Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron conferred, on March 30, by video-conference on multiple international issues, including the intensification of the “internal conflict in Ukraine” (according to Putin) or “conflict in Ukraine” (Merkel and Macron, though still not naming Russia).
Thus, three members of the Normandy Four group discussed the other member, Ukraine, in Ukraine’s absence. Amidst a military conflict (see EDM, March 11, 24), moreover, Berlin and Paris held talks with one belligerent while bypassing the other belligerent. Furthermore, Berlin and Paris approached Moscow for this tripartite discussion after all three of them together had turned down Kyiv’s appeals for a quadripartite video-conference that would have been dedicated to this conflict and unencumbered by other crisis topics.
Berlin and Paris might still call Kyiv to share information about their discussion with Putin and mitigate Kyiv’s understandable discomfiture at being left out from the Franco-German outreach to the Kremlin. But those calls to Kyiv must be forthcoming immediately in order to achieve those reassuring effects.
The Kremlin’s readout of the leaders’ video-conference devoted by far the largest space to Ukraine; the German readout put Ukraine in second place, after the coronavirus pandemic; and the Elysée Palace’s readout ranked Ukraine in the third place, after COVID-19 and the imprisonment of Aleksei Navalny, and before the crises in Belarus, Libya, Syria and the Iran nuclear energy problem. All three readouts listed these agenda items, with Ukraine taking less space than most other items in the German and French readouts, and far more space than any other item in the Russian readout (Kremlin.ru, Bundeskanzlerin.de, Elysee.fr, March 30).
Throwing the Russia-Ukraine conflict into a mixed bag with other crises is a game to Russia’s advantage. In almost all of those crises, Germany and France (or the European Union) play a weaker hand than Russia or even no hand. Taking up these issues with Russia is a move that places Berlin and Paris in the position of soliciting problem-solving assistance from the Kremlin. This imbalance, in turn, can set the stage for tradeoffs, based on each side’s order of priorities in their respective neighborhoods. With Ukraine as its front-and-center priority, Russia holds leverage over Europe in Syria and Libya, two theaters where Europe has not only failed but is even failing to support a more capable Turkey for counter-leverage on Russia.
Furthermore, a completed Nord Stream Two gas pipeline—if the Joseph Biden administration falters on sanctions enforcement—would give Russia yet another pressure lever on a consenting Germany, a reluctant Europe and a beleaguered Ukraine. Finally, as the Navalny item on the leaders’ video-conference agenda illustrates, Russia immunizes its political system from Western influence, even as Russia itself can and does influence Western systems. Merkel and Macron are acutely aware of it in this German election year and French pre-election year.
The German and French position, therefore, is far weaker vis-à-vis Russia today than it was in 2014, when the Normandy forum was born. Russia’s leverage has, since then, increased continuously over its Normandy counterparts in the wider strategic context (see above), outside the forum itself. The leaders’ March 30 video-conference amalgamated that wider strategic context, for the first time, with the subject matter of the Normandy forum, allowing the former to impinge on the latter. Only Russia stands to win from such adulteration of the Normandy agenda.
To be sure, the Franco-German-Russian discussion of Ukraine without Ukraine was not and could not have been a “Normandy summit,” which presupposes a quadripartite meeting. The Kremlin stressed this difference more emphatically than Berlin or Paris did. But this is a technical-legalistic point. In practice, the core subject matter of the Normandy Four was discussed within a power triumvirate of Normandy members.
That discussion’s broad strategic context and its novel procedure hold greater significance than the content devoted to Ukraine in the three readouts. Merkel routinely called, on behalf of herself and Macron, for using the [full] Normandy format in order to “advance the implementation of the Minsk agreements.” In Macron’s readout, he urged Russia to “decisively stabilize the ceasefire”; he also called for adherence to the Minsk “agreements” but did not mention the Normandy format (see below).
Putin repeated all his familiar theses in the readout and the accompanying Kremlin comments: internal Ukrainian conflict, “no alternative” to the Minsk Two document, Kyiv to fulfil “all agreements made at previous Normandy summits” (alluding to the December 2019 Paris summit communique), Kyiv to negotiate with Donetsk-Lukansk toward their special status. In the military sphere, “Ukraine is provoking the conflict’s escalation by refusing to carry out the July 2020 agreement on additional measures to strengthen the ceasefire.” But, also predictably, Putin is not closing down the quadripartite Normandy format; he is only reducing its level, and he has Franco-German support for this: “the leaders’ advisors will continue their joint work.”
Moscow, Berlin and Paris share the position that there is no alternative to the Minsk Two “agreement” and that Kyiv must carry it out on Russian-defined terms: this is the essence of the Franco-German proposals recently forwarded to Kyiv confidentially and leaked by the Kremlin in order to embarrass Kyiv, Berlin and Paris (see EDM, March 30). Moscow, Berlin and Paris also share the position that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy does not deserve another summit opportunity unless and until he complies with the December 2019 Paris summit’s decisions, which he accepted at that time but could not fulfil against Ukrainian public opinion (and might possibly have changed his own mind on somewhat since then).
In parallel to that, Moscow seems about to make a casus belli out of Ukraine’s noncompliance with the July 2020 agreement on additional measures to strengthen the ceasefire. That agreement would, in its practical consequences, undermine Ukraine’s military sovereignty (see EDM, February 22, March 25). Kyiv has backed out of that document soon after signing it. Russia’s ongoing concentration of offensively postured forces on Ukraine’s borders seems designed to threaten Kyiv into compliance with that document.