By Vladimir Socor*
On January 26, in Paris, senior political advisors to the Russian, Ukrainian, German and French heads of state and government convened to “reanimate” (such is the term in circulation) the quadrilateral “Normandy” process of consultations.
The meeting, lasting eight and a half hours (almost twice longer than anticipated), marks a breakthrough of sorts, in that all sides have publicly acknowledged for the first time since 2015 that: 1) The four sides differ substantially with each other in their respective interpretations of the Minsk “agreements,” no longer attempting this time to paper them over; 2) Differing interpretations have to be acknowledged as such in order to be dealt with and resolved if possible; 3) The parties will meet again in two weeks’ time, in Berlin, with a view to working out a common interpretation of the Minsk “agreements” to accelerate a political settlement.
The short “declaration of the advisors” issued by the Elysée Palace (Elysee.fr, January 26) barely reflects that potential breakthrough. It is, however, attested by the Russian and Ukrainian presidential envoys, Dmitry Kozak and Andriy Yermak, respectively, in their separate briefings following this marathon session.
Kozak spoke of the “breakthrough” with a mixture of frustration (acknowledging that Russia could not impose its own reading of the Minsk “agreements” upon Ukraine after seven years) and fresh hope (anticipating that the meeting in Berlin could).
This meeting took place in the shadow of Russia’s massive military buildup in Ukraine’s vicinity. The Russian, German and French sides apparently overruled Ukraine’s attempts to bring this matter onto the Paris meeting’s agenda. Kyiv had to accept their argument that Russia’s troop movements around Ukraine are a matter for the ongoing discussions between Moscow and Washington and between Moscow and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); whereas the Normandy forum deals with the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas only. Moscow, in particular, holds that “these two situations are not related to each other” (Ukrinform, Interfax, TASS, January 26).
The Ukrainian side went into this meeting with three priority objectives. First it sought to revise (in all but name) the Russian-imposed Minsk “agreements.” Ukraine, according to Yermak, needs an “inventorization [stock-taking] of where we are in terms of implementing the Minsk agreement. […] We will ‘walk through’ the Minsk agreements in their entirety, as we have clear-cut positions and answers on every clause. […] We will fulfill the Minsk agreements only in Ukraine’s interests and only in accordance with international law.” Second, Kyiv wanted a “durable and unconditional ceasefire in Donbas, regardless of any differences over interpreting the Minsk agreements.” And third, it strived to persuade the other three sides to hold a Normandy summit at the level of heads of state and government soon (Ukrinform, January 24–28).
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his government have attempted to revise (reinterpret) the Minsk “agreements” ever since the December 2019 Normandy summit. To accept those documents, provided that they conform with Ukraine’s interests and international law, is tantamount to radically revising them, since they purport to override both international law and Ukraine’s national sovereignty. Moscow has now for the first time hinted, through Kozak at this meeting, that it might discuss differing interpretations. This would seem to mark a success for Kyiv, subject to confirmation at the next Normandy meeting.
The advisors’ declaration out of the Elysée Palace (see above) includes Kyiv’s desideratum of “unconditional adherence to the ceasefire regardless of differences over implementing the Minsk agreements.” With this, the Normandy forum actually recognizes the existence of such differences, potentially legitimizing them, which is a success for Kyiv. However, the advisors’ declaration connects the ceasefire with adherence to the July 2020 military agreement between Kyiv and Russia’s proxies in Donetsk-Luhansk. The Ukrainian side soon backtracked on that agreement, which Kozak wants to be reinstated (see below).
Finally, Zelenskyy’s quest for a Normandy summit serves mainly a pretext for meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin there. Moscow would probably demand political concessions from Kyiv in return for a summit. Zelenskyy and Yermak promised to incorporate the “special status” for Donetsk-Luhansk and the Steinmeier Formula into Ukraine’s legislation as a price for the December 2019 Normandy summit (the last to be held thus far). Kyiv, however, proved unable and ultimately unwilling to fulfill those promises. Moscow, Berlin and Paris in unison demand fulfillment as a precondition to holding another Normandy summit (see below).
Zelenskyy and Yermak characterize the Paris meeting as “constructive” and “positive” in terms of Ukraine’s objectives going into this meeting (President.gov.ua, January 27, 28). Faced with Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine, they view the resumption of the quadripartite Normandy process as a potentially stabilizing factor.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov is content with the resumption of the quadrilateral (Ukraine, Russia, France, Germany) Normandy process and the direction it seems to be taking. The outlook, according to Peskov, is “not bad at all […] they are trying to arrive at a common understanding of the text of the Minsk agreements, even though the text is clear enough to exclude differing interpretations” (TASS, January 27).
Moscow hopes to start moving toward the end game in compelling Ukraine to accept the Minsk “agreements” under Russian military pressure and with Western political cooperation—bilaterally with the United States and multilaterally in the Normandy forum. A solution on Russian terms must look international, not simply Russian; and it must, at least pro forma, be negotiated with Ukraine, not dictated to it, as the Minsk “agreements” were in 2014-2015. Moscow, therefore, needs to demonstrate a degree of flexibility on the modalities of implementing the Minsk documents. By the same token, Moscow needs to relaunch the paralyzed Normandy process for a multilateral framework to conflict-resolution on Russian terms.
Russian presidential envoy Dmitry Kozak described this dual approach at length in his briefing in Paris. The twin objectives are to show a modicum of flexibility on the Minsk documents and to shore up the questionable credibility of the Normandy forum. Thus, “We have all agreed, and this is a breakthrough, that the Normandy forum’s priority task is to achieve a common understanding of all stipulations of the Minsk agreements regarding conditions of the political settlement, ceasefire observance, humanitarian issues… We all concluded today that the Normandy forum will hardly play a substantive positive role as long as there will be varying interpretations of the Minsk agreements within the Normandy forum. […] If the Normandy participants manage to arrive at a common understanding about the implementation of the Minsk agreements, this forum can be effective. If that does not happen, the Normandy forum will remain stuck in the lamentable state it currently demonstrates” (TASS, January 26).
While seemingly not averse to tinkering with the Minsk documents at the margins, Kozak presented a bill of indictment against Kyiv on the fundamentals. He rejected Kyiv’s view that Russia is party to the conflict in Donbas. He chastised Kyiv for refusing to designate the authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk as parties to an inner-Ukrainian conflict and refusing to negotiate directly with them. Kozak accused Kyiv of blocking the political solution to the conflict by ignoring multiple written proposals from Donetsk and Luhansk in the Contact Group. And he demanded that the July 2020 agreement on a mechanism to oversee the ceasefire (a mechanism that Kyiv declined to join after signing that document) “must be carried out by the two signatory parties, [namely] the armed forces of Ukraine and the armed formations of Donetsk and Luhansk”—evidently aiming to equalize the latter with the former (Interfax, TASS, January 26; Kommersant, January 27).
Kozak denied any relationship between the conflict in Ukraine’s east and Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine. Instead, “Russia’s troop movements around Ukraine respond to NATO’s eastward movement. These are two separate negotiation processes, unrelated to each other” (TASS, January 26).
Moreover, in order for the next Normandy meeting to be successful, Ukraine should cancel the nine military exercises that—according to Kozak—are planned to be held in Ukraine in 2022 with the participation of the United States and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member countries (Interfax, January 26). While certain NATO allies are delivering arms to Ukraine, Kozak warned, Russia would be within its rights to deliver arms directly to the Donetsk and Luhansk forces. He pointed out that there is nothing in the Minsk “agreements” to bar Russia from providing such support (TASS, January 26).
The next meeting of the Normandy countries’ senior political advisors is scheduled to be held in Berlin in two weeks’ time. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hopes that this process would lead to a Normandy summit of the heads of state and government, where he could meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the advisors’ meeting in Paris, however, Kozak set a price on Zelenskyy’s ticket to a Normandy summit. First is the fulfillment of the December 2019 Paris summit, including a “special status” for the Donetsk-Luhansk territory in Ukraine’s constitution. And second, the Ukrainian side must deliver an agreement between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk in the Trilateral Contact Group on the specific modalities of that special status in a post-conflict Ukraine. Once this is done, a Normandy summit can convene and discuss the next step—namely, internationally agreed local elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk territories (Interfax, TASS, January 26).
About the author: Vladimir Socor is a Senior Fellow of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation and its flagship publication, Eurasia Daily Monitor (1995 to date), where he writes analytical articles on a daily basis. An internationally recognized expert on the former Soviet-ruled countries in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia, he covers Russian and Western policies, focusing on energy, regional security issues, Russian foreign affairs, secessionist conflicts, and NATO policies and programs.