The top leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France are meeting in Paris today (December 9), in the “Normandy” format, after a three-year pause at that level. This quadrilateral group oversees the implementation of the Minsk “accords” to settle the “Ukraine crisis” (a euphemism for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine). The Kremlin had taken the lead in orchestrating this latest summit’s preparations with Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s compliant presidency in Kyiv (see EDM, October 17, November 7, December 5), fueling expectations that Russia would achieve significant gains at Ukraine’s expense at the Paris gathering.
The Zelenskyy administration, however, has performed a stunning volte-face at the eleventh hour (December 5–8) by demanding a radical transformation of this deeply flawed negotiating process. Kyiv’s transformative proposals, if taken into consideration and followed up by the Normandy group, ought to usher in a renegotiation of major parts of the Minsk “accords.” This is unlikely to happen in practice any time soon; but the fact of raising these demands should strengthen Ukraine’s resilience in the existing formats of negotiation, provided Kyiv persists with them down the road. Several of these proposals take on board Ukraine’s positions already enshrined by former president Petro Poroshenko and the parliament in 2015–2018, but neglected by the Zelenskyy administration until now and still not credited to its predecessors.
The leaders in Kyiv unleashed a stream of publicity around their new proposals on December 5–8. President Zelenskyy, his top advisor, Andriy Yermak, spokesperson Yulia Mendel, National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov, Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, Foreign Affairs Minister Vadym Prystaiko, the chief Minsk Contact Group negotiator, Oleksiy Reznikov, and other Ukrainian officials (only civilian, no military) appeared on TV talk shows and in special briefings, in a coordinated effort to publicize Kyiv’s abruptly revised positions on the eve of the Normandy summit.
The one comprehensive and coherent presentation was that offered by Yermak at Chatham House, in London, on December 5 (see below). Apart from Yermak’s presentation, Kyiv officials offered a common set of talking points, with some minor variations or discrepancies, on the following basis:
– Ukraine is beholden to the Minsk “accords,” but they are obsolete and need to be “renovated” or “updated” (whereas the other Normandy participants continue to describe those “accords” as “without alternative”).
– Zelenskyy’s immediate goals at the Normandy summit are to agree with Russia on the mutual release of detainees of all categories and to achieve a “real” ceasefire (new elements here are matters of detail);
– The withdrawal of all “foreign” forces and “unlawful armed formations” from the Donetsk-Luhansk territory is a pre-condition to holding local elections there and to any further steps on political settlement (this demand reverses the sequence in the Russian-imposed Minsk “agreements,” instead of which it conforms with international law; and it takes on board the position bequeathed and legislated by Ukraine’s former authorities, albeit without crediting the authorship).
– Ukraine’s parliament will consider prolonging the “special status” law for the Russian-occupied territory, which expires on December 31, depending on the outcome of the Normandy summit in Paris (this hints at conditional linkage with the above-referenced points; and the law’s entry into force remains contingent on local elections in that territory).
– Local elections in the Russian-controlled territory (themselves contingent on the withdrawal of foreign and unlawful forces—see above) should be held as an integral part of Ukraine’s country-wide local elections, under Ukraine’s electoral legislation applicable country-wide (the Minsk “accords” envisage separate local elections in the Russian-controlled territory, under a special electoral law to be negotiated between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk).
– The composition of the Minsk Contact Group must change in order to offset the influence of the Donetsk-Luhansk authorities, described as illegitimate and unrepresentative of the local population by the Zelenskyy administration’s officials in their public presentations.
– International sanctions on Russia must remain intact until Russia fully complies with the Minsk “agreements” (i.e., Ukraine’s interpretation thereof, including presumably this latest interpretation).
Uniquely among the aforementioned officials, Zelenskyy proposed to create a tripartite police force in the Donetsk-Luhansk territory, to be comprised in equal proportions of Ukrainian police, local Donetsk-Luhansk police, and personnel of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). This would be a transitional solution to provide security for local elections to be held in that territory, contingent on the withdrawal of “foreign and unlawful forces” (Espreso.TV via Ukrinform, December 5).
Left unclear is the Zelenskyy administration’s current position on regaining control of the Ukraine-Russia border in the Russian-controlled territory: whether before or after the local elections are held in that territory. While Zelenskyy’s own remarks seem ambivalent on this score (Ukrinform, December 5; Ukraiyna TV, December 6), most of the other official briefers (see above) now call for restoring Ukrainian control in one form or another at the border ahead of local elections. For his part, Foreign Minister Prystaiko had recently (Ukraiynska Pravda, December 3) hinted at discussions about establishing joint control by Ukraine and the OSCE along that border ahead of local elections. (The Minsk “accords” would never restore Ukrainian control, offering only some form of shared control, negotiable between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk and only after “elections” are held and the territory’s permanent “special status” is constitutionally nailed down.)
Yermak’s Chatham House presentation (Ukraiynska Pravda, December 5) included all of the above points and more. Regarding the border with Russia in the Donetsk-Luhansk territory, Yermak stipulated that the “Ukrainian government must control that border as of the day of the local elections in that territory” (elections being conditional on withdrawal of all “foreign and unlawful armed forces,” as he also stipulates).
He also proposed that the representatives of the Donetsk-Luhansk “people’s republics” in the Minsk Contact Group be replaced by a different, more representative group, composed of Donetsk-Luhansk’s nominees and Kyiv’s own nominees in equal proportions. Yermak’s argument was that the absolute majority of the Russian-controlled territory’s population has unwillingly left that territory, and their views and interests must be taken into account in any political settlement. The new representative group as proposed, to be formed on a parity basis, would represent not the Donetsk and Luhansk “republics,” but the lower-level district units, of which there are eighteen in the Russian-controlled territory by Yermak‘s count. “Thus, there shall not be any ‘autonomous republics’ there.” He offered to include those districts in the general framework of Ukraine’s administrative decentralization, which is approaching completion on a country-wide basis but will devolve powers to districts and communities, not to regions.
Several Ukrainian officials, including Zelenskyy, his close entourage and Prystaiko, have recently alluded to a plan B and even plan C as fallback options for Ukraine, in case Russia continues acting in bad faith in the Normandy and Minsk negotiations. Yermak has now unveiled Plan B: “If Russia does not want to make peace, we shall—literally, not figuratively—build a wall [between the occupied territory and the rest of Ukraine] and go on with our life. We shall apply Israel’s model” (Ukraiynska Pravda, December 5).
Finally, Yermak’s Chatham House presentation called (not for the first time) for post-conflict security guarantees to be offered to Ukraine collectively by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the European Union, Canada and, perhaps, other willing countries, not including Russia (Interfax, December 5).
It needs to be borne in mind that Prystaiko is the only professional diplomat among all the aforementioned senior officials involved in this stream of briefings (and even Prystaiko is basically a public face with little inside influence). All the others have no training or experience in national security or international affairs. This shortfall stands out in the form and quality of their presentations: most of all Yermak’s, who is Zelenskyy’s top negotiator bilaterally with the Kremlin as well as in the Normandy format at the level of diplomatic advisers. The weak points in Yermak’s presentation seem obvious, and downright illusory regarding international security guarantees.
But the key consideration is that Ukraine’s new authorities seem to be ascending a learning curve, correspondingly unlearning some of their misconceptions about Russia. They have now launched a full set of counter-proposals to the deeply flawed Minsk “accords,” seek to recast the negotiation process, and have done so unexpectedly, blindsiding Moscow on the eve of the Normandy summit.