Russia seems to be ready to negotiate the status of Crimea. It is definitely prepared to discuss the future of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic, but first of all it will go into the prisoner swap with Ukraine.
Recently, Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelensky called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to talk.
“Let us discuss who Crimea belongs to and who is not there in the Donbass,” Zelensky said, adding that he wanted the leaders of the United States, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom present at the talks.
Shortly after the invitation, leaders of Russia and Ukraine held their first telephone conversation. According to the press service of Ukrainian President Zelensky, the primary issue of the conversation was the release of Ukrainian sailors detained by Russia after the incident in the Kerch Strait in November 2018. Another topic for the discussion was the return of other Ukrainian citizens who are imprisoned in the Russian Federation.
According to unofficial sources, Russia is willing to exchange Ukrainian sailors for captured Russian soldiers and other citizens of the Russian Federation being held imprisoned in Ukraine. Recently, the authorities of the Russia backed Donetsk People’s Republic took the first step in that direction by releasing three Ukrainian soldiers and a civilian. Since the mediator in the war prisoner exchange was Viktor Medvedchuk, the head of Ukraine’s allegedly pro-Kremlin Opposition Platform, this move can also be interpreted as part of the election campaign ahead of the Ukrainian parliamentary elections scheduled for July 21st.
Zelensky’s invitation to Putin, and the phone conversation that they had, can also be seen in that light. However, the very fact that Putin didn’t reject the proposal to discuss the status of Crimea can be interpreted as another sign of Russian weakness.
“Russia is ready for negotiations on Ukraine in any format, but the meeting should be well-prepared, and a government should be formed in Kiev,” the Russian President said.
In other words, Russia doesn’t mind negotiating its sovereignty, as long as the meeting is well prepared and the government in Kiev is formed. Even though the Kremlin officials repeated on several occasions that the status of Crimea “cannot” and “will never” be discussed during international negotiations, it’s hard to believe that Russia will be able to reject strong pressure from the West when the Crimean topic comes to the table.
If the US President Donald Trump, the Prime Minister of Great Britain Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and President of France Emmanuel Macron really take part in a discussion on “Who Crimea belongs to and who is not there in the Donbass,” as Zelensky suggested, Russia will definitely have to make some concessions. It remains to be seen how far Putin is ready to go and if the Kremlin has any red lines at all when it comes to the Donbass and Crimea.
Some voices close to the Kremlin suggest that Russia should return the Donbass to Ukraine in exchange for a de facto Ukrainian recognition of Crimea as part of the Russian Federation. Such an option, at least at this point, doesn’t seem realistic. Even if the Kremlin stops supporting the self-proclaimed Donbass republic, there’s absolutely no guarantee that Ukraine, backed by the West, won’t try to reestablish control over Crimea, once the conflict in the Donbass is resolved. Therefore, any form of reintegration of the Donbass into Ukraine would be seen as a clear sign of Russian weakness, and would be a start of another conflict, but this time on de-facto Russian soil.