On Wednesday, Germany and France will lead what Angela Merkel is calling “one further attempt” to bring the war in Eastern Ukraine to a diplomatic end. Yet this particular round of negotiations, much like its September 2014 predecessor that led to the signing of the Minsk Protocol, might be destined to fail before it even begins. In short, Russia can doublespeak its way, most likely in laughable half-truths, while the European Union will draw out points of ceasefire. Russia has no need to resist an agreement in Minsk, since it still denies that it is directly party to the conflict. The resulting document will no doubt result in applause from a Europe that is ready to reopen its economy to lucrative Russian business interests in the energy and financial sectors as well as from the pro-Russian rebels who will use the time to resupply, heal up, and plan their next ceasefire violation.
We must not be so cynical to presume that no format of negotiations can end this conflict, but certainly not the ones to be used on Wednesday. This is because the two principle actors who can most inflame the conflict, the pro-Russian Rebel leaders and the United States, will be conspicuously absent from the talks. Rebel leaders have recently repeated that there is no ceasefire to be had with Kyiv. There is no real incentive for them to stop either. They have been rapidly advancing and could even threaten to connect Russia to Crimea, especially if they take the strategic southern town of Mariupol. Perhaps the only physical barrier to this devastating scenario for Ukraine is the second great potential destabilizer: the United States.
The most prevalent debate in American foreign policy as of late, in spite of the Greek Debt Crisis and the ongoing campaign against ISIS, is whether to give lethal assistance to the Ukrainian military. Congress, in a rare bipartisan move, has already assured that US lethal support is only Obama’s rubber stamp away from reality.
Of exceptional note is how the issue has polarized the elite of Russian-Affairs scholars, former public servants, and the top Political Scientists. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have argued against the strategy of arming Ukraine, while an all-star cast of fellows from the Brookings Institution and the Atlantic Council and Anders Aslund have taken hardline positions in favor of such action due to the sheer levels of violence that Ukraine has seen in the previous weeks. President Obama made himself clear in Monday’s press conference with Angela Merkel: If negotiations in Minsk fail, we will likely see more sanctions followed by US weaponry in the hands of Ukrainians. Obama’s phrasing was key, directly alluding to his pessimism towards negotiations: “We can’t simply try to talk [Russia] out of it. We have to show them that the world is unified in imposing a cost for this aggression.” In response, a member of the German press facetiously asked Chancellor Merkel what she thought: “[Can] Nobel laureate Obama do more to defuse this conflict?”
Pessimism is rife. Curiously absent from the German and American arguments are the questions of civilians caught in the crossfire of unabated rebels or an American-armed Ukraine. Perhaps the most poignant analysis of the situation comes, not from the high tower of American scholarship, but from French journalist Benefit Vetting. He said “absurdity” is the only word to use on the ground in Donetsk and Luhansk. If Minsk Round facilitators believe there is some lull in the fighting that is playing to their advantage, they only need to be reminded of what Donetsk looked like the night before Obama and Merkel’s press conference. However, one cannot discount the prospect of a miracle. Merkel is an extremely skilled diplomat who told the joint German-American press corps, “I myself would actually not be able to live without having made this attempt.” However, all signs seem to point to more absurdity. Eastern Ukraine might be one cowboy hat away from going full-Kubrick.