US-Russian talks on UN peacekeeping mission in Eastern Ukraine is in deadlock

The talks between Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov and US special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker were “a step back” according to the latter.

The meeting between US special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov regarding the deployment of a UN security mission in contentious Donbass region took place in Belgrade on November 13. In a November 27 interview to Politico, Volker said that the talks accomplished “nothing”.

There are two possible propositions of a UN security mission in Donbass. Moscow had proposed to deploy United Nations peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine along the line currently separating Ukrainian government forces and the separatists. According to this proposal, the UN force should be situated along the line and nowhere else, so it can focus on protecting the OSCE observers. The US idea, according to Volker, is to create a UN peacekeeping force that would have not only free rein but also security authority throughout the entire contested area up to and including the Ukraine-Russia border. Besides having access to the border, the UN force should not have any Russian personnel in it, he said.

“Our third meeting [with Surkov], as you said, was a step back. They went back to their original proposal again. I don’t know what the next step after this is. It could be that that happened for completely other reasons having nothing to do with Ukraine, just where we are in our US.-Russian relationship. It could have had to do with the lack of a bilateral meeting between President Putin and President Trump.”

Moscow rejected 26 out of 29 of the paragraphs in Volker’s proposal, with the negotiations coming to deadlock.

But Volker said he intends to keep negotiating. He said the peacekeeping plan represents the best hope to return to Minsk II, a peace agreement that both Ukraine and Russia pledged to follow.

“What we are trying to do is clarify the options,” Volker said. “If they want to dig in, they can, but it’s going to cost a lot. If they want to move on, it can be something we all agree on and we can find a way to make that work out.”

Volker said he found Surkov a useful interlocutor, in that the Kremlin adviser clearly has the president’s ear and comes in his capacity as a “political operative” talking about a fundamentally political decision, “not as some powerless functionary from the Russian Foreign Ministry.”

Volker also noted that the US would like to have friendly relations with Russia, but Russia makes it difficult using different means, be it sending the US mission out of the embassy in Moscow, actions in Syria, or Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Volker said he still thinks that the situation in Ukraine may serve as a basis for a positive outcome.

Volker insisted Putin could turn that around by cutting a deal now to end hostilities and bring in outside peacekeepers.

“By invading the country and taking part of the territory, they’ve produced a more nationalist, more Western-oriented, more unified Ukraine than ever existed before,” Volker argued. “That’s exactly the opposite of what they wanted to produce, so it gives them a reason to say, ‘Well, we’re not getting out of this what we wanted. It’s costing us a lot to do it, both in a very specific sense of a military operation and civilian administration,’ but it’s also costing in terms of sanctions, their reputation, their relationship with the European Union, their relationship with the United States. So they might have an interest in resolving this.”

Since the beginning of Donbass conflict Ukraine and the West regularly blame Russia of deploying its military forces there. Russia has denied the accusations.

Overall, he said, prospects for peace are so dim he reckons it’s very likely that active fighting will continue a year from now in Ukraine. When asked “How likely?”, he said: “I’d say it’s at least 80 percent. There’s a chance that there won’t be [any fighting], but the most likely scenario is that this continues,” he added grimly, noting that more than 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine have been killed since the fighting broke out.