Summing up the recent meeting of political advisers to the leaders of the Normandy Four (Russia, Ukraine, France, Germany) in Paris, Dmitry Kozak, Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation, bluntly admitted: “There is nothing to brag about,” “progress is practically zero.” This, however, did not prevent him from suggesting that perhaps a new meeting scheduled in a couple of weeks in Berlin would turn out to be more constructive.
Experts also spoke about the possibility of reviving the Normandy format of negotiations to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but official statements from Kiev again made us think that “the patient is more dead than alive.”
Conducted an inventory
According to Kozak, the Normandy format is “dragging out a miserable existence” today. It is difficult to disagree with this opinion. Due to the position of Kiev, the negotiations began to slip under the former Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko. In December 2019, after a three-year break, the Normandy Four summit was held with the participation of Volodymyr Zelensky. However, the decisions made at the Paris meeting were never implemented, moreover, representatives of the Ukrainian authorities, including the head of state, insist on the need to revise the Minsk agreements on the settlement of the conflict in Donbass. As a result, the negotiation process again slowed down and practically came to naught.
Against this background, the very fact of holding a meeting of political advisers in Paris, which lasted more than eight hours, can be regarded as an achievement. Especially if we take into account the hysteria around the “imminent attack of Russia” on Ukraine, which is being strongly inflated by officials and the media in the United States and Europe.
Kozak regarded the discussion that took place as “the first such frank conversation in order to make an inventory of all the problems associated with the implementation of the Minsk agreements.” According to him, all participants in the meeting agreed – “and this is also a new breakthrough” – that the Normandy format will not be able to contribute to the settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine until different approaches to the interpretation of the Minsk agreements are eliminated.
“It’s not bad that the participants are trying to somehow bring their understanding of what is written in the text of the Minsk package of measures to a common denominator,” said Dmitry Peskov, press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation, commenting on the results of the Paris meeting of political advisers. Although the discrepancies, according to him, are “a rather paradoxical thing,” since the wording of the Minsk agreements “is not florid, they are extremely specific, understandable and formulated in such a way as to avoid double reading.”
“Of course, it remains to be analyzed how we came to a situation where several parties – participants in the Minsk [negotiation] process – have different understandings of the most understandable and clear language,” the Kremlin spokesman added.
In fact, everything rests on the fact that Kiev, followed by Berlin and Paris (as well as the entire collective West) are trying to view Russia as a party to the conflict in the Donbass and reproach it for not fulfilling certain obligations, although the text of the Minsk agreements does not mention what obligations of Russia there is not a word. As Kozak said, at some point Moscow, tired of fruitless bickering on this issue, suggested: “Well, okay, you think that Russia is a party to the conflict, write down, but immediately list the obligations in accordance with the Minsk agreements, which should be fulfill Russia”. “Do you know what the answer was? “We don’t know what those commitments might be. Let Russia come up with obligations for itself,” the Russian representative frankly said following the Paris meeting of political advisers.
Another stumbling block is Kiev’s firm unwillingness to negotiate directly with the self-proclaimed republics. And without such contacts (by the way, just mentioned in the text of the Minsk agreements), it is impossible to start a political settlement of the conflict. In the seven years that have passed since the signing of Minsk-2, the Ukrainian authorities have not actually taken a single step towards the implementation of the political part of the agreements. “Seven years ago, a dialogue on this topic was supposed to start, but we didn’t even start it,” Kozak stated.
Kiev not only did not formulate its own position, but for a year and a half has not responded to specific proposals made by the unrecognized republics of Donbass. He did not answer during the Paris meeting of political advisers, asking for two weeks to think. “Come to Berlin. Maybe we will [work] more constructively in the Normandy format, there will be something to answer in the end,” Kozak told reporters, summing up the results of the Paris meeting.
“A Matter of Principle”
After the meeting of political advisers in Paris, some political scientists and experts started talking about the possibility of progress on the “Norman track” of the settlement in Donbass. For example, Ruslan Bortnyk, director of the Ukrainian Institute for Policy Analysis and Management, noted that “there is a small but hope” that at the upcoming meeting in Berlin “one should expect at least some kind of breakthrough in the search for methods to unblock the implementation of the Minsk agreements.”
Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Institute of CIS Countries, also agreed with the possibility of a certain rapprochement of the positions of the parties at the Berlin meeting of political advisers. However, in his opinion, “real breakthroughs should not be expected.” It is possible to fulfill the points related to the ceasefire and the disengagement of forces, but “Ukraine will not agree to any political points of the Minsk agreements.”
As a matter of fact, the expert’s forecast has already been confirmed. Following the meeting of political advisers, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky supported the intensification of the work of the Normandy Four and reiterated his favorite thesis about the need to convene its summit “in the near future”. At the same time, he named the ceasefire regime as the “first priority” for Kiev, but he did not say a word about a political settlement.
And the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmitry Kuleba even stated that there would be no direct negotiations with the unrecognized republics of Donbass. “That won’t happen, it’s a matter of principle,” he said, adding that “direct negotiations with the militants” are not provided for in the Minsk agreements. “This is a conflict between Ukraine and Russia, which has resulted in Russian aggression, and we will negotiate with them,” Kuleba added.
Andriy Yermak, head of the office of the President of Ukraine, who represented the country at the Paris meeting of political advisers, also stated that “there have been and will not be any direct negotiations with the separatists.”
It turns out that there is no reason to expect progress along the path of settlement in Donbass due to the activation of the Normandy format in the near future. Paris and Berlin, of course, made statements in support of the activities of the Normandy Four and declared the “decisive importance” of the Minsk agreements. And German Foreign Minister Annalena Burbock even said that in a week she would visit Ukraine with her French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian, including plans to visit the line of contact in Donbass.
Support for the Normandy format and “any sincere effort to achieve progress from all sides” was also expressed by White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
However, Moscow has no illusions about the true intentions of Washington and European capitals. “Kiev has understood that Berlin and Paris will not force it to comply with the Minsk agreements,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday. As for the United States, according to the minister, their representatives stated that they would not be included in the Normandy format, but were ready to help resolve the situation in Donbass. However, “it is still hard to believe in this” against the backdrop of massive arms supplies to Kiev and fanning the hype around the fact that Russia is “about to attack” Ukraine.
And yet, the Normandy format is worth keeping in working condition, if only in order to prevent the current smoldering conflict from escalating into a hot phase. I think that any negotiating mechanism is useful to reduce the degree of tension and eliminate the threat of large-scale hostilities.