Two days after launching a military assault on pro-Russian rebels, Ukraine agrees to resume negotiations, pinning the region's hopes for peace on a feckless body called the Contact Group.
The latest peace plan for eastern Ukraine is brief enough to fit on the back of a napkin, and it took just a few hours for the top diplomats of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France to draft it on Wednesday afternoon in Berlin. When they emerged in the early evening from their talks at the German Foreign Ministry, their mood was a lot more sanguine than when they arrived, and Laurent Fabius, the Foreign Minister of France, even referred to their achievement that day as “mission accomplished.”
That seemed a little premature. At the center of the new peace plan is an ad hoc body known as the Contact Group, a forum for negotiations whose sway among the warring parties is questionable at best. During its first and only meetings last month, on June 23 and June 27, the Group even had trouble establishing who some of its members represented and whether they had a mandate to negotiate. This problem was especially clear among the pro-Russian separatists who have taken over large chunks of eastern Ukraine. Over the past few months, their ranks have split into so many disparate and often feuding clans that no single leader can claim to control all or even most of them.
Oleg Tsarev, one of the leaders of a separatist group called Novorossiya, or New Russia, took part in the first round of talks last month but skipped the second. “It was pointless,” he tells TIME by phone from Moscow, where he went to consult with Russian officials this week. “There were no negotiations as such. Only ultimatums.” The separatist rebels continued attacking the Ukrainian military, Tsarev admits, throughout the 10-day ceasefire meant to allow for the negotiations. So he was not surprised on Monday night when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called off the ceasefire and ordered his military to begin shelling rebel held areas. The body count since then has climbed into the hundreds, reportedly including numerous civilians, and the Contact Group has been widely dismissed as a failure.
But on Wednesday, the diplomats in Berlin declared that it must be revived. “The Contact Group should resume no later than July 5 with the goal of reaching an unconditional and mutually agreed sustainable cease-fire,” their declaration said. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, added that the Contact Group is now “the only mechanism” that allows for Ukraine to talk directly to the rebels. “When we’re talking about the need to agree on a ceasefire, it’s clear that this is only possible in a format that includes both opposing sides.”
That would be true if this conflict only had two opposing sides, but the picture has become far more complex. Just days ago two rebel factions reportedly waged several gun battles for control of a police building in the city of Donetsk. One of the factions is represented in the Contact Group, while the other one, led by a rogue commander who goes by the nickname Demon, has not been invited to the negotiating table. Even if the Contact Group manages to agree on a truce, it is far from clear that all the rebel factions will follow along.
Still, it is better to have some talks ongoing than no talks at all, says Nestor Shufrich, a Ukrainian lawmaker who has been part of the Contact Group from its inception. “The very fact that we created a group that can negotiate in Donetsk is a big success,” he told TIME by phone on July 3 from the hall of parliament in Kiev. The Group did manage to negotiate the release of some hostages from rebel captivity, Shufrich points out, and after Wednesday’s declaration in Berlin, talks have resumed about who will participate in the upcoming talks. “Right now it’s not clear,” he says. “It is a very ticklish question.”
Shufrich’s own involvement seems to be confusing things further. At the Group’s first meeting on June 23, Shufrich claimed to be representing the central government—a claim that the government promptly denied. That forced Shufrich to change tack, saying that he represented “people who want peace and who do not want their children and relatives to be killed.” Despite the ambiguity of his role, he remained at the negotiating table, as did other participants whose mandate was equally murky.
For President Poroshenko, these problems have all raised the political price of keeping the Contact Group alive. “Nobody believes it is possible to negotiate with terrorists,” says Alyona Getmanchuk, the director of the Institute of World Policy, a think tank in Kiev. So as the talks have faltered, Poroshenko’s electorate has come to believe that peace can be achieved “much faster through military operations than through talks,” she says.
Now Ukraine’s strategy is to do both at once. The military assault that began on June 30 will continue even as the Contact Group gets back together. Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, made that much clear after the talks in Berlin on Wednesday. “We lost a lot of time, a lot of lives, during the unilateral ceasefire of Ukrainian armed forces,” he said. “Now we need to work toward a two-sided ceasefire.”
The goal is to offer the rebel fighters a choice: either come to the negotiating table or face airstrikes and artillery fire. Some of the separatist leaders have already come around. “It’s absolutely clear that this conflict cannot be resolved by military means,” says Tsarev of the Novorossiya group. But forcing all of the rebel factions to agree will likely require a lot more time and many more casualties, including among the civilians caught up in the conflict. In the meantime the talking will go on—but so will the fighting.