Despite being parties of one conflict and neighbors and comrades of the same historical events, it is now obvious that Russia and Ukraine — or at least their very different leaders, Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky — are living in opposing realities.
The best we can say about the recent visits of U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland to Moscow with top European officials Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel to Kyiv was that these high-level meetings ensured the status quo in the longstanding Russia-Ukraine conflict.
But that is a status quo measured in dead negotiations in the Normandy Format over the simmering war on the border and the status of Crimea. It is status quo of the shared disapproval of the situation, and the clarity of the opposing directions chosen by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky.
Why continue to talk about the same problem, if the parties are seeking opposite solutions.
As seen by Putin
Moscow has achieved what it wanted: Direct negotiations with the Americans regarding Ukraine have now been resumed. Notably, the request for Nuland's meeting with his Russian counterparts came directly from Washington. It was their initiative and, as Nuland put it, the aim was to construct "stable and predictable relations."
To make it possible, the Russians lifted sanctions on Nuland, just as the Americans spared a number of Russian diplomats from punitive measures.
And it is the U.S., not the EU, that Putin wants to negotiate with; it was a direct link that was written between the lines in Dmitriy Medvedev's recent article. Any direct dialogue between Putin and Zelensky will not happen until there is no sign of a more pro-Russian attitude in Kyiv.
The troubles in our bilateral relations are currently too big.
The key task with which Nuland is traveling is the resumption of regular dialogue between Moscow and Washington on the so-called Ukrainian issue. But other meetings are also taking place, including those with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and with Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov. During these talks, various issues are likely to be raised: the situation in Central Asia, the deployment of U.S. military personnel at Russian bases, China and the situation in Southeast Asia, as well as other regions of the world.
Moscow cast this high-ranking visit in a cool manner: "We shouldn't complain that we can't reach any breakthrough agreements right away. It's hardly possible. The troubles in our bilateral relations are currently too big. They cannot be sorted out at once," said the press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Peskov. At the same time, the State Department called Ms. Nuland's talks in Moscow "constructive."
Charles Michel, Volodymyr Zelensky and Ursula von der Leyen in Kiev on Oct. 12
As seen by Zelensky
Hopes and demands are what's guiding the Ukrainian president. Still Zelensky must contend with the fact that from Moscow he's seen as not a fully autonomous figure and from the European Union as a little boy who can wait.
Zelensky is eager to negotiate with his Russian counterpart; he talks almost every week about the need to meet with Putin either one-on-one or in the Normandy format.
But the negotiations are on hold — just as they were during the presidency of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron only have to listen to the Ukrainian and Russian leaders accusing each other of violating the Minsk agreements and the Paris communiqué. It has already gotten to the point where the Germans and the French are begging Putin to resume normal negotiations between the foreign ministers.
Brussels remains Kyiv's closest ally. Such were assurances from the heads of the European Commission and the European Council, Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel respectively in the latest meetings in the Ukrainian capital.
One positive breakthrough was the signing of the Open Skies agreement, which Ukraine has been waiting eight years for. But European guests gave no guarantees regarding the most important issues: prospects of membership in the European Union and energy security. "Where is that finish line, and is there a finish line?" Zelensky said, describing the essence of his complaints to European officials.
Nord Stream 2 guarantees
On the other side, relations with Washington seem almost perfect: Victoria Nuland is spoken to all the time, communicating both at the level of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry and at the level of Bankova. U.S. officials inform their Ukrainian counterparts of the details of negotiations with their Russian counterparts. The problem lies in something else: the quality of communication.
U.S. can and will use the Ukrainian issue to get some concessions from the Russians.
The Ukrainian side is sure that the Americans share all their information, that Kyiv knows everything about what is going on in the Russian-American track. But one may recall here the recent situation when the Americans and Germans signed a framework agreement on guarantees for Nord Stream 2 behind the backs of their Ukrainian counterparts. All this was done to appease Russian-friendly business and get closer to Moscow.
The broader reality is that the U.S. can and will use the Ukrainian issue to get some concessions from the Russians in areas that are important to them. Nobody knows what that means for Kyiv in the long run. In the short run, no doubt, it means more bad stability.