The mountain labored - and brought forth a mouse. This is how Horace would have evaluated the result of the eight-hour Ukrainian negotiation marathon on 9 December 2019 in Paris. All parties agreed that after a three-year break "the period of stagnation could be overcome", as Angela Merkel put it in the concluding press conference. And Vladimir Putin even diagnosed a "thaw" - a term that once raised some hopes in the Soviet Union at the time of Nikita Khrushchev.
But no more since only "realistic things" were agreed upon, again in Merkel's words. Thus by the end of the year - once again - a complete ceasefire is to be enforced, mine clearance is to be carried out (as envisaged in a resolution back in March 2016), troops and heavy weapons are to be disengaged in three more areas (by the end of March 2020), in addition the parties to the Paris talks "support" the opening of further crossing points (within 30 days), and they "encourage" the Trilateral Contact Group to arrange a comprehensive exchange of prisoners (by the end of the year).
The agreements thus reaffirm the détente efforts that had already begun in previous months: At the beginning of September there had already been a bilateral exchange of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia, and the disengagement of troops in three pilot areas (Stanytsia-Luhanska, Zolote and Petrivske), as agreed upon back in 2016, was eventually completed. Concurrently, the destroyed bridge over the contact line at Stanytsia-Luhanska was partly rehabilitated.
It is certainly positive that progress has been made along this path and that no backtracking took place as happened quite often in the past. However, it is doubtful whether, as Angela Merkel boasted, "preconditions" for "flexibility" were created. The core of the conflict - the future status of the region, the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty, including border control, and the regional elections - was certainly discussed, yet controversially and hence without any progress (except for the prospect to meet again in four months). The same applies to the ominous "Steinmeier formula". Certainly all sides confirmed their (nominal) commitment. However, this formula only addresses the procedural question of when the special status of the territories in question, to be adopted by Kiev, will enter into force (and it remains nebulous about the terms of the preceding elections - in line with Ukrainian laws and OSCE standards). All this is conflict management, far from conflict resolution.
In any case, diplomacy is a laborious business usually conducted in small steps and with major breakthroughs as a distant possibility. However, talking cannot be an end in itself, especially as it runs the risk of turning into the opposite when lacking tangible progress. Although all sides in Paris have confirmed in the "Joint Conclusions" that the Minsk agreements of September 2014 (Minsk I) and February 2015 (Minsk II) "are the basis of activity in the Normandy format, and its member states are committed to the full implementation of these agreements". However, it is not clear at all whether and how the fundamental differences between Kiev and Moscow can conceivably be overcome. Zelensky publicly insisted on the long held Ukrainian view that no elections are conceivable without full Ukrainian control of the region, while Putin in response referred to Minsk II, where this forms the final step in the transition process.
The differences and the associated dilemma are not surprising, because for Kiev both Minsk I and Minsk II were little more than documents of surrender under serious military pressure, for Moscow the maximum of what could realistically be achieved, while Berlin and Paris invested considerable political capital in Minsk II in particular. Consequently, at least three parties have a vital interest in maintaining this format. This constellation, however, has a serious downside since sticking to the wording of the Minsk II agreement leads deeper into the dead end of another frozen conflict with every passing year.Hence, if there is more to the ongoing efforts than managing a frozen conflict and if the Minsk path to conflict resolution is clearly blocked, a new approach must be found. The classic alternative is the internationalization of the conflict through the creation of a UN protectorate. Previous talks about the UN-mandated stationing of blue helmets along the demarcation line indicate the direction but fall short of such a comprehensive approach. Unfortunately, even these talks so far came to nothing, and the "Joint Conclusions" of the Paris talks do not contain any reference. However, there is a carefully worded reference to the "common pursuit of a lasting and comprehensive architecture of trust and security in Europe based on OSCE principles". Perhaps this will eventually change the cost-benefit calculations of the two antagonists.