The summit between the presidents of Russia and the United States has attracted particular attention with those dwelling in the calamitous Donbass region, the fate of which is directly dependant on top-level agreements. Nothing will change: the Minsk process has no alternative and this is what both presidents stick to, despite all the existing divergences. It is enough to compare the verbatim statements by Russian and American politicians.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a detailed answer to journalists' questions following the summit: " With regard to our obligations regarding Ukraine, we have only one obligation which is to facilitate the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. If the Ukrainian side is willing to do this, we will take this path, no questions asked... Back in November 2020, the Ukrainian delegation presented its views about how it was planning to implement the Minsk Agreements. Please take a look at the Minsk Agreements – they are not a confidential document. They say that, first, it is necessary to submit proposals on the political integration of Donbass into the Ukrainian legal system and the Constitution. To do so, it is necessary to amend the Constitution – this is spelled out in the agreements. This is the first point. And second, the border between the Russian Federation and Ukraine along the Donbass line will begin to be occupied by the border troops of Ukraine on the day following election day. What has Ukraine come up with? The first step it proposed was to move Ukraine’s armed forces back to their permanent stations. What does this mean? This means Ukrainian troops would enter Donbass. This is the first point. Second, they proposed closing the border between Russia and Ukraine in this area. Third, they proposed holding elections three months after these two steps. You do not need a legal background or any special training to understand that this has nothing to do with the Minsk Agreements. This completely contradicts the Minsk Agreements.
With regard to military exercises, we conduct them on our territory, just like the United States conducts many of its exercises on its territory. But we are not bringing our equipment and personnel closer to the state borders of the United States of America when we conduct our exercises. Unfortunately, this is what our US partners are doing now. So, the Russian side, not the American side, should be concerned about this."
And Biden came up with some vague wording: "I communicated the United States’ unwavering commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. We agreed to pursue diplomacy related to the Minsk Agreement. He didn’t disagree with what happened, he just has a different perspective what to do about it."
As the case may be, the discussion of "Minsk-2" will continue with the United States to join in, this summer. The State Department has summed up the meeting as follows: Biden and Putin talked about areas where they have clear and huge differences, like Ukraine, and discussed rationales for trying to get the Minsk process moving. Being a participant in the talks, Chief Donbass negotiator and Deputy Chief of Staff of the Russian Presidential Executive Office Dmitry Kozak believes there is hope for a compromise. According to him, Ukraine was elaborated on, including the development of mutually acceptable terms, the future status of these territories as part of Ukraine, if the American partners succeed in affecting the Ukrainian position.
However, his optimism is not shared by the US Deputy Secretary of State and lead diplomat on the Ukraine crisis Victoria Nuland, who was also part of the talks in Geneva. She considers the Minsk agreements as the only written instrument where President Putin assured he would leave the Donbass region. Nuland noted that it was Putin who suggested at the summit that the Americans intervene in the Ukrainian crisis, and the United States will now launch intensive consultations on Kiev's view of the Minsk agreements and momentum toward their implementation. If we really feel that the Minsk agreements' implementation is reasonable as a safe and acceptable way for Ukraine to restore its sovereignty and territorial integrity in the Donbass, instead of some type of political autonomy for the region, and this will entail the withdrawal of Russian forces and its puppets, we will be ready to work along this track, Nuland concluded.
That's the deal.
Given that Kiev is far from being an independent political player and follows the US will, it becomes clear that there can be only two options. The Biden administration pushes restart and makes Ukraine implement the agreements the order they were originally signed. That is, the special status of Donbass comes first, then there is a constitutional reform, elections, and the return of the Donetsk republics back to Ukraine. Another option provides for further attempts to rewrite the Minsk agreements and push for maximum concessions beneficial to Kiev and America, which is an actual surrender of the republics to the Ukrainian administration without the slightest rights and guarantees. But this runs counter to Vladimir Putin's compelling stand, as he made it clear that his country will never tolerate a genocide of Russians and warned against crossing the "red lines" of Russia's national interests.
If we consider the Minsk agreements from the perspective of different American presidents, they either faltered or got ignored by each of them. Under Barack Obama, Ukraine was "patronized" by the same Biden and Nuland. Nothing came of it. Victoria Nuland has repeatedly visited Kiev and is perfectly aware of the situation. Under Trump, Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations was Kurt Volker, an ardent opponent of the Minsk agreements. As a result, there was no progress either. With Biden at the helm right now, there is no reason to believe that he is more interested in ending the war than his predecessors.
For the time being, Ukraine fears that some underhand behind-the-scenes decisions could have occurred in exchange for Russia's concessions on other aspects of the troubled Russian-American relations. President Zelensky even spiraled into vague threats to create the strongest army in Europe and accused the United States and Europe of indulging the Russian aggressor. He fears that the insufficiency of sanctions pressure against the Russian Federation will end up with his forcible direct dialogue with the republics. In particular, Zelensky called it a mistake that Biden made shift without negotiations with him on the eve of the summit: "These issues cannot be resolved without Ukraine. Thus, Geneva negotiations will yield no specific results. We won't recognize any agreement on Ukraine reached without Ukraine. We won't accept any scenarios where we are forced to do things."
And right after the summit, a statement by Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Oleksiy Danilov followed. He expressed the entire Ukrainian political community's consolidated opinion on the Minsk agreements, referring to them as absurd and unfeasible. However, they are not going to torpedo those, so as to prevent a negotiating process failure: "We need to work on the Minsk agreements, there are no others. But with the presence of Russian tanks, armored vehicles, generals and officers in our Ukrainian territory, holding elections is nonsense."
Ukraine needs an ultimate defeat of the Donetsk republics. Which means it will keep simulating a settlement, entail new shelling, aggravation and prospects for a full-scale war. It was to prevent a new cycle of violence that Russia defiantly conducted large-scale exercises, hinting the "hot Ukrainian lads" about various consequences of their reckless gamble. Until now, the Ukrainian General Staff has been obsessed with paranoia, one day on the insufficient withdrawal of Russian troops away from the border (only 12 thousand), another day on "the imminent invasion of the aggressor". Even Ukraine's Western allies are tired of this hysteria: Germany has refused to supply it with lethal weapons, and the United States has temporarily suspended its next army re-equipment tranche.
Meanwhile, the Donetsk republics are living their own lives, away from the Ukrainian orbit. Donetsk universities get Russian accreditation, products get compliant with standards of the Russian Federation, people obtain Russian passports systematically and consistently. The Russian Central Election Commission has recently explained the voting procedure for residents of the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics at the upcoming State Duma elections. Both the State Duma Committee on Control and Regulations and a number of statesmen have appealed to the CEC with a request to work out mechanisms enabling Russians who live in the DPR and LPR to cast their votes. According to DPR head Denis Pushilin, these people are interested in becoming part of the vote. He said it would be more convenient if polling stations were set in the republics' territories. However, a number of difficulties makes the issue "still being worked out". The point is that outside of Russia, its citizens can vote at polling stations inside diplomatic missions or consulates of the Russian Federation. Polling stations for the upcoming State Duma elections should be arranged after the campaign kicks off in June. As we know, during the Constitutional vote in summer 2020 those were only created in Kharkov, Kiev, Lvov and Odessa. And Russian citizens from the unrecognized republics were brought to Russia with special-purpose buses back then. It remains to be seen whether this option is chosen again, or an electronic voting format will be introduced in situ. In fact, the Donetsk republics are gradually integrating into Russia, the only backbone of their shaky status.