Coronavirus pandemic, falling oil prices and the approaching global economic crisis may affect the course of negotiations to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
It is the sixth year since the beginning of Russia's hybrid aggression against Ukraine that resulted in the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of some territories in Eastern Ukraine.
Following an active phase of hostilities in May-September 2014, the so-called “Minsk Arrangements” were signed in the capital of Belarus with the mediation of the OSCE, Germany and France, with the aim to end the conflict and pave the way for Ukraine to regain control over its territory. The last document of these Arrangements was the Comprehensive Measures for Implementation of the Minsk Agreements, approved by UN Security Council Resolution 2202 of 17 February 2015.
All these measures can be summarized as follows:
1. Ceasefire, disengagement of opposing forces, amnesty of fighters and withdrawal of foreign armed formations (in fact Russian troops) from the territory of Ukraine.
2. Granting of special status to the individual areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions and securing it by amending the Constitution of Ukraine.
3. Holding local elections under Ukrainian law.
4. Transfer of the border with Russia under the control of Ukrainian law enforcement agencies.
The sequence of implementing these measures was not clearly spelled out in the Minsk Arrangements and therefore each side interpreted them in their favor.
When signing the Minsk Arrangements, Ukraine was primarily interested in regaining control of its border, understanding that afterwards Moscow would completely lose its ability to influence the situation in the region.
On the other hand, Putin’s team realized that the tactic of hybrid coercive compulsion of Ukraine to surrender under the Crimean scenario ("we are not there") does not work, and the open invasion by the Russian regular troops into Ukraine entails unpredictable consequences.
Therefore, since 2015 Moscow has focused on the strategy of collapsing Ukraine from within while maintaining the low-intensity military conflict in eastern part of Ukraine. In addition, Putin had personal disdain of Poroshenko, which added to the delay in political settlement. In these circumstances, the negotiations in Minsk were used by Moscow primarily to discredit Kyiv in the eyes of Ukraine’s Western partners.
This strategy could have had some prospects if Russia were not under international sanctions and had sufficient strategic resources. But since 2015 the economic situation in Russia has started to deteriorate due to falling oil prices and sanctions. In addition, Ukraine succeeded to overcome its energy dependency on Moscow, suppressed Russia's "fifth column", launched internal reforms and received significant support from the European Union and the United States. Thus, Moscow started to lose its traditional leverages of economic, political and social influence on the processes in Ukraine. So given the growing challenges inside Russia and the strengthening of international sanctions, it became economically unsustainable and politically dangerous for Kremlin to “freeze” the conflict in Ukraine for a long time (as it did in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria).