What was billed as an American mission to shore up the defense of Eastern Europe against Russian aggression may lead to a deal to resolve the West's standoff with Moscow
There is no formal peace summit in Europe this week, no roundtable discussion to hash out an accord over the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. But when the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, the U.S. and the European powers wind up in the same place on Friday—officially, to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion that turned the tide in World War II—there will be a lot of backroom diplomacy going on.
So far the choreographer of the informal talks appears to be French President Francois Hollande. As the host of Friday’s commemoration ceremony in Normandy, he is in charge of choosing the guest list, and his invitation to Ukraine’s President-elect Petro Poroshenko was announced on May 28, three days after Poroshenko won his country’s presidential race. After spending nearly two days this week with President Obama and a host of Eastern European leaders in the Polish capital, Poroshenko confirmed that he would be traveling on to Normandy for the June 6 event.
A source close to his delegation tells TIME that, on the way to France, Poroshenko will make a brief stop in Germany, where the Energy Ministers of Ukraine and Russia have been in marathon talks for days over the price Ukraine pays for Russian natural gas. That has been a major sticking point in their relations, as Russia has jacked up gas prices to put pressure on Ukraine’s economy, eating up a large slice of the emergency aid that Kiev has been getting from the West.
But Poroshenko has been coy on the issue of whether he would meet with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Normandy this week. “As things stand now, a meeting between me and Putin is not envisaged, but I do not rule out that it could take place in one format or another,” he told reporters on Wednesday after talks with Obama in Warsaw.
That is the same line the White House gave when asked whether Obama would meet with Putin in Normandy. In laying out the program for Obama’s trip to Europe this week, the U.S. President’s Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes would not even say whether the two leaders would shake hands, and he insisted there was no plan for a formal meeting.
But on the sidelines of the D-Day commemorations, Putin will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, both of whom have been urging Putin to “de-escalate” the conflict in Ukraine to avoid further Western sanctions against Russia. The night before the Normandy events, Putin will also meet with Hollande, within hours of a scheduled meeting between Obama and the French leader that same evening.
“This series of bilateral meetings and multilateral meetings this week offers an opportunity to agree upon a broad outline of a compromise solution,” says Simon Saradzhyan, an expert on Russia at Harvard University’s Belfer Center. “Sooner or later, the sides will have to make a deal because Ukraine cannot live with a hostile Russia, as the latter has enormous economic and other leverage, which the West is not willing to match.”
The outlines of a possible deal have already started coming into focus from the remarks of the various leaders involved. One of Russia’s key demands has been for Ukraine to switch to a federalized system of government, which would transfer a variety of powers from Kiev to the local authorities in the various regions of country. Since March, Pro-Russian separatists in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have been fighting an insurgent war to break away from Kiev’s control entirely, all with diplomatic cover and reinforcements from across the border in Russia. But even as the Ukrainian military continues its assault against the separatist rebels, Poroshenko now seems ready to meet them halfway. “It will be a decentralisation of power on the Polish model, which will transfer real prerogatives to the local level,” he said on Wednesday in Warsaw. “And that is very topical for our colleagues from eastern Ukraine, from Donetsk and Luhansk regions.”
Russia has also signaled its willingness to negotiate. One the eve of his departure for France, Putin said in an interview with French media: “I am always ready for dialogue, and I think that dialogue is the best way to bridge any gaps.” The tens of thousands of Russian troops that have been poised for weeks to invade Ukraine have mostly been pulled back away from the border in recent days. But one huge gap still needs to be bridged—Moscow has looked the other way as paramilitary fighters have continued coming from Russia to aid the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
“It is decisive that President Putin use his influence to get the separatists to refrain from violence and intimidation, hand over their weapons and stop the occupations,” Merkel said in a speech to the German parliament on Wednesday. “If this doesn’t happen…we won’t shrink from imposing further sanctions.”
But international investors, who act as the bookmakers of global politics, are already betting against any further sanctions on the Russian economy, said Timothy Ash, the head of emerging market research at Standard Bank in London. “[There is] even talk of Russian entities coming back to international capital markets,” Ash said in a note to investors on Wednesday. The risk of sanctions, which investors factor into the price of Russian bonds, has now gone back to what it was before Russia annexed the region of Crimea from Ukraine in March, Ash said, “which is remarkable.”
It would not be unprecedented for Western leaders to improvise a deal with Russia just as the world seemed to be teetering on the brink of another Cold War. In September, the U.S. was poised to launch missile strikes against Syria, a Russian ally, in punishment for the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons on its own people. Against that background, world leaders gathered for a summit of the G20 nations in Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg on Sept. 5, publicly squabbling over how close the U.S. was to starting another war in the Middle East. But during a private conversation on the sidelines of that summit, Obama and Putin first discussed a possible solution – making Syria give up its chemical weapons – that led the U.S. to call off its airstrikes.
Saradzhyan, the Russia expert, believes there will be room in Normandy for a similar kind of brinkmanship. “There is a chance they might agree on an outline of a future deal,” he says. “I don’t mean a formal treaty signed by all those leaders. I mean an outline, which all sides will then flesh out and act upon, so not irreversible either.” Even so, a breakthrough on the crisis in Ukraine would be a credit to all the leaders involved.
–with additional reporting by Charlotte McDonald-Gibson / Brussels