Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is stepping up his attempt to negotiate an end to more than two months of fighting for control of eastern Ukraine, and his key dialogue in that effort will be with the Russian government.

Eleven days into Poroshenko’s presidency, the government in Kyiv has pressed on all fronts, stepping up its military counter-offensive against Russian-backed militias that have seized dozens of towns and cities in southeastern Ukraine, while also preparing for a truce and an attempt at negotiations. Poroshenko spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin overnight and said today that he will soon proclaim a unilateral ceasefire to advance peace talks. He also won unanimous approval from parliament for his choice as foreign minister, Pavel Klimkin, who has been Ukraine’s representative in early talks with Russia mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Klimkin replaces Andriy Deshchytsya, who had drawn the Kremlin’s ire by publicly insulting Putin this week with a vulgar reference.

In settling the conflict, “the real negotiations are to be held with the Russians,” Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Adrian Karatnycky said in an e-mail exchange. Poroshenko has invited representatives from eastern Ukraine to meet him in Kyiv for the start of a dialogue on how to assuage political and economic discontent in the east that has helped to fuel the Russian-led uprising. These talks will not be central to ending the conflict itself, Karatnycky said today. “The parallel discussions with locals are for post-conflict reconciliation,” he said.

Among Karatnycky’s observations were these:

  • The real negotiation is with Russia. “Here Poroshenko could potentially handle this through either diplomatic channels, such as his new foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, or he could enlist the help of the European Union and the US for multi-party official talks. But he also could benefit from the advice of Ukraine’s former deputy prime minister, Valery Khoroshkovsky, who lived in Moscow for three years in the early 2000s and has high-level connections there.” Poroshenko also could turn for back-channel contacts to former Ukrainian officials who have had good relations over the years, such as another former deputy prime minister, Yuri Boyko, or former President Leonid Kuchma, Karatnycky said.
  • Poroshenko’s talks with prominent eastern Ukrainians will not include the leaders of the secessionist uprising there, many of whom are Russian citizens, Karatnycky said. “Poroshenko is not interested in talks with the marginals, criminals, and Russian citizens who represent the leadership of the [self-declared secessionist] republics of Donetsk and Luhansk,” Karatnycky said. “He is speaking to the business leaders, elected officials, cultural and sports figures, people like Serhiy Bubka [the former pole-vaulting world champion], the Donetsk mayor [Oleksander Lukyanchenko], local managers of businesses such as DTek, Metinvest, etc.” (DTek is a Donetsk-based coal and energy company; Metinvest is the business group headed by Donetsk’s, and Ukraine’s, richest magnate, Rinat Akhmetov.) Kyiv’s interlocutors in eastern Ukraine could include Ukrainian “insurgent leaders who lay down their arms prior to negotiations, although these will be few in number.
  • A deal with Russia will end the large-scale uprising. “If a deal is struck with Putin, three-quarters of the insurgency winds down. The best trained and equipped fighters will recede into Russia. Aid and weapons flows from Russia will diminish. Fanatics from Russia will fight on as will some of the radicals from the region.” Kyiv then will face terrorist operations by guerrillas, “but most cities and localities will quickly come under Ukraine’s official control.”

James Rupert is an editor at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Adrian Karatnycky