It looks like the Kremlin is getting serious about resolving the ongoing Ukraine crisis.
President Vladimir Putin appears to have put his best advisers on the case, bolstering hopes that 2016 will be the year the stalled Minsk II agreements, negotiated by France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine to bring peace to war-ravaged eastern Ukraine, gain real traction.
Late last month, Mr. Putin replaced a relative nonentity who was leading the Russian negotiating team with Boris Gryzlov, a leading Kremlin security official. And he sent his top troubleshooter, Dmitry Kozak, to manage relations with the rebel Ukrainian republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Experts say that suggests the Kremlin is tiring of the long stalemate over the war-torn Donbass region, and is readying for a concerted push to solve remaining issues and prompt an end to the Western sanctions that even Mr. Putin admits are "severely harming" Russia's economy.
On Wednesday, Mr. Gryzlov met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev, and on the same day a fresh truce was declared in eastern Ukraine to replace the badly frayed cease-fire set in place last September. In his annual press conference Thursday, Mr. Poroshenko pledged to restore Ukrainian sovereignty over Donetsk and Luhansk this year.
The Minsk accord calls for constitutional changes in Ukraine to grant autonomy to the rebel regions, hold elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk republics to establish legitimate leadership that could negotiate with Kiev, and to return rebel-held sections of the border to Ukrainian sovereignty. All of that was supposed to have happened by the end of 2015, but efforts fell apart amid intense controversy in Kiev, rebel refusal to hold their elections under Ukrainian law, and disagreement over when the border handover should occur.
"The problem is that all sides treat the Minsk agreement like a menu, from which they will select just the parts that appeal to them," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow daily Kommersant. "But in order for it to work, it must be implemented in full. Nobody seems ready to do that yet, so it clearly needs a much stronger push."
In an interview with the German newspaper Bild this week, Putin said the border would be returned to Ukraine only once constitutional changes have established the autonomy of the rebel republics. In his Thursday press conference, Mr. Poroshenko pledged to implement all provisions of the Minsk deal, but did not address the ongoing disputes over interpretation.
"It seems that Ukraine's view is to regain control over the border before allowing elections [in the rebel republics]. The US appears to support this position," says Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the independent Kiev Center of Political and Conflict Studies. "Russia's view is the other way around. It's not clear how this can be resolved. But Gryzlov's participation will definitely elevate Russia's direct participation in the talks, and raise the stakes."
Gryzlov is a former speaker of Russia's parliament, and a close confidant of Putin's. "His appointment is very important because he's a member of the Security Council, the highest organ of political leadership. His status allows him to talk with Putin more often than other high officials," says Andrei Klimov, deputy head of the international affairs commission of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament.
Mr. Kozak, a deputy prime minister who has previously been sent by Putin to deal with trouble spots like Russia's turbulent north Caucasus and the recently annexed Ukrainian territory of Crimea, may have the job of twisting rebel arms and making them more amenable to a deal that would integrate the secessionist territories back into Ukraine.
"These appointments are important, and Ukraine should probably match them by sending higher officials to take direct part in the negotiations as well," says Vladimir Panchenko, an expert with the independent International Center of Policy Studies in Kiev.
But, he warns, even any basic compromises by Poroshenko, such as recognizing the results of rebel elections that are now slated for March, could undermine Ukraine's fragile political balance.
A new survey done by the International Republican Institute found that majorities in all regions of Ukraine, including the Kiev-controlled parts of Donbass, favor remaining part of Ukraine. But, at the same time, pessimism and disillusionment with authorities is spiking in all parts of the country, especially in the troubled Russian-speaking east.
"Lack of political trust and falling morale are realities in both the rebel republics and Kiev-controlled parts of the country," says Mr. Strokan. "Even with a renewed diplomatic push, and more efforts from outside, there are still way too many unpredictable factors. I fear this mess will be with us a long time."