We do not have anywhere near complete information about what happened at the Lavrov Kerry meeting on Sunday. That in itself is a good sign. It almost certainly means that with the Crimean issue out of the way (and with the western powers having tacitly admitted that the Crimea is now part of Russia) real negotiations have begun. Lavrov described the talks he had with Kerry as “very constructive” and a Russian diplomatic source has said that for the first time since the start of the Ukrainian crisis there was straightforward talking. That suggests serious negotiations and that we have at last got past the point of grandstanding and positioning.
A few points:
1. We know what the Russian demands are: (1) federalisation (2) official status for the Russian language and (3) a binding treaty securing the Ukraine’s neutrality.
2. It is completely unclear what US demands are. Obama has spoken about Russia withdrawing its troops from the Ukraine’s eastern borders. These concentrations of troops do not exist and Obama has anyway admitted that Russia has the right to deploy its own troops on its own territory. There are also references to the OSCE mission and to Russian troops in the Crimea returning to their bases. These are holdovers from an earlier stage in the crisis when it was primarily about the Crimea. The OSCE mission is now in place and does not include the Crimea whilst the demand that Russian troops in the Crimea return to their bases is now redundant.
3. We also know that the Lavrov Kerry talks began following a telephone conversation between Obama and Putin and that Obama in that conversation asked that Russia put its proposals in writing. That together with the absence of any demands or proposals from the US side suggests that it is the Russian demands/proposals that are the basis of discussion.
Though the US has not made its demands clear there can be no doubt about what is the predominant wish of its European allies: an end to the crisis and the Ukraine’s stabilisation. It has become utterly clear over the last few weeks that the Europeans have no wish to be drawn into a prolonged confrontation with Russia that would seriously harm their economies. If only for that reason the pressure will be on to achieve a settlement that will bring this crisis to an end. Given that the Germans have already made know that they are sympathetic to the Russians’ proposals that means that the pressure is on the US to compromise.
The important thing is that the US is not rejecting the Russian proposals. Obviously it is saying that it is the Ukrainians who must ultimately decide questions of federalisation etc. The Russians are saying that too. No one wants to appear to be imposing a diktat. However “Ukrainians” as everyone by now knows includes east Ukrainians who favour these proposals.
There also seem to be some glimmers of possible compromise coming out of Kiev. Amongst Ukrainian politicians Yatsenyuk has already spoken strongly of the need for what he calls decentralisation whilst Poroshenko today is reported as saying that he is prepared to compromise with the Russians about everything except the Crimea (which is not coming back) or European integration (which is not on offer and which Barroso again ruled out). Lukashenko’s meeting with Turchinov may have been intended to open a line of contact between Moscow and Kiev (Lukashenko is due to meet Putin in Minsk soon) whilst the threatened crackdown by Kiev on the radicals including Right Sector whilst largely driven by internal factors nonetheless meets a Russian demand.
This is not going to be an easy negotiation and it is going to take time. There is no certainty about its outcome and there is a real risk that the negotiations could fail and that things could go seriously wrong. The hardliners in Washington (Nuland etc) and in Kiev (Tyagnibok etc and probably Tymoshenko) will resist compromise every inch of the way. We are at a start of what is probably a long and difficult process. It is most unlikely anything will be resolved before the Presidential election in May. However at least the Americans are finally talking to the Russians whilst the Russians have some strong cards to play in that without their help the stabilisation of the Ukraine’s economy is probably impossible at any remotely acceptable cost. Given that this is so and given the pressure to find a settlement from Europe it is more likely than not that some sort of deal involving the setting up of a contact group that will then present Kiev with “proposals” for constitutional reform which Kiev will have to accept in return for economic help will at some point come to pass.