As the Ukraine-Russia-West conflict continues and shows no sign of disappearing, International Channels for Diplomacy organized its third diplomatic discussion between experts in countries in conflict with each other. As channels of all kinds between Russia and the West have been rapidly closing, the Canadian NGO’s efforts are intended to foster greater communication through the practice of non-official mediation between a Ukrainian, Russian and Westerner. This article aims at providing a summary of the effort. Additionally, the reflections of the participants have been included in the accompanying article.

A time-flexible email-based dialogue was organized by Adnan Zuberi, the director of ICDiplomacy that lasted between April 17th to May 5th, 2015. The dialogue partners, described below, participated as independent experts and were not speaking on behalf of any institution or affiliation.

Moderator

Dr. Peter Dale Scott 
Former Canadian diplomat
Professor of English, Emeritus, UC Berkeley
Co-founder, Peace and Conflict Studies Program, UC Berkeley

Dialogue Partners

Dr. Sergii Glebov
Professor and Dean of International Relations at Odessa Mechnikov National University
Host of Odesa Media TV-Radio Group “GLAS”

Dr. Vladimir Kozin
Professor and Advisor, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies
Russian Presidential Administration
Honorary Member, Russian Foreign Ministry

Dr. David Carment
International Affairs Professor, Carleton University
Fellow, Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute
Fellow, NATO

It was quite encouraging to learn that many people, ranging from those with an expertise in conflict analysis to even a retired five-star French general, wanted to moderate and help as long as the schedule of the effort matched with theirs.

Each dialogue participant was to propose a few topics and to focus on one by consensus, so that potential problems, or their magnitude, could at least be marginally reduced by ensuring that everyone agrees beforehand that the search is for small steps that could ease tensions. As various topics to discuss were put on the table, ranging from reinforcing the ceasefire to the Western assistance of Ukraine, the Russian counterpart felt that all such topics are connected and having a specific focus was counterproductive, and proceeded to a hard line approach of stating what Kiev must do.

This triggered an unending spiral of emails between the Russian and Ukrainian counterparts. As one side described the origins of the conflict involving the “Revolution of Dignity” being countered by “terrorists”, the other side described it as an “unconstitutional takeover” resisted by the “People of Donbass”.

The diplomatic caliber of the moderator throughout the dialogue was quite noticeable. Rather than immediately trying to put out the fire, he carefully examined the nature of disagreements and took the time to carefully formulate and propose solutions that might bring the Ukrainian and Russian together. At times, he was able to get one side to respond to the other, slowly gained the trust of both sides, and tried to ensure the Russian did not feel cornered as he was in the company of all western participants and organizers.

The moderator proposed the issue of language to be discussed since foreign observers have noted that the use of the Russian language has not been handled very well by the Kyiv parliament. The Ukrainian counterpart discussed how he teaches his classes in Russian at a Ukrainian state university without any difficulty and that he has authored academic papers on language as a political tool, while the Russian counterpart provided examples of the Russian language being suppressed. The moderator attempted to elevate the dialogue by involving academic papers and encouraging credible media references to establish facts.

The moderator led all sides to agree that a genuine and durable cease-fire is needed and then asked what steps each panelist would suggest in getting their respective leaders to enforce such a cease-fire without adjusting the areas of control. The Russian counterpart agreed and mentioned a Minsk 3 was needed between Kyiv and LNR/DNR officials under OSCE monitoring but pointed out that sanctions are applied only to Russia whereas no sanctions are applied to Kyiv for ceasefire violations. The Ukrainian counterpart felt LNR/DNR are artificial representatives and that global powers, such as the Normandy Four and the US would be needed.

When the moderator asked if certain battalions refusing orders from Kyiv would threaten a ceasefire, the Ukrainian counterpart’s response was similar to his take on the use of Russian language, that these items are often exaggerated in terms of the attention they receive. The Canadian counterpart also tried to draw attention to thinking about territorial claims being established in the Debaltseve region so that negotiations can emphasize the needs of people and the monitoring of aid. Agreement on Debaltseve can also lead to an agreement on Mariupol without violence but concessions from both sides would be needed.

There was insufficient commentary from the Russian counterpart on what concessions might look like from the Russian side. Other topics distracted the group from a technical approach of going through Minsk II point by point in search for specific agreements which could have been very beneficial.

The last point of discussion was introduced by the Russian counterpart as certain news was not reaching the west and it concerned President Poroshenko’s statement to the STB channel, as reported by the Kyiv-based agency Interfax: “The war will be over for Ukraine only when it regains Donbas and Crimea”. The Ukrainian counterpart believed the president was not referring to a new war but instead was referring to the war being waged on Ukraine in occupying its territories by its neighbor. Poroshenko’s statement, and the negative response of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to it, for some reason received no coverage in the west. There were instances where the Canadian participants in the dialogue expressed that the media has been in highly biased in their coverage of the conflict.

The Canadian counterpart noted that there were several issues surrounding Poroshenko, not just the war. There is resistance to federalization in Kyiv as Donbass will likely remain under centralized control – an important point that should be discussed in negotiations. Secondly, the problem with federalization is that oligarchs may be empowered and the necessity to diminish the influence of oligarchs should be a precondition towards making Ukraine a strong and economically viable country that is free of corruption.

Unfortunately, the Russian ended communications with the Ukrainian in an unusual manner. Both sides began communicating their viewpoints only to the Canadians. The Ukrainian counterpart made some thoughtful recommendations (see the accompanying article on panel reflections) about the need for Canadians to have a third original angle rather than playing neutral. Overall, there were many lessons learned from the effort that will be beneficial for facilitating future dialogues of this nature.

As the dialogue came to an end after about two weeks, spanning almost 60 pages if printed on paper, the moderator made exemplary remarks, one of which was:

“It is time to close this particular discussion, but not the channels it has developed. Events will change in the future. If ever either of you sees a fresh opportunity to communicate something that could revive the hopes of a peaceful conflict resolution (as opposed to a further airing of grievances) I would invite you to write again to any or all of us. Speaking for myself personally, I do not regard our experience as having been a waste of effort, but as a small contribution to a process, still in its infancy, that may someday help stabilize our troubled world.”

For an in-depth reflection on behalf of the participants, click here.

Adnan Zuberi is a communications technologist and educator working in the field of e-diplomacy and citizen diplomacy. With former North American diplomats, he co-founded International Channels for Diplomacy, an NGO that fosters diplomatic communications between conflicting parties to deescalate conflict and restore peaceful relations. He holds degrees in theoretical physics and science education from the universities of Waterloo and Toronto, and a certificate in conflict analysis from USIP. 

Banner image by NASA, courtesy of Unsplash.

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