Russia and Ukraine failed to reach an agreement on the status of the Donbass during the recent Normandy summit in Paris. There is still hope that the two sides will resolve the decade old gas dispute by the end of the year.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky, mediated by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, agreed on a new ceasefire and prisoner exchange. Ever since the conflict in the Donbass erupted in 2014, Western-backed Ukraine and the Russia-backed self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic signed several ceasefire agreements, and virtually none of them were ever implemented. Even though there is no military offensive from either side, positional warfare has gone on for four years. It is extremely unlikely that the new truce will hold for more than a couple of hours. Also, it is not probable that Russia and Ukraine will exchange all prisoners. Three months ago Moscow and Kyiv swapped dozens of prisoners, but the issue has not been completely resolved as there are serious problems with lists of prisoners, especially on the Ukrainian side.
Putin and Zelensky agreed to meet again in April 2020, which means the war in Donbass will last for at least four more months. Since the United States, as the main actor, was not involved in the Normandy talks, and will not take part in the next summit, it is unlikely the status of the Donbass will be resolved any time soon. In the meantime, the Donbass republic and Ukraine will keep simulating troop withdrawals. Even if they actually withdraw forces from some villages, as they did last month, positional warfare will go on in other sections of the frontline. A political solution will hardly be found, as Kyiv insists on reinstatement of full control of its state border with Russia, as well as the local elections in the Donbass that should be organized according to Ukrainian law. The Kremlin on the other hand, wants Kyiv to fully implement the Minsk Agreements, signed in the Belarusian capital in 2015, and also to directly negotiate with Donetsk and Lugansk, which is something that Ukrainian authorities strongly oppose.
According to the Minsk Accords, Ukraine is required to make a law on the special status of the Donbass, but it is very unlikely that Kyiv will implement this part of the agreement, as various influential Ukrainian nationalist and even neo-Nazi groups strongly reject any idea of autonomy for the region. Since President Zelensky is attempting to avoid serious confrontation with these organizations, before the summit he announced he would discuss with Putin not only the Donbass conflict, but the status of Crimea as well. Reportedly, the two leaders did not talk about Crimea, but they tried to resolve the gas dispute. Ukraine is currently not buying Russian gas from Moscow directly, but it would like to renew gas supplies from Russia, as its contract with Russian energy giant Gazprom expires on December 31. Russia offered a short term gas deal, as it hopes to finish the Nord Stream 2 and the TurkStream pipelines that will bypass Ukraine. Since the United States Senate is expected to approve sanctions on European companies involved in building Nord Stream 2, it is still highly uncertain if this project will be fully completed. In addition, the European Union insists that the transit of 60 billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas must go through Ukraine to Europe. The Kremlin, on the other hand, proposed the transit of not more than 15 billion cubic meters through Ukrainian territory. It remains to be seen if the Kremlin will make concessions to the European Union.
Russia and Ukraine also failed to reach a compromise on transit tariffs, as Moscow claims the tariffs proposed by Kyiv are unacceptable and too high. However, at this point it seems Russia gave up the short-term gas deal it originally proposed. Speaking after the meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky said they had taken the option of a one-year deal off the table and that he asked for a ten-year deal.
“I think we will find something in the middle,” he said in televised comments.
Russia will, likely, agree to sign a four or five year gas deal with Ukraine, and Gazprom will continue talks with Kyiv over a new gas supply and transit agreement in the coming days. It is expected that Russian and Ukrainian energy authorities will sign a new contract by December 31, but even then tensions between the two countries will remain high.
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