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 (see Part One). 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).