Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s marathon briefing (14 hours, billed as an all-time world record), in Kyiv, on October 10, was defensive and self-justificatory in purpose and tenor, responding to public protests that followed Zelenskyy’s unilateral concessions to Russia (see EDM, September 17, 24, 25, 26, October 3, 10). The briefing confirmed an inadequate grasp of the issues at stake in the Normandy and Minsk negotiation processes, and overall confusion and incoherence in Zelenskyy’s views on war and peace with Russia (President.gov.ua, Ukrinform, October 10, 11; Euromaidan Press, October 12, 15; Ukraine Crisis Media Center, October 16; see Part One in EDM, October 16).
While trying to avoid criticizing the Kremlin, Zelenskyy revealed distrust of Berlin and Paris in some undiplomatic remarks: “When Normandy leaders come to the table, on whose side will they be? I believe that on ours. But will they [actually] support Ukraine? Or will they each act in their own interests, thinking about their business relations with Russia? I cannot tell you. Assuring us of their support is one thing, and I have thanked them for it repeatedly, but what may happen at the Normandy summit in practice is another matter.”
Even while chasing that Normandy summit, Zelenskyy, nevertheless, worries about ending up isolated at it. Unless Ukraine enacts the “special status” for the uncontrolled Donbas territory and the Steinmeier Formula for “elections” there, he said, he fears that “the other side would say that Ukraine does not fulfill what it has signed, and we might be left face-to-face with Russia.” Such a turn by Berlin and Paris “would be like a boxing punch in Ukraine’s back, which I hope and believe will not happen […] but sometimes our beliefs are false.”
The grounds for mistrust may be valid (particularly regarding Paris at this stage), but the public display of this sentiment risks turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy, particularly if this emboldens Russia to become even more intransigent, as it probably will after such signals. Zelenskyy’s negative remarks about Germany and France in his October 10 briefing corroborate his criticisms of the same countries in the secret telephone conversation with United States President Donald Trump, held on July 25 and made public on September 25. Instead of mitigating that damage, he has now compounded it in his spontaneous manner, apparently unprovoked.
At the same time, broad hints at French and German potential duplicity could provide an excuse for Zelenskyy to enter into direct negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The novice Ukrainian president had declared that intention even before taking office, but Western diplomats have all along pointed to the high risks involved in dealing with Putin directly. Nevertheless, Zelenskyy has announced his intention to use the upcoming quadripartite Normandy meting as a backdrop for his bilateral meeting with Putin, and elaborated on this intention in the Kyiv media-marathon. In order to end the war, he said, “we can meet in two formats: the [quadripartite] Normandy format as well as my direct meeting with the president of the Russian Federation. [However]; all are against this direct meeting. But this meeting must [occur], if we want to end the war.”
Zelenskyy’s core rationale for trying to precipitate a Normandy summit and a bilateral one with Putin is “to listen to each other,” as he told his briefing audience. “We need to look each other in the eye, understand who wants what, and come to an understanding on three, or five, real steps [unspecified] that would end the war.” But “in order to hold such a meeting, each side must take some real steps […] each side must show that it wants to end the war.” In the quest for a summit date, Zelenskyy said, Ukraine has accepted the Steinmeier Formula and the pullback of forces from two frontline sectors (Petrivske and Zolote). Now is Russia’s turn to show some flexibility, Zelenskyy told reporters, meaning Russia’s consent to hold that summit.
On the “special status” for Donetsk-Luhansk (Russia’s core political demand under the Minsk “accords”), Zelenskyy sounded confused as well as confusing. On the one hand, he ruled out legislating “autonomy” for that territory. He would only concede a legal status for the Russian language as a regional language in that territory. But on the other hand, he conceded, “there will also be something about the type of relations between the temporarily occupied territory and Russia”—a point that has indeed been dictated by Russia into the Minsk “accords” and exceeds any notion of “autonomy.”
“Elections” in Donetsk-Luhansk, according to Zelenskyy at his briefing, can only be held under Ukrainian law. This is an often-used euphemism. “Ukrainian law” in this case means a new, special electoral law, to be negotiated between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk, as envisaged by the Minsk “agreements” and the follow-up Morel (attributed to former French ambassador to Moscow Pierre Morel) and Steinmeier plans, and indeed under discussion between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk in the Minsk Contact Group, as its latest meeting’s communique reconfirms (OSCE press release, October 15).
Further according to Zelenskyy, “elections” in Donetsk-Luhansk can only be held after the withdrawal of “foreign” forces and disarmament of Donetsk-Luhansk forces. He only admits to there being one issue in dispute, namely the timing of regaining Ukrainian control along the border in that territory. For its part, Russia sticks to the Minsk “agreement’s” letter, which stipulates “elections” first and discussions about troops and the border only afterward. And what if Russia insists on elections to be held without removing the troops?—the journalists asked. In that case there is a Plan B, Zelenskyy answered.
The president also held out a promise of dialogue with Donetsk-Luhansk: “We are certainly going to hear from the other side. Let us listen to them and then make decisions.” It is unclear whether this means some independent voices from that territory or the leaders of the two “people’s republics.” It is with those two “people’s republics,” on an equal footing, that Zelenskyy’s team decided to sign on October 1 the agreement to incorporate the Steinmeier Formula into Ukraine’s legislation. Berlin and Paris almost certainly encouraged Kyiv in that direction. It was a partial down payment for Moscow’s still-elusive consent to hold the Normandy and Putin-Zelenskyy summits, at Kyiv’s expense. Berlin and Paris cannot be more protective of Kyiv’s interests than Kyiv’s leadership is.
President Zelenskyy cited Crimea as a further rationale for precipitating a Normandy summit: “To me, the Normandy format is also an opportunity to raise again the issue of Crimea… And why is Crimea not a topic in the Minsk Process?” he asked rhetorically during his marathon briefing. He surely knows that Russia and the Western powers have cemented the formats and agendas of those negotiations since 2014–2015. Whether this president is willing to at least try cracking that cement remains to be seen: in Minsk and at the sought-after Normandy summit.