German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron each conferred with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Berlin and Paris, respectively, on the same day, April 12, between the two rounds of Ukraine’s presidential election. With challenger Volodymyr Zelensky far ahead in the opinion polls, both Berlin and Paris are already planning for a post-Poroshenko Ukraine. Moreover, Macron received Zelensky in Paris, also on April 12, separately from Poroshenko.
Merkel’s and Macron’s meetings with Poroshenko amounted to farewells to him as president. They also laid markers for his putative successor Zelensky in the upcoming negotiations with Russia on “implementing the Minsk armistice.” Merkel and Macron propose urgently to resurrect the Normandy format (Russia, Germany, France, Ukraine) at the level of heads of state and governments, after more than two years of inactivity. And they would like Kyiv to be the first to come out publicly with this initiative, following the presidential election runoff.
For his part, Poroshenko embarked on these visits not as an all-but-defeated president, but as an active contender for reelection. He used both visits as electoral campaign events for playback at home.
In his readouts of the Berlin meeting for Ukrainian media, Poroshenko announced that he would be the one—as the reelected president—to initiate a summit-level Normandy meeting. But he attached (as he has done throughout his presidential term) Ukraine’s own conditions: in this case, they include “preserving the unitary state structure of Ukraine” (i.e., no “special status” for the Donetsk-Luhansk territory) and discussing a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Ukraine’s east as a priority item on the Normandy summit’s agenda (Ukrinform, Ukraiyna TV, April 12– 14).
The joint news conference in Berlin witnessed Merkel at her most gracious in crediting Ukraine—and implicitly its president—for the reforms achieved and those still in progress. She praised the Ukrainian government’s commitment to the transition to a market economy while acknowledging the social costs involved; and she complimented Ukraine on its free and fair elections (Bundeskanzlerin.de, April 12). This almost uniformly positive assessment (reflecting a farewell’s courtesy to some degree) led Macron’s circle to suspect that Merkel still hoped for Poroshenko to be reelected, even as Macron and Zelensky were reaching out to each other (Le Monde, April 13). Poroshenko, in turn, paid tribute to Merkel’s role in upholding economic sanctions on Russia. At the same time they disagreed with each other in front of the media over the Nord Stream Two natural gas pipeline project, and Poroshenko concluded that “we shall continue fighting to stop this project” (Bundeskanzlerin.de, April 12).
For its part, the Elysée Palace seemed to treat Poroshenko icily. Macron received Zelensky first and Poroshenko second, giving the incumbent head of state one hour and no media opportunity (Poroshenko spoke to Ukrainian media later). By meeting Ukraine’s outgoing and incoming presidents, moving to coopt the latter, setting a negotiating agenda on Donbas (see below), and hosting the summit in France, Macron is preparing a grand entrance for himself into the Normandy process.
According to the official readout from Elysée, “One aim of these [April 12] meetings is to obtain reassurances of Ukraine’s willingness to make efforts toward a settlement of the conflict in Donbas… President Macron insists that all the parties take urgent and specific steps to restore the climate of confidence necessary to the success of the negotiations” (Elysee.fr, April 12). This brief statement from the Elysée Palace encapsulates familiar features of the Russia-first approach to conflict-resolution: namely, implying that the conflict is internal to Ukraine (thus exempting Russia of responsibility), viewing the local “parties” as morally and politically equivalent, putting the onus on Ukraine to accommodate, replacing conflict-resolution with confidence-building (even its “restoration,” as if it had existed), and elevating process above outcome.
In his readout for Ukrainian media, in Paris and back in Kyiv, Poroshenko obliquely suggests that he has been presented with a road map and time frame, leading to local “elections” in the Donetsk-Luhansk territory within 11 months (by March 2020). Poroshenko’s paraphrase of the document implies that the withdrawal of Russian forces, disarmament of local proxy forces, and restoration of Ukrainian control along the border, are merely defined as aspirations, rather than indispensable preconditions to any “elections” in Donetsk-Luhansk (Ukrinform, April 12, 13).
According to Poroshenko, the French president regards Ukraine’s presidential election as “opening a window of opportunity” for the Minsk and Normandy processes to advance along those lines. Merkel, Macron, and a lame-duck Poroshenko all agree that a Normandy summit should convene in France in early June, on the fifth anniversary of the creation of this format (and after two and a half years of inactivity—see above). Berlin and Paris hope thereby to re-engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin will undoubtedly condition his participation in the summit on certain “concrete results,” e.g. movement toward “elections” in Donetsk-Luhansk as Macron seems to anticipate. President Poroshenko and his team have learned the hard way how to resist this sort of pressures in many encounters of the Normandy and Minsk processes. But Ukraine’s April 21 presidential election runoff will, in all likelihood, bring an inexperienced, untested and unpredictable team to office and straight to high-stakes negotiations.
Leading that team, the professional comedian Zelensky found himself at the Elysée Palace through the intervention of Bernard-Henri Lévy, celebrated pundit and political ally of successive French presidents, currently of Macron. As a sympathizer of Ukraine, Lévy had introduced presidential aspirant Poroshenko in 2014 to then-president François Hollande in Paris, and in a repeat performance has now brought together Zelensky with Macron. In Lévy’s telling, he first met Zelensky on March 30, the eve of the first round of this presidential election; and when Zelensky won the first round on March 31, far ahead of Lévy’s friend Poroshenko, Lévy recognized the difference between the future and the past. According to his account, when asked how he would deal with Putin in a face-to-face meeting, Zelensky’s answer is that he would make Putin laugh (Novoye Vremya, April 5).