On the personal level, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a great impression at the “Normandy” group’s summit in Paris, on December 9. Zelenskyy outshone Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Emmanuel Macron at this highly publicized heads-of-state/government gathering—the first after a three-year pause at that level—to restart peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine with German and French assistance.
Zelenskyy, a first-time participant in the Normandy group, played his own persona, conveying friendly informality and street-smart manner but also—on this occasion—presidential and national dignity. He bristled that he spoke for the entire people of Ukraine, “including Russian-speaking people” (as “we are all Ukrainian”), when provoked by Putin on that score. Furthermore, Zelenskyy tried hard to defend certain Ukrainian “red lines” in discussing the terms of a peace settlement at this summit. Even Zelenskyy’s most serious critics felt reassured (as Ukrainian media coverage attests) in the wake of the president’s performance at the Normandy summit.
International attention riveted on the Normandy quartet talks served to obscure a development of potentially greater significance that took place in Kyiv. There, on the eve of the Paris summit, Ukraine’s presidency and government unexpectedly called (see EDM, December 9) for major revisions to the Minsk “agreements,” which Russia had imposed on Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 with German and French assistance.
Those “agreements” form the basis of negotiations in the Normandy format and the Minsk Group to Ukraine’s detriment; and the Paris summit itself was meant to refloat the Minsk “agreements” in their existing form. Kyiv’s last-minute demands for revisions did not strengthen Zelenskyy’s hand at this summit. But he seems determined to fight another day. Conversely, he weakened his hand at this summit through earlier concessions to Moscow, notably his acceptance of the “Steinmeier Formula” as a price for bringing Putin to this conclave (see EDM, October 3, 17, December 5).
The summit included a two-hour plenary meeting and round-robin bilaterals between the top leaders, including a one-hour Putin-Zelenskyy bilateral. The final document, “Common Agreed Conclusions,” looks potentially satisfactory to Ukraine regarding prisoner exchanges and ceasefire observance (Kyiv is the asking side on both these counts), but heavily favoring Russia on all the other points on the basis of the same Minsk “agreements” (Common Agreed Conclusions, Elysee.fr and Kremlin.ru, December 10). The salient provisions are (quotes when so indicated; otherwise paraphrases/summaries):
– “The Minsk agreements continue to be the basis of the work of the Normandy format, whose member states are committed to their full implementation.”
– A full ceasefire all along the frontline is to be introduced before the end of this year (2019). The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission (OSCE SMM) shall monitor the ceasefire, “using its mandate to the full extent and receiving safe access throughout the territory” (diplomatic allusions to Russia and its proxies restricting the SMM’s operations systematically for the last five years).
– The Minsk Contact Group shall facilitate exchanges of detainees, including a first batch by this year’s end (there are several categories of identified detainees, and Zelenskyy has made the release of Ukrainian detainees into his declared top priority, which Moscow leverages against Kyiv—see EDM, September 10, 12).
– The four leaders “express interest” in agreeing, within the Normandy format and the Minsk Contact Group, all the legal aspects of the permanent “special status” of the Donetsk-Luhansk territories, in accordance with the Minsk “agreement.” And the four leaders “consider it necessary to incorporate the ‘Steinmeier formula’ into the Ukrainian legislation.” (Trapped by his own acceptance of the Steinmeier Formula, alongside Donetsk-Luhansk, in the Minsk Contact Group, Zelenskyy could not oppose the Formula’s endorsement at the highest level in the Normandy summit.)
– The next Normandy summit shall be held tentatively in April in Berlin, to discuss “the political and security conditions for, inter alia, the organization of local elections” in the Donetsk-Luhansk territory (political and security, in that order, reverses Kyiv’s “security first” imperative, which Zelenskyy had publicized ahead of the summit).
In line with previous Normandy summit communiques, this one has no legally binding value and does not carry the leaders’ signatures. However, it purports to predetermine Ukraine’s course, potentially amounting (if implemented as envisaged) to a situation of limited sovereignty for Ukraine. The document does not include references to Ukraine’s internationally recognized sovereignty and borders. This cannot be surprising, given that Russia occupies the Ukrainian side of a 400-kilometer-long border in the Donetsk-Luhansk territory, while the Minsk “agreements” would result de facto in sovereignizing and legitimizing the Donetsk-Luhansk “people’s republics,” including through the Minsk-mandated local “elections.”
The Paris summit has shown that Ukraine remains basically isolated in the Normandy format today, as it was in this conclave’s previous iterations. This time, however, the isolation was less visible due to some festive atmospherics (marking the re-launch of the process after a three-year pause) and Zelenskyy’s spirited performance, justifiably hailed in Ukraine. Concerns about a possible “capitulation,” while also justified ahead of the summit, were laid to rest by Zelenskyy’s defense of some Ukrainian “red lines.” The summit’s decisions, however, fully contradict the positions that Zelenskyy recently embraced in line with Ukraine’s interests and tried to defend at the Paris summit. He seems determined to fight another day.