The new dialogue between Russia and Ukraine creates potential momentum

Ilkka Kanerva,
Honorary Minister, Member of the Finnish Parliament (National Coalition Party),

Geographically distant conflicts often seem politically distant. The escalation of the Ukrainian crisis in the Azov Sea last year showed again that Ukraine is not a frozen conflict. The total number of victims of the war, which has been going on for five years, is over 13,000, and people living in separatist areas and near the front line are suffering from severe humanitarian problems. The difficulties in the security situation in Europe largely stem from this conflict.

In recent weeks, we have seen some slight shifts in relations between Ukraine and Russia. The most significant outcome has been the exchange of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine. However, the most important step politically has been the adoption of the so-called Steinmeier formula by all parties, including Ukraine. The idea is that Ukraine would adopt a law on the special status of the Donbass separatist areas and its local elections, which would be conducted in accordance with international standards under the control of a OSCE monitoring mission.

Ukraine has stated that weapons must first be withdrawn from the area before elections can be held – the idea of ​​elections under the shadow of rifles, of course, does not arouse enthusiasm. In addition, according to the Ukrainians, local elections in Donbass should be held at the same time as the whole country. It is also important to stress, that no progress will take place unless Ukraine gains back the full control of its borders.

The agreement on adopting the Steinmeier formula by all parties is potentially a positive step to end the long war. For the first time in three years, there is a situation, which could allow negotiations between the leadership of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia take place in the Normandy format.

A Normandy format summit may become possible during the autumn season that has already begun.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy wants rapid results and progress in solving the Ukrainian crisis. Zelenskiy has stated that he does not want to spend the next five years solving the crisis. This is reflected in his active approach, including opening a dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ukraine’s new foreign minister, Vadim Prystaiko, also announced earlier that the country would seek to end war by the end of the year. Prystaiko has even talked about some “painful compromises”.

There are talks between Russia and Ukraine to increase prisoner exchange and withdrawal of arms on both sides of the contact line. There is also a need to build infrastructure in the occupied territories of eastern Ukraine so that humanitarian aid can be delivered to the local population. In many places, the situation is now completely inhumane.

However, the most important part in finding ways to forward is the compliance with the terms of the Minsk agreement. So far, Russia has not taken decisive steps to change its policy towards Ukraine and the Minsk ceasefire agreement violated on a daily basis.

Right now Ukraine needs the support of its international partners in its efforts. Some elements of the solution are clear and many of them are associated with the OSCE, such as the SMM and the Contact Group or numerous election observation missions. The OSCE also has to play a strong role in facilitating the implementation of the Minsk agreements, such as possible measures to organize the autonomous status of the Donbass region, the organization of elections and monitoring of the region.

For Finland, the impact of the Ukraine crisis has been great. Post-Cold War geopolitics have brought NATO and Russia into contact along the Baltic Sea Region, which has also meant tensions are moving closer to Finland’s territories. Therefore, Finland has a particular interest in seeking constructive opportunities to promote conflict resolution.

During his visit to President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kiev, President Sauli Niinistö said that Finland would provide good services if we could be instrumental in achieving peace in Ukraine. Finland has a long history of promoting peace-mediation and facilitating negotations. If the parties’ political will to find solutions in Ukraine is real, Finland must be prepared and have the means to advance peace-talks.

The implementation of the Minsk Agreements may require a UN peacekeeping operation in the future, to which Finland could contribute if necessary. In addition, Finland could have a role to play in organizing the special status of the Donbass region, in line with the example of Åland. Similarly, the possibility of supporting negotiations at different levels should not be ruled out.

How a lasting solution to this crisis, which has a central impact on the security situation in Europe, can be resolved is still an open question. Dialogue is important but before any true progress towards ending the war in Ukraine or European relations with Russia can be improved, Russia must first come halfway.

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