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Trump Offers Moscow a Way Out of the Ukrainian Stalemate – Can Russia Trust Him?

© AP Photo / Andrew HarnikIn this photo taken April 21, 2017, President Donald Trump looks out an Oval Office window at the White House in Washington following an interview with The Associated Press
In this photo taken April 21, 2017, President Donald Trump looks out an Oval Office window at the White House in Washington following an interview with The Associated Press - Sputnik International
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US media has reported that the Trump administration is looking to restart the Ukrainian peace process with Moscow, as part of a broader effort to improve Russian-US relations. Ukrainian and Russian observers consider the possible provisions of the deal, and what it all means for Moscow, and for Kiev.

On Sunday, the Washington Post reported that the White House wants to restart the Ukrainian peace process with the aim of improving relations with Moscow.

Citing US officials and outside experts, the newspaper explained that Washington is hoping that Ukraine could be the place where President Trump's "so-far thwarted plan to improve US-Russian relations can be kick-started."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko centre, Chairman of Senate Armed Services Committee, US Senator John McCain, centre left, US Senator Lindsey Graham, centre right, and US Senator Amy Klobuchar pose for photo with the Ukrainian marines, during their working trip to the Donetsk region to congratulate Ukrainian servicemen on the upcoming New Year, in the village Shyrokine, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016 - Sputnik International
Trump Wants to Relaunch Ukraine Peace Process for Improvement of US-Russia Ties
WP indicated that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to appoint a special State Department envoy to coordinate the initiative and carry out negotiations with Russian presidential aid Vladislav Surkov, with a "robust interagency process" already underway "to chart the new strategy."

"Although still in its early stages, Tillerson's idea is to restart a version of the peace negotiations that the Obama administration was engaged in last year, hoping that new circumstances and personalities might produce better results," the article said. Obama-era Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland had conducted negotiations on Ukraine with Surkov last year, but is believed to have failed to make any real progress.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin with US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office - Sputnik International
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Speaking to Russian media, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov essentially confirmed the veracity of the WP piece, and said that Russia was ready for substantive discussions with the US on the Ukrainian crisis, and that Moscow is waiting for the appointment of the State Department's special representative.

Ukraine has seen a civil war in its southeastern Donbass regions since April 2014, when Kiev sent troops, tanks and heavy artillery to attempt to quash protests which sprang up in dissatisfaction to the new authorities' following the February 2014 Maidan coup d'état. The subsequent war in Donbass has claimed the lives of over ten thousand people, displaced millions and led to a crisis in relations between Russia and the West.

© AFP 2021 / Aleksey FILIPPOVTanks from the Ukrainian Forces are stationed outside a building in the flashpoint eastern town of Avdiivka that sits just north of the pro-Russian rebels' de facto capital of Donetsk on February 2, 2017
Tanks from the Ukrainian Forces are stationed outside a building in the flashpoint eastern town of Avdiivka that sits just north of the pro-Russian rebels' de facto capital of Donetsk on February 2, 2017 - Sputnik International
Tanks from the Ukrainian Forces are stationed outside a building in the flashpoint eastern town of Avdiivka that sits just north of the pro-Russian rebels' de facto capital of Donetsk on February 2, 2017

People hold Ukrainian and US flags and placards reading Trump welcome to Ukraine!, Trump - the peace for Ukraine! and the others during their rally in front of United States embassy in Kiev on January 20, 2017 - Sputnik International
A New Impetus? Trump Team Addresses Ukraine in Hope of Mending US-Russian Ties
In early 2015, the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France met in the Belarusian capital of Minsk to hammer out the Minsk agreements. Aimed at establishing a ceasefire, the agreements also laid down a series of steps to gradually reintegrate the separatist regions back into Ukraine, while providing them with special constitutional and other guarantees on local autonomy. The ceasefire has generally held, but Kiev has been accused of refusing to fulfill its obligations under Minsk, while blaming Moscow, which isn't even a party to the agreements, but only a guarantor. 

Ukrainian and Russian observers' reaction to the WP piece ranges from guarded to optimistic.

Bogdan Bezpalko, the deputy director of the Center for Ukrainian and Belarusian Studies at Moscow State University, told RIA Novosti that the Trump administration's plans are a sign of just how much Ukraine has moved into the periphery of US geopolitical considerations. The analyst believes that Washington could easily put sufficient pressure on Kiev to end the civil war in Donbass, and that the real question revolves around what they want in return.

"Everything is already prepared for a peaceful settlement in Ukraine," Bezpalko said. "The Minsk agreements exist, although Ukraine does not plan to comply with them, even though they pretend to do so. Therefore, all that's necessary is for the US to exert pressure on Kiev to start implementing Minsk, and the path to a peaceful settlement will be opened," he added.

The observer emphasized that for the Ukrainian president, and the entire Ukrainian ruling elite, Washington has immense authority; accordingly, achieving peace in the Donbass is possible if the pressure from Kiev's US patrons is serious enough.

© AFP 2021 / Pool/Grigory Dukor Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (L-R) pose for a family photo at the presidential residence in Minsk
Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (L-R) pose for a family photo at the presidential residence in Minsk - Sputnik International
Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (L-R) pose for a family photo at the presidential residence in Minsk

Bezpalko noted that it's plainly obvious that Ukraine is becoming a "peripheral territory" for American leaders. "The US is more interested in the Middle East and the Far East, on the possible confrontation with China, and the issue of global trade. Ukraine as a state cannot interest Washington solely as a tool with which to put pressure on Russia."

In Bezpalko's view, the Trump administration wants to turn Ukraine into a bargaining chip for negotiations with Moscow. "There are two areas where Russia and the US are trying to exert influence one another – Ukraine and Syria. Washington, [in exchange for a settlement in Ukraine] may demand the creation of an independent Kurdistan, might push for the disintegration of the Syrian state…they might require a shift in Russia's attitude toward a number of Syrian [militant] groups, they might demand consent to remove Assad from power. There are many options, but what is clear is that if a tradeoff does take place, Washington will demand significant concessions in Syria."

Russian Army in pictures - Sputnik International
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For his part, political scientist Igor Shatov, who serves as the deputy director of the National Institute of Modern Ideology Development, is more guarded about Washington's initiative.

Speaking to Russia's Svobodnaya Pressa online newspaper, Shatov emphasized that "in this case, starting 'from scratch' would be a bad idea."

"It would mean crossing out everything that has been achieved so far, crossing out the Minsk agreements. Despite their seeming lack of progress, Minsk has actually showed its effectiveness. The agreements' main achievement has been the cessation of full-scale hostilities. It should be remembered that the Minsk agreements involve the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics. It's highly questionable whether in the current political climate, such an achievement by Russian diplomacy can be repeated."

In other words, Shatov warned that "starting from scratch would mean a resumption of the war, because the Donbass republics will not accept a situation where their views are not taking into account."

Russian President Vladimir Putin - Sputnik International
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For now, the observer noted that 'new circumstances and personalities' or not, Trump has had very little room for maneuver in efforts to improve relations with Russia. "Therefore, for now there is only the hope that Trump can escape from these shackles," Shatov said.

The analyst emphasized that unfortunately, "Trump's opponents are constantly narrowing the space he has for maneuver, forcing him to constantly prove that he is not a Russian agent; this creates a situation where it becomes impossible for him to make responsible decisions. Therefore, now, any negotiations whose results show even the whiff of any concessions to Russia will be viewed by Trump's opponents as a Russian conspiracy."

© REUTERS / Jim Lo Scalzo/PoolU.S. President Donald Trump reacts after delivering his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives iin Washington, U.S., February 28, 2017
U.S. President Donald Trump reacts after delivering his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives iin Washington, U.S., February 28, 2017 - Sputnik International
U.S. President Donald Trump reacts after delivering his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives iin Washington, U.S., February 28, 2017

Ultimately, Shatov said that attitudes toward Ukraine in the US establishment are divided into two camps. Which of them comes out on top remains to be seen.

"Part [of the elite] is indifferent to Ukraine, and they are sooner opposed to US interference in the conflict, and to spending US taxpayer money to support a civil war across the ocean. This is the patriotic component of the US establishment, which advocates for a better life in the country," the expert explained.

"The other part is counting on Moscow getting bogged down in Ukraine, and seeing the Ukrainian crisis spread to Russia itself. These are the globalists who advocate a world without borders and nations, and for them our country is seen as a territory which has yet to be assimilated," Shatov concluded.

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