On April 16, in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in person and with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who joined by video-link midway through the conversation.
The three leaders’ shared goal at this juncture is to defuse the perceived threat of Russian military action against Ukraine. The Kremlin has orchestrated this war scare by concentrating massive forces near Ukraine’s borders and in occupied Crimea, with high publicity and dire rhetorical threats. The aim is to intimidate Ukraine into compliance with the 2015 Minsk “agreements” and have Berlin and Paris ratify that compliance through the quadripartite Normandy process (Russia, Ukraine, Germany, France).
Macron’s ambition is to replace the exit-bound Merkel as the primary European actor in the Normandy process and use it to position himself as Russia’s primary interlocutor in Europe. This would require some semblance of a compromise with Russia in Ukraine’s east—be it a partial or interim solution—to sideline this problem and clear the chessboard for working with Russia on higher-priority issues from France’s perspective. While Merkel positioned herself most of the time as speaking for Europe (the Nord Stream Two natural gas pipeline being a glaring exception), Macron has attempted, in vain, to act as an intermediary between Europe and Russia.
The April 16 meeting’s German and French readouts (Bundeskanzlerin.de, April 16; Elysée.fr, April 17) reveal the following positions:
– “Both sides must fully implement the Minsk ‘agreements.’ ” This would seem to ignore Ukrainian diplomacy’s efforts to have those documents revised by mutual consent.
– The conferees “ascertained the risks of military escalation” (French readout; no attribution of that risk). “Concerned about the growth in Russian troops along the Russia-Ukraine border and on the unlawfully annexed Crimea,” the conferees urge a “downscaling of those troop reinforcements, with a view to achieving a de-escalation” (German readout). No reference appeared to Russia’s incendiary threats of war.
– The December 2019 Normandy summit’s communique “remain[s] fully pertinent and require[s] that Russia engage with Ukraine in order to facilitate implementation” (French readout). Those terms require the Ukrainian parliament to adopt a new framework law on the “special status” of the Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine’s east, to incorporate the so-called Steinmeier Formula in that law, and to prepare “elections” in that territory (see EDM, December 11, 12, 2019). Kyiv has resisted those demands to date. President Zelenskyy is aware that yielding to those demands could trigger a severe backlash. Nevertheless, Berlin and Paris along with Moscow would not grant Zelenskyy’s ardent wish for another Normandy summit unless he fulfills the terms of the December 2019 summit.
– Macron will take up the matter of military de-escalation directly with President Vladimir Putin (French readout, reflecting Macron’s ambition for a mediator’s role).
United States President Joseph Biden’s rushed outreach to Putin (April 13) can make Macron’s own attempt look less controversial than it would otherwise have been in the European arena. Macron hastened to endorse Biden’s move on CBS: “I am definitely in favor of discussion with Russia in an open, quiet, respectful discussion. […] I fully share your president’s willingness to dialogue. And I am sure that President Putin can be ready to reopen the dialogue” (Face the Nation, April 18).
Zelenskyy had set the stage for his Paris visit with a lengthy interview in Le Figaro (April 16): “It is Macron, precisely Macron who can now, right now, breathe new life into the Normandy process… Macron’s support is needed first and foremost. Then, let us hope, Russia will be willing.” Zelenskyy still hopes for a Normandy summit with Putin’s participation: “I am keen that all four of us connect and discuss security in Ukraine’s east and the de-occupation of our territories, because it is at such meetings that those issues can be solved” (Ukrinform, April 16). The track record shows the opposite, however.
According to President Zelenskyy’s top advisor, Andriy Yermak, “There were no positions expressed [in Paris] that would be at variance with Ukraine’s interests. […] Real friends would not even attempt to do this. Ukraine, France and Germany agree on continuing the Normandy process” (Ukrinform, April 16). This claim is misleading, since the process continues at top speed on the basis of the “Clusters” document, heavily favoring Russia (see below).
The four Normandy leaders’ top political advisors convened by video-conference today (April 19) to start discussions on possible refinements to the Franco-German proposals. Titled “Key Clusters for Carrying Out the Minsk Agreements,” the document’s latest version was leaked by Putin’s envoy Dmitry Kozak to the Russian press last month, apparently in order to force the Ukrainian side to respond negatively, so that Kyiv would look intransigent and alienate Berlin and Paris. Indeed, the Franco-German document closely adheres to the Russian-imposed Minsk Two “agreement” while tinkering with the sequence of steps at the margins (see EDM, March 30).
It seems highly untimely for Paris and Berlin to force the pace of talks on the basis of such a document in the shadow of Russia’s massive military deployment and before any de-escalation measures that the Paris meeting was supposed to seek from Russia.