Analysis

Breakthrough Unlikely at Normandy Four Meeting

Neither Russia nor Ukraine is ready to back down in the Donbas.

Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Emmanuel Macron of France meet outside the Palace of Versailles, May 29, 2017
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Emmanuel Macron of France meet outside the Palace of Versailles, May 29, 2017 (Elysée)

For the first time in three years, the “Normandy Four” are due to meet in Paris on Monday.

This negotiation format, consisting of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, brought about the Minsk I and Minsk II ceasefire agreements in 2014 and 2015. Even though their implementation was incomplete, the Normandy Four was still seen as a somewhat successful example of multilateral cooperation.

Its usefulness may have expired. Experts doubt the upcoming meeting will accomplish much for the simple reason that neither Russia nor Ukraine is ready to capitulate.

Situation in Ukraine

Unless it involves Donald Trump, the international media aren’t paying much attention to the news in Ukraine. But the War in Donbas is far from over. The aforementioned Minsk agreements have helped deescalate the conflict, but they haven’t ended it. This is partly because the agreements were hastily constructed, giving both Russia and Ukraine room for interpretation.

In 2016, looking for a way to break the deadlock, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, then Germany’s foreign minister, now its president, proposed holding elections in the separatist-controlled territories on the Russian frontier under the supervision of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. If they were deemed fair, the two Russian-speaking regions would receive special status within Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government had its doubts. It feared the reintegration of Donetsk and Luhansk could be a Trojan horse. The areas would remain under Russia’s influence, which in turn would be able to influence Ukrainian politics through its proxies.

Ukraine nevertheless agreed to the proposal as the best hope for peace.

Why is the meeting happening?

If there is a plan, why the meeting?

For Emmanuel Macron, the organizer of the summit, it’s important to show France is taking a leadership role. He seeks rapprochement with Russia. Hosting Vladimir Putin in Paris is a way to bring his country back into the fold.

Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, will hope to gain more favorable conditions than those agreed under the Steinmeier formula. Earlier this year, Zelensky initiated an exchange of high-profile prisoners and carried out a partial troop withdrawal from the wartorn Donbas region. His voters feel Ukraine has compromised enough.

Putin has nothing to lose. He holds all the cards and, unlike the other leaders, is in no rush to resolve the conflict.

Even if the meeting produces no concrete outcomes, Putin still gains prestige and establishes a “new normal“, where everybody acknowledges the problem and Russia pretends to be interested in solving it. At best, he might even gain a better hand.

The Germans will be there to make sure neither Macron nor Zelensky does anything reckless.

Possible outcomes

Russia will not allow Donetsk and Luhansk to be returned to Ukraine without getting anything in return. So there are basically two possible outcomes:

  1. Frozen conflict. Some Ukrainian politicians think the occupied territories should remain under Russian control. They would probably remain poor while Ukraine develops with support from the EU. With time, Donetsk and Luhansk will beg to be readmitted into Ukraine without conditions.
  2. Donetsk and Luhansk are returned to Ukraine in the short term with conditions that have yet to be worked out.

The first scenario could work in the long term, but Zelensky is under pressure to do something now. That could force him into a compromise, like the Steinmeier formula, which is unpopular in Ukraine.

The most likely outcome, then, is stalemate: Macron gets to play peacemaker, Putin rehabilitates his image, and Zelensky walks away empty-handed.

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