The foreign affairs ministers of Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine—the “Normandy Four” countries—met on February 24, in Paris, to review the situation in Ukraine’s east. Russian and proxy forces had captured Ukraine’s Debaltseve area on February 18, breaching the armistice signed at the “Normandy Four” summit in Minsk on February 12. Germany and France had previously assured Ukraine that Russia would refrain from such a move (see below).
Yet the German and French ministers, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Laurent Fabius, failed in the Paris meeting to criticize the capture of Debaltseve. They failed also to support the Ukrainian minister Pavlo Klimkin’s appeals for some remedy, such as a European Union police mission. They did warn yet again (privately and publicly) against an attack on Mariupol (Mariupil). But such warnings sound less credible now after bowing to the capture of Debaltseve. The quadripartite meeting vaguely called on “all sides” to respect the Minsk agreement (Diplomatie.gouv.fr, Auswaertiges-amt.de, Ukrinform, February 24, 25).
Collectively, the four-sided Normandy meeting could not have done anything else. Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov would have used—or perhaps he did use—the right of veto. The Nomandy group operates by consensus, a ground rule that translates—as in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—into Russia’s right of veto. The Ukrainian side, however, can hardly afford to use this right. The Normandy meetings’ ground rule looks sometimes like consensus-minus-one.
Russia conducts in eastern Ukraine a war that Germany and France avoid acknowledging. Instead, they use the Normandy process to pursue a joint solution with Russia at Ukraine’s expense.
Berlin and Paris treat this state-on-state conflict mainly as an internal Ukrainian conflict (Russia portrays it as a purely internal conflict). Accordingly, the three powers have reached a basic consensus in the Minsk Two agreement. This leads to partition of eastern Ukraine de facto and “de-centralization” of the country’s governance, potentially accommodating Russia’s goal to “federalize” Ukraine. As Russian analyst Yuliya Latynina has noted, the Kremlin is using Berlin and Paris to pressure Ukraine into compliance with the political terms of the Minsk Two agreement (Ekho Moskvy, February 21).
Beyond that agreement’s letter, the subtext of Minsk Two entails a basic tradeoff. Russian and proxy forces would (at least until further notice) halt their relentless attacks and land grabs against the beleaguered Ukrainian forces. In return for this badly needed military respite, Ukraine is asked to legitimize the existing Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (DPR, LPR), accept their sovereignization de facto (“state” structures, armed forces, direct relations with Russia’s authorities), and re-write Ukraine’s constitution jointly with the DPR-LPR. The target date is December 2015 (see EDM, February 13, 19, 20).
The Normandy process has marked a leap forward with the signing of the Minsk Two agreement on February 12. The never-implemented Minsk One agreements (September 2014) had not carried a Normandy (or any other) multilateral cover. Minsk Two, by contrast, was worked out among German Chancellor Angela Merkel and presidents Francois Hollande of France, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine, between late January and February 12—an effort capped by their 16-hour non-stop session in Minsk on February 11–12. The four leaders oversaw the agreement’s signing, blessed the document through a joint declaration, and agreed to review the agreement’s implementation down the road.
According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Minsk agreement’s Addendum Note, which opens the way to legitimize the “DPR-LPR,” was authored by the Germans and French (Rossiya 1 Television, February 23). This claim may seek to alienate Kyiv from Berlin (Paris matters far less). Berlin, however, has not reacted.
Moscow, Berlin and Paris envisage the implementation of those terms as a step-by-step process. This is supposed to take place between Kyiv on one side and the secessionist “republics” fronting for Russia on the other side. Moscow, Berlin and Paris would then jointly “support” the results in the Normandy process. Ukrainian compliance would, in turn, allow a step-by-step removal of sanctions and normalization of Europe-Russia relations. Paris seems more impatient in this regard, but must follow Berlin’s more deliberate pace. In Chancellor Merkel’s view, sanctions relief should not outpace the implementation of the Minsk Two agreement, even as that agreement clearly short-changes Ukraine’s interests in Russia’s favor.
All this raises doubts about the credibility of the Normandy process. Those doubts have increased following the incremental expansion of “DPR-LPR” territories, the dramatic capture of Debaltseve, and the silent acceptance of these changes in Berlin and Paris.
The Debaltseve case has particularly embarrassed German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande. They had claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin had assured them personally that his proxy forces would not attack Debaltseve or other Ukrainian positions. Merkel and Hollande conveyed and underwrote themselves those assurances to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko during the Normandy group’s summit in Minsk. Based on those assurances, Ukraine would have kept Debaltseve as a consolation prize, after the far-reaching political concessions imposed on Poroshenko under duress in Minsk (see above).
Under that agreement, the ceasefire was to have taken effect on February 15, to be followed by disengagement of forces along new demarcation lines. During the Minsk summit, however, Putin repeatedly and explicitly laid claim to Debaltseve on behalf of the “DPR-LPR.” On how strong a basis had Merkel and Hollande offered their assurances to Poroshenko remains unclear. Poroshenko did appeal to those two leaders to ask Putin to desist (Ukrinform, February 15).
On February 14, 15 and 16, Merkel and Hollande jointly appealed to Putin by telephone to “use his influence” on “DPR-LPR” forces to stop their assault (no mention was made of Russia’s military personnel involved) (Bundeskanzlerin.de, February 14–17). On February 17, nevertheless, Putin (while visiting Hungary) publicly encouraged “DPR-LPR” forces to complete the assault (Interfax, February 18). Debaltseve fell on February 18. Putin gloated over it several times, including on February 23 on Rossiya 1 TV. The following day in Paris, the German and French ministers kept their silence over this fiasco in the Normandy Four meeting (see above).
On the heels of Minsk Two, the Paris meeting displayed the Normandy group’s built-in inadequacies. More generally, it showed the limitations on German and French capacity and will to stop Russia’s aggression in Ukraine by means other than political compromises at Ukraine’s expense.