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Results of the Normandy Format Talks for Ukraine: Hope, with Reservations

Mykhailo Minakov
A photo from the Normandy format summer with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, French President Macron, Russian President Putin, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Mikhail Metzel, TASS, source: kremlin.ru

BY MYKHAILO MINAKOV

After a three-year break, the Normandy Format was once more activated earlier this week. The presidents of Ukraine, France, and Russia and the chancellor of Germany met in Paris on December 9 to resume talks on the fate of eastern Ukraine. Though the meeting did not lead to a breakthrough in finding a solution to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, it did have some promising results.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrived in Paris burdened by declining popularity and by political rivalry with Ukraine's former president, Petro Poroshenko. Poroshenko, during whose presidency the Minsk Memorandum and the Minsk Protocols were signed, now demands that these agreements not be implemented, saying that doing so would be capitulating to Russia. By challenging Zelenskyy's authority in this fashion, Poroshenko appears to be using against the new president certain tactics that Saakashvili used against him in 2017, in the hope of consolidating various oppositional parliamentary parties and radical groups and becoming their new leader. With a large hostile crowd gathered in Kyiv's center, near his office, expressing support for Ukraine's sovereignty and independence and decrying any possible deal with Russia, President Zelenskyy left to face Putin in Paris.

A meeting of the four leaders (with documented conclusions), along with separate talks between the Ukrainian and Russian presidents and delegations, produced the following key results, as announced in a press conference.

First, political communication between Kyiv and Moscow has been revived, after being dormant since November 2016. It was the first face-to-face meeting of President Zelenskyy and President Putin. The leaders of the two nations at war with each other had a chance to start resolving the conflict. Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, the Normandy talks’ "old-timers," are now restarting the negotiations with new participants in the French and Ukrainian leaders. This meeting thus seemed to mark the start of the new period of enhanced communication in a format that has proven to be effective in preventing conflict from escalating.

Second, the status of the Minsk agreements seems to start changing. Both Minsk documents are the result of Russia’s and the Russian-backed separatist military's successes in the campaign of August 2014—February 2015. Since then the political and security situation has changed. And even though President Putin said at the meeting that there are "no alternatives" to the Minsk agreements, Zelenskyy's and, to some extent, Angela Merkel’s statements at the press conference suggest that these agreements may be reviewed for the sake of conflict resolution.

Third, the participants in the Paris talks reached some important decisions with regard to demilitarization and addressing humanitarian needs in the Donbas. Both Moscow and Kyiv agreed to implement a lasting cease-fire. At the press conference, Zelenskyy demanded that the Russian Federation use its influence in the region to make the cease-fire a reality, taking the same responsibility on himself on behalf of Ukrainian forces. Other promising proposals that seemed to have mutual consent included troop withdrawal in three new places on the front line, an "all-for-all" prisoner swap by New Year’s Eve, stepped-up mine clearance, extension of the Law on the Special Status of Certain Districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions, and incorporation of the Steinmeier formula into Ukrainian legislation.

In several key areas, however, Kyiv and Moscow did not reach agreement: holding elections in the non-controlled territories, as called for under the Steinmeier formula; the handling of Russian-Ukrainian border control; and the status of the Donbas after reintegration. These disagreements may help keep the street protests in Kyiv in check and assure protestors that the president is not capitulating. Also, the seemingly permanent interior minister, Arsen Avakov, has got a message to cool it out to some of the more radical groups that are allegedly under his influence. Avakov has supported Zelenskyy and his position during talks on regaining control of the Donbas.

In addition to the Donbas issue, the Ukrainian and Russian delegations discussed the gas issue in a bilateral format. The two presidents, together with several ministers and representatives of Naftogaz and Gazprom, have tried to find their way to agreeing on an new contract for transiting gas from Russia to the EU through Ukraine's pipelines. Both Paris and Berlin are very interested in seeing this issue resolved before the current contract between Ukraine and Russia expires on January 1, 2020.

All parties made some progress in the fall of 2019 toward a new contract that would ensure Ukraine’s and the EU’s energy security. According to sources in Naftogaz and the European Commission, a draft agreement had been prepared in advance of the Paris talks and was ready to be signed and presented by the presidents as one of the meeting's successes. However, some new and as yet unclear disagreements among the parties appeared just hours before the meeting. Thus this part of the talks failed, though the involved parties plan to follow up soon and try to prevent Kyiv and Moscow from engaging in a new energy war.

The results of the Paris talks proved that the antecedent hopes and fears were both, to some extent, based in a realistic appraisal of the outcome. The Normandy Format has had new life breathed into it, and the two nations have restarted peace and trade negotiations. Some steps toward demilitarization of the line of contact and improving the quality of life in the war-affected communities were made. However, after almost six years of conflict, negotiations are still in an early stage. The old conflict can lead to many new ones: in the energy sector, in the radicalization of protests, in failure of the cease-fire and the resumption of hostilities. A stable peace in Ukraine and Eastern Europe thus remains a distant goal for all parties in Europe.

About the Author

Mykhailo Minakov

Mykhailo Minakov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Focus Ukraine Blog
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region though research and exchange.  Read more