A ticking clock and a shutting trap seem appropriate metaphors for the predicament of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his team hoping against hope for “peace” with Russia.
The “Normandy” leaders’ (Russia, Germany, France, Ukraine) summit in Paris, on December 9, 2019, started the clock ticking toward the April 2020 summit in Berlin. There, Zelenskyy is expected to report to the same conclave about Ukraine’s fulfillment of commitments he has confirmed in the French capital.
The shutting trap consists of Kyiv’s unilateral concessions to Moscow (to legalize the Steinmeier Formula, to accept a permanent “special status” for the Donetsk-Luhansk territory under Russian control). Moscow extracted this price for agreeing to hold the December summit, which Zelenskyy’s team was avidly seeking even if it had to pay this heavy cost.
To stop the ticking clock and to pry the trap door open may still be possible if Kyiv’s current decision-makers understand that the Kremlin is unreconciled to an independent sovereign Ukraine—and that Russia’s current president is not even reconciled to a Ukrainian Ukraine.
President Zelenskyy offered an impressive public performance at the “Normandy” summit in Paris. On a personal level, he outtalked and outsmarted Russian President Vladimir Putin, while on the political level, Zelenskyy adopted certain “red lines” that Ukraine’s previous government had defended until 2019 and Ukraine’s active civil society continues defending (e.g., no direct talks with Moscow’s proxies in Donetsk-Luhansk, no “elections” in the presence of Russian troops there). Moreover, Zelenskyy unexpectedly called for revisions to the 2015 Minsk “agreements.” But these positions are a far cry from the summit’s concluding document, which Ukraine’s leader accepted to Putin’s satisfaction and forms the sole basis for follow-up negotiations (see EDM, December 9, 11, 12, 2019).
Kyiv is currently in the process of complying with the Normandy summit’s document. Moscow, Berlin and Paris, for their part, are ignoring Kyiv’s suggestions to have the Minsk “agreements” revised. Moscow, moreover, followed up the Normandy summit by bringing yet another part of Ukraine’s territory—the Black Sea coastal lands—again into the argument (see EDM, January 14, 2020). Examined on an issue-by-issue basis, the process is clearly developing against Ukraine’s interests.
– Ceasefire: Ukrainian troops lose several killed and wounded every week, mainly to sniper fire, at a rate that has stabilized since July and continues unabated since the Normandy summit. Notwithstanding the summit’s collective call for a ceasefire observance, Moscow will continue this form of attrition warfare on the contact line, as a form of political pressure on the casualty-averse Ukrainian leadership.
The ceasefire, prolonged on December 18, is supposed to be buttressed by Putin’s assurances to Kyiv that he would restrain the Donetsk-Luhansk forces. Kyiv had actually requested such assurances, which played into Moscow’s hands by making it look like a mediator, rather than a direct participant in the conflict (Ukrinform, December 18, 2019).
– Special Status: The Ukrainian parliament prolonged the existing law on a “special regime of local self-government in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces” (special status law) on December 12, and President Zelenskyy promulgated it on December 18. This law exists on paper since 2014 and is being prolonged on an annual basis, but it never went into effect. This time, however, Kyiv has accepted Moscow’s demand to incorporate the Steinmeier Formula into this law in 2020.
The Steinmeier Formula is about bringing the special status law into effect in conjunction with “elections” in Donetsk-Luhansk. The pro-presidential Servant of the People party, holding an absolute majority in parliament, ensured smooth passage, and it can easily do so again for the Steinmeier Formula in 2020, as has been agreed first with Moscow and then at the Normandy summit (Ukrinform, December 18, 22, 2019).
Putin acts as if arm-wrestling Zelenskyy into yielding little by little. “The prolongation of the special status is a good step in the right direction. But it must be made permanent, as per the Minsk agreement, and incorporated into Ukraine’s constitution, also in accordance with the Minsk agreements,” Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel at their recent meeting in Moscow (Kremlin.ru, January 12, 2020).
– Minsk Revision: Within days of the Normandy summit, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov declared, “If Minsk is to be revised, any changes or additions to it can only be made by negotiation between Kyiv and the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics; whether in the Minsk Contact Group or outside it” (Interfax, December 13, 2019). This is fully in line with Moscow’s insistence that Kyiv must settle the “conflict in Ukraine” by negotiation with Donetsk-Luhansk, thereby recognizing the latter, with Russia in the facilitator’s role. Kyiv continues to resist this demand in any context, including that of hypothetical revisions to the Minsk “agreements.”
It is, however, indisputable that any revisions would require quadripartite agreement in the Normandy format, meaning in the first place a negotiation between Kyiv and Moscow. According to Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Vadym Prystaiko, Kyiv could show some flexibility, accepting “elections” in the Donetsk-Luhansk territory, in return for Moscow revising the Minsk “agreement” so as to allow some form of Ukrainian or international control of the Ukraine-Russia border in that territory (Ukrinform, December 23, 2019). Moscow’s sequence means: “hold elections first, regain border control after that.” Kyiv’s suggestion via Prystaiko would not reverse that sequence but would synchronize the two issues.
Chancellor Merkel had suggested during the Normandy summit that a degree of “elasticity” was inherent in the Minsk “agreements.” That remark, unprecedented at the public level, seemed to respond to President Zelenskyy’s pleas in the conclave to revise those five-year-old documents. But Merkel has not repeated her suggestion thus far. When she visited with Putin in Moscow, on January 11, Putin insisted at their joint press conference that the “Minsk agreements have no alternative [incidentally a typical Merkel expression]. We understand all the complexities of Ukraine’s internal politics, but the Minsk agreements must be implemented” (Kremlin.ru, January 11, 2020). For her part, Merkel expected “further progress at the next [Normandy] summit, in the sequence foreseen by the Minsk agreements” (Bundeskanzlerin.de, January 12). No hint at “elasticity” there.