It's a risky business, attempting to predict the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine. But this weekend's Kyiv visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stirred hopes that a resolution to the Ukraine-Russia standoff and the bloody fighting in Donbas may finally be near. We look at five of the key factors in play.
1. This Is Germany We're Talking About
A number of Western officials have already visited Ukraine since fighting erupted between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists in April. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
But none brings as much to the table as Merkel, who oversees the largest economy in Europe, dominates foreign policy debate in the European Union, and -- as a Russian-speaker raised in Communist East Germany -- enjoys a more informed working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin than many of her EU counterparts.
Merkel's trip, which follows an invitation by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, is an obvious boost for Kyiv after months of flaccid EU interest. But the German leader has already set a tone of compromise. Speaking on August 18 in Riga, Merkel struck a delicate balance between the interests of East and West -- pledging a NATO response to any future Russian aggression in the Baltics or Poland but ruling out a permanent NATO presence in the region. Some media have speculated that she comes to Kyiv with a deal requiring gains and sacrifices on all sides.
A report in "The Independent" says the plan would formally hand Crimea to Russia in exchange for a withdrawal of Kremlin support in Donbas and a long-term gas deal that would include compensation for revenues lost in Crimea, including rent for the Black Sea Fleet. The deal would also forbid Moscow from future meddling in Kyiv's EU integration; Kyiv, in turn, would agree not to join NATO. The report's accuracy could not be independently confirmed.
2. The History Gods Say Yes.
Merkel's visit coincides with two historically significant dates. August 23 marks the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union whose notorious secret protocol cleared the way for a Soviet "sphere of influence" and Moscow's forced annexations of the Baltic States and parts of Romania, Poland, and Finland.
A day later, Ukraine commemorates 23 years since its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union -- an anniversary whose traditional military parade holds particular resonance this year.
To be sure, apt coincidences of history are no guarantee of cooperation on the ground. But any deal ending the Kremlin's revanchist campaign in Ukraine would be a fitting historical coda.
3. Poroshenko And Putin Get Face Time.
The last time these two men met was in June, when they joined world leaders in France to mark the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy. They spoke briefly -- Merkel, significantly, was in the huddle -- but with little result. But the two men are now due to meet again on August 26 in Minsk, alongside an EU delegation led by foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Putin's two main regional allies, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbaev.
Officials on all sides have outlined agenda issues in the blandest possible terms -- energy, humanitarian needs, and "wider political concerns" -- and there's still no guarantee that Poroshenko and Putin will meet face to face. But Ukrainian officials have hinted that progress is being made, with Poroshenko aide Valeriy Chaliy noting, "a clear diplomatic roadmap is taking shape" that will allow the parties "to talk about a move from war to peace."
4. The Military Tide Appears To Be Turning.
If Ukrainian officials appear upbeat, it may have less to do with diplomacy and more with battlefield success. The Ukrainian army, initially hampered by poor training and equipment, floundered badly in the early weeks of the fighting in April and May.
Pro-Moscow separatists, suspected of receiving healthy shipments of arms and supplies from Russia, quickly seized large swathes of the Donbas, establishing de facto governments manned by Russian-born agents with fighting credentials earned in breakaway regions like Transdniester and Abkhazia.
The region's two largest cities, Luhansk and Donetsk, quickly fell under separatist control. Rebels began kidnapping and sometimes killing local residents, and used surface-to-air missiles to shoot down Ukrainian military planes -- and, it is suspected, the Malaysian Airlines passenger jet carrying 298 people, a horrific error that sent a wave of international condemnation crashing down on Putin for his suspected rebel support.
In recent weeks, however, Ukrainian forces have made strategic gains, breaking through rebel corridors cutting off both Luhansk and Donetsk and laying what military spokesman Andriy Lysenko called the "preparatory work" for the cities' liberation. To be sure, the fighting is far from over. Bulletins from the war zones are murky and often contradictory, and many reports continue of Russian tanks and APCs heading into the region, rather than out. Most seriously, the intensified violence has come at a horrific human cost, with the death toll totaling more than 2,080 civilians and combatants. Even if separatist forces beat a hasty retreat, Kyiv will be left facing a shattered, resentful region.
5. Russia Itself Might Want A Way Out
For a while, Moscow appeared to be profiting handsomely from its campaign in Ukraine -- particularly in Crimea, where it was able, with breathtaking efficiency, to return a lush southern territory to Russia, where many ribbon-wearing citizens thought it belonged all along.
But the war has started to pinch. In addition to suspected culpability in the MH17 shooting, the Kremlin has suffered a series of financial setbacks -- some of them self-induced. EU and U.S. sanctions have targeted, and disgruntled, some of the Kremlin's richest patrons, and Putin's own "patriotic" initiative -- banning Western food supplies -- is already causing a steep rise in prices and spotlighting the woeful state of Russia's agricultural sector. The Russian president, who has staked his political career on pocketbook principles, is eager to avoid domestic discontent. Many observers suggest that the Kremlin has already signaled that it's ready to step back on Ukraine -- and cite as an example the recent withdrawal of Moscow-born separatist leaders like Igor Strelkov, who was believed to be acting as the Kremlin's agent in Donbas.
In his uncharacteristically muted speech in Crimea last week, Putin asserted Russia's historic right to the territory but appeared to indicate the imperialist wish list would end there. To be sure, current hopes of detente could be early or off the mark. But a deal legitimizing Moscow's claim on Crimea would allow Putin to come home looking like a winner -- even as he loses Ukraine.