Adding to its vulnerabilities vis-à-vis Moscow, Kyiv’s natural gas transit contract with Gazprom expires on December 31. Ukraine’s law on a “special status” for the Russian-controlled Donetsk-Luhansk expires also on December 31. That law exists only on paper for the time being, its entry into force being contingent on internationally blessed “elections” in that Russian-controlled territory. The Kremlin insists Kyiv should prolong the “special status” law before its December 31 expiry. Moscow could combine this issue with the gas transit issue in one package at the Normandy summit in Paris. The gas transit issue is not for the quadrilateral format to discuss, but rather for a bilateral Putin-Zelenskyy meeting, which Zelenskyy hopes to hold on the sidelines of the quadrilateral format. Zelenskyy did take up the gas transit issue with Putin by telephone on November 25 (Ukrinform, November 25).
Forging ahead with the Nord Stream Two natural gas pipeline, the German government seems content to deprive Ukraine of most, if not all the gas transit volume. German-Russian inter-governmental talks about some residual transit volumes to flow via Ukraine have not borne fruit. They may yet, if only at meager volumes; but German officials’ citing of “Putin’s assurance to Merkel” about this only seems naïve.
Kyiv is rushing into this summit without the benefit of strategic mentorship from the United States amid the turmoil in Washington. That benefit was last on view in mid-September, when the presence of a high-level US delegation for the “Yalta” meeting in Kyiv pulled Zelenskyy back from the brink of accepting the Kremlin’s preconditions to the summit—but only for a few days (see EDM, September 17). Zelenskyy’s pre-summit syndicated interview to the European press reveals a loss of confidence in the United States, along with some continuing hope for US support to Ukraine (Le Monde, Der Spiegel, December 2).
The Paris summit’s December 9 date was nailed down on November 15, after Kyiv had met all of Moscow’s preconditions. Those preconditions surfaced publicly during the pre-summit negotiations and are contained in a still-secret draft of the summit’s concluding document. Accordingly, the summit’s outcome could include:
– Cementing the Steinmeier Formula’s acceptance by Ukraine, this time at the presidential level and witnessed by the top Normandy leaders (Kyiv accepted it on October 1, on the diplomatic level in a lower-level format);
– Prescribing the procedure whereby Ukraine should adopt legislation on a special status for the Russian-controlled territory (Steinmeier’s formula is about bringing the special status into force, once that law is adopted);
– Initiating some military “confidence”-building measures between Ukrainian forces and Russia’s proxy forces on the demarcation line (such confidence-building is a standard substitute for conflict-resolution and a standard device for legitimizing unlawful armed forces);
– Mandating further negotiations toward the mutual release of detained persons, which is actually Zelenskyy’s declared number-one priority in all of his pre-summit statements (proceeding from both humanitarian and political rating considerations).
Following Ukraine’s acceptance of all preconditions, and the nailing down of the summit for that price, the Kremlin came up with additional demands, which it may well present at the Paris summit apart from the pre-agreed draft document (see above). Far from surprising, Moscow’s additional demands are classical ones in the context of the Normandy and Minsk processes, but the Kremlin had not emphasized them during the pre-summit negotiations until mid-November. As stated by Putin, his spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, and Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov, the additional demands include:
– Kyiv to negotiate the terms of the “special status” directly with Donetsk and Luhansk (as distinct from Kyiv adopting the law on the “special status” unilaterally);
– Ukraine’s parliament to then enact the “special status” law, this being the “key issue” in the political settlement. In the Kremlin’s view, the Steinmeier Formula becomes meaningless in the absence of a valid law on the “special status,” since the Formula is just the procedure for bringing the “special status” into legal force after “elections” (the Kremlin’s formal logic is correct and illustrative of the trap into which it lured Zelenskyy).
– Ukrainian police to be banned from the three troop disengagement zones, where the Ukrainian army completed its pullback by mid-November (Zelenskyy had assured the residents of those zones that Ukrainian police would protect their safety after the army’s pullback).
Moscow’s additional demands might, at least in part, explain a sudden stiffening of Zelenskyy’s tone in the immediate run-up to the Paris summit. Sounding irked at times, he is now calling for the summit to discuss the return of Ukraine’s territories under a timeframe to be discussed, and he is ruling out “elections” in the Donetsk-Luhansk territory in the presence of unlawful armed forces (Ukrinform, passim).
The Kremlin, however, will know better than to inflict a conspicuous diplomatic defeat on Zelenskyy at the Paris summit. Putin would rather deal with a cooperative Ukrainian presidency to “normalize” bilateral relations on Kremlin-defined terms. A perceived defeat of Ukrainian interests at this summit, or the appearance of undue concessions, could create serious problems for Zelenskyy domestically. Moscow will, instead, help him win rating points with promises of prisoner releases. The Kremlin will likely focus on advancing the “special status” at the Paris summit on December 9, reserving further demands for follow-up meetings, in salami-slicing fashion.