hollande, although there are a couple of obvious points to make. The first is that the conflict is escalating. The situation in the East of the country is deteriorating, but more importantly the Russia-West standoff looks set to worsen. In short, the US may have already decided that the Ukrainian armed-forces are in a hopeless position and that American military support is now the only option. This will elicit a response from Moscow which will likely expand the conflict in the East. Second, the visit of Merkel and Hollande to Kiev was timed with the visit of US Secretary of State, John Kerry. It was essential that EU leaders were there too, at least to give an outward appearance that the US isn’t leading the EU’s Ukraine policy. As for their visit to Moscow, it is difficult to see how this unexpected development can achieve any kind of positive outcome. The problem is that the state of public opinion in both Ukraine and Russia actually makes a compromise harder to achieve, as neither Putin nor Poroshenko can afford to be seen to back-down. The obvious solution is the older Russian plan for Ukraine’s federalisation, but the US and EU seem uninterested in pressing Ukraine to accept. In the meantime, as long as Merkel and Hollande do not leave Moscow on a negative note, the prospects of a diplomatic solution to the crisis are at least a possibility.

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