The four “Normandy format” (Ukraine, Russia, Germany, France) leaders’ post-summit press conference (see Part One, EDM, December 11), unusually lengthy and detailed, allowed some instructive glimpses into their discussions behind closed doors in Paris, France, on December 9. There they seemed to have reviewed all the major aspects of implementing the Minsk “agreements.” And they intend to proceed with this implementation on an accelerated time-table, as the press conference revealed (Elysee.fr, Kremlin.ru, Bundeskanzlerin.de, December 10).
Regarding the special status of the occupied Donetsk-Luhansk territory, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the assembled journalists that he agreed to: 1) prolong Ukraine’s existing law on the region’s special status before its December 31 expiry and 2) enact in 2020 a new law on the special status that would incorporate the so-called “Steinmeier Formula.” The Formula is about bringing Donetsk-Luhansk’s special status into effect on a permanent basis when “elections” are held in that Russian-controlled territory.
As Zelenskyy confirmed at the press conference, the terms of the new law on special status “must be agreed upon in the Normandy format and with all the sides [sic] in the Minsk Contact Group.” That Contact Group includes Ukraine, Russia, the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), meaning that an isolated Kyiv negotiates with three Russian parties, while Russia holds statutory veto power inside the OSCE. Under the Minsk “agreements,” all decisions related to the political settlement are to be negotiated between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk on a co-equal basis. The December 9 Paris summit communiqué (see Part One) would allow the special status to be negotiated in the Normandy format, instead of or in addition to the Minsk Contact Group format.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told the press conference that the special status must be enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution, again by agreement with Donetsk and Luhansk. This, too, is in line with the Minsk “agreements.” Putin called for direct dialogue between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk, being “the parties to this conflict.”
At the press conference, Zelenskyy confirmed his acceptance of the Steinmeier Formula to be introduced into the law on the special status. In this case as well, the December 9 Paris summitteers agreed to allow the matter to be discussed again in the Normandy format. Zelenskyy had accepted the Steinmeier Formula in the Minsk Contact Group (acting co-equally with Donetsk-Luhansk) on October 1. Most recently, however, Zelenskyy has turned Minsk-revisionist (see EDM, December 9), and he seems hopeful of reopening this issue by raising it to the level of the Normandy format. French President Emmanuel Macron hinted at that in his concluding remarks.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, however, praised Zelenskyy for accepting the Steinmeier Formula, “a great breakthrough due to Ukraine’s courage, which made it possible for us to hold our meeting today” (Bundeskanzlerin.de, December 9). This had, indeed, been the Kremlin’s key precondition to holding this summit. The Steinmeier Formula could well allow to the special status to take permanent effect regardless of the quality of those “elections” in Donetsk-Luhansk.
In line with the Minsk “agreements,” Putin reminded the press conference that elections due in Donetsk-Luhansk are a matter for the Minsk Contact Group to discuss. This means Kyiv would be negotiating with Russia and the two “people’s republics” about a special electoral law and all organizational aspects of such “elections” (Kremlin.ru, December 9). Merkel wants the Normandy group’s diplomats to help create the “political and security conditions” (in that order, rather than “security first”) for holding those “elections.” While Merkel apparently seeks a serious discussion, Macron would like to see conditions created already by the time of the next Normandy meeting in April 2020.
Zelenskyy responded by making the case for enlarging the composition of the Minsk Contact Group by adding representatives of the millions of internally displaced persons who left the Russian-controlled territory. He had first aired that proposal shortly before the summit (see EDM, December 9).
Zelenskyy came to the summit hoping to regain Ukrainian control of the 400-kilometer border between Russia and Ukraine in Russian-backed Donetsk-Luhansk, ahead of any “elections” in that territory. He announced at the summit’s end that he would raise the matter again at the next Normandy summit, with downscaled hopes for a step-by-step solution, correlated in some way to those “elections.” Ukraine will propose that a new subgroup, dedicated to border control, be created in the Minsk Contact Group. But considering the Minsk Group’s composition, this is a deadlock—hence Zelenskyy’s intention to raise the matter to the Normandy group’s level in this case also.
Turning to the matter of Russian and local troops in Donetsk-Luhansk, Zelenskyy announced, “I have underlined that all foreign troops must withdraw and local military formations be disbanded” as part of pre-conditions for elections to be held there. The other Normandy leaders are not on record with comments on this matter at this summit.
Zelenskyy also evidently called for revising the Minsk “agreements” during the leaders’ closed-door meetings. Putin refused, however: “The Minsk agreements are clear, there is no need to re-negotiate them… If we reopen one point, we will torpedo all the other points.” (The documents are so crafted that each point leads to the next in a tight, pre-determined sequence.) Only Chancellor Merkel hinted at some possible reconsideration: “The question arises, whether the Minsk agreements are to become fossilized [to turn into fossils], or whether they may be revived. Zelenskyy’ actions make it possible for us to lend some elasticity to these documents and bring them back to life,” she contended. In the context of “elasticity,” Merkel conceded that the Steinmeier Formula itself was not in line with the Minsk documents but went beyond their framework; it is an addition to them (Bundeskanzlerin.de, December 9).
Finally on Crimea, bringing up Russia’s seizure of the peninsula from Ukraine had been one of Zelenskyy’s early justifications for seeking a Normandy summit and a bilateral meeting with Putin (well before calling for the Minsk “agreements” to be revised). In Paris, however, Zelenskyy told the press that he (and the summit) ran out of time before he could raise this issue. He would raise it the next time.