After flurry of high-level diplomacy and another long Normandy format meeting, threat of war in Ukraine continues
As the buildup of Russian military forces in Belarus continued in preparation for the 10-day Allied Resolve 2022 joint military exercise that began yesterday, and as fears continued to mount that Russia might, perhaps at the conclusion of the exercise, invade Ukraine, a flurry of high-level diplomatic activity took place this week aimed at preventing war in Ukraine. On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron met in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, while German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock met in Kyiv with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmygal and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met in Washington with President Biden. On Tuesday, Macron met in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and later that day he met in Berlin with Scholz and Polish President Andrzej Duda. And yesterday, representatives of the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine met in Berlin in the four-nation Normandy format for more than eight hours to discuss the situation in and around Ukraine.
Some of the high-level meetings – most notably, the five-hour meeting between Putin and Macron – involved extensive discussion of Russia’s request for security guarantees that, among other things, would prevent a further eastward enlargement of NATO that could in time include the accession of Ukraine – a request that was rejected by the U.S. and NATO. But all of them were also focused on yesterday’s meeting in Berlin because all of the participants know that the Normandy format talks offer not only a possible pathway but, indeed, the only pathway to a peaceful resolution of the crisis. The talks, named for those the leaders of the four countries, meeting at Normandy on D-Day 2014, agreed to begin in order to end the conflict between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists who had taken control of large portions of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014, produced the Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015.
Those agreements, especially the second one, negotiated after the ceasefire agreed in the first agreement had collapsed and frequently referred to as Minsk 2, sought to end the conflict by not only establishing a cease-fire and mutual withdrawal of weapons but also by providing for constitutional reform that would give the predominantly Russian-speaking regions in eastern Ukraine a special status and would devolve power from Kyiv to those regions and give them a substantial degree of autonomy. More than anything else, it has been the refusal of Ukraine to implement the provisions of the Minsk agreements – especially the provision that would give the predominantly Russian-speaking regions a special constitutional status – that has caused Russia to threaten military action against Ukraine. Time after time in recent weeks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, in interviews and in statements after meetings with other foreign ministers, and Putin, in several phone calls with Macron and in their long meeting on Monday, made it clear that the key to resolving the situation in and around Ukraine is the full implementation of Minsk 2.
Two days after Scholz was elected chancellor on December 8, he visited Macron at the Elysée and they agreed to relaunch a joint effort to mediate in the crisis between Russia and Ukraine. As Macron said at the conclusion of their meeting, “The Normandy format remains as relevant as ever, because it enables Germany and France to mediate between Ukraine and Russia.” In January, Jens Plötner, Scholz’s foreign policy adviser, and Emmanuel Bonne, Macron’s diplomatic adviser, met in Moscow with Dmitry Kozak, the deputy chief of staff of Putin’s executive office. After some discussion – Russia was initially reluctant to commit in advance to a summit meeting of the N4 leaders, given the continuing failure of Ukraine to implement the provisions of the Minsk agreements – Russia agreed to a resumption of the N4 talks. A few days later, Plötner and Bonne met in Kyiv with Andriy Yermak, the head of Zelenskyy’s office, after which the four advisers met in Berlin in mid-January and, after further discussion, agreed to meet in Paris later that month.
On January 26, the four advisors, accompanied by representatives of their foreign ministries, met at the Élysée for eight hours, at the end of which they issued a declaration in which they said, “They reaffirm that the Minsk agreements are the basis of the work of the Normandy format and are committed to reduce current disagreements on the way forward. They support unconditional observance of the cease fire and full adherence to the measures to strengthen the cease fire of 22 July 2020 regardless of other issues of the implementation of the Minsk agreements. They discussed the importance of the TCG [Trilateral Contact Group, consisting of representatives of Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE] and its working groups to intensify their work with a view of swift progress in the implementation of the Minsk agreements. They agree to meet again in two weeks in Berlin.” According to a spokesperson for the French foreign ministry, the representatives agreed on several points – most notably, that Minsk 2 is still relevant to the outstanding issues in eastern Ukraine and that all parties should respect a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. The spokesperson said the upcoming meeting in Berlin might open a path toward the de-escalation of the conflict.
Zelenskyy’s office later released a statement which said the talks were “meaningful and provided an opportunity to outline the possibility of reaching the solutions needed for peace.” It said he assessed positively the fact that the meeting took place, its constructive nature, and the intention to continue the talks in Berlin in two weeks. He said, “For our state, the first priority today is to achieve a stable and unconditional silence in Donbas. The ceasefire must be guaranteed, reliable, and on this basis the next steps can be taken.” The statement concluded, “We consider the intensification of the work of the Normandy format at the level of the leaders of the respective countries with the organization of their meeting in the near future to be an obligatory element of the movement towards fair and stable peace for Donbas through the implementation of the Minsk agreements.”
In their comments at the news conference after their long meeting on Monday, both Putin and Macron underscored the importance of implementing Minsk 2. Putin said he had made a point of drawing Macron’s attention to “the reluctance of the current Kiev authorities to meet their commitments under the Minsk Package of Measures [i.e., Minsk 2] and the Normandy format agreements….In my opinion, it is clear to everyone that the current authorities in Kiev have set a course for dismantling the Minsk accords. There are no shifts on such fundamental issues as constitutional reform, amnesty, local elections, and the legal aspects of a special status for Donbass.…Kiev is still disregarding all opportunities for a peaceful restoration of the country’s territorial integrity via direct dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk…What worries me most of all is that they [Kiev] are adopting legislation that discriminates against Russian speakers, who have been denied the right to be recognized as a core nation in what is, properly speaking, their homeland, and the right to speak their native language.” Referring to some ideas and proposals put forward by Macron, not only about Ukraine but also about security guarantees for Russia, Putin said, “I believe that, although it is still too early to talk about some of his ideas and proposals, it is possible to make them the foundation of our future joint steps. Let us see what his meeting will achieve in Kiev. We agreed that we will speak on the telephone after his trip to the capital of Ukraine and exchange opinions on this matter.”
Later, in response to a blunt question – ‘Do you intend to invade Ukraine?’ – Putin said, “As for Donbass, Ukrainian leaders first say that they will implement the Minsk agreements and then they denounce them and say they will never do this because ‘this would destroy the Ukrainian state’. Well, will they or won’t they? This is the question….The Ukrainian authorities have already made two attempts to settle the problem of Donbass militarily. When they failed again, the Minsk agreements were coordinated and endorsed by a resolution of the UN Security Council. So, will they comply with the agreements or not? Or will they make some other attempt? What should we think? After all, they have tried twice, and who can guarantee that they will not try a third time? These questions require a thorough consideration by all of us.”
Macron, for his part, said, “I am going to Kiev tomorrow to meet with President Zelensky. Of course, we are doing this jointly with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, with whom we coordinated our positions several days ago. I will see him tomorrow. We continue working within the framework of the Normandy format to ensure full compliance with the Minsk agreements and to achieve a complete settlement of the conflict in Donbass. Serious agreements regarding the ceasefire regime were reached during the recent advisers’ meeting of the Normandy format countries, and now we must move forward in terms of practical steps to ensure a clear and full implementation of these agreements. We have made progress on several technical issues during the talks. I would like to welcome President Zelensky’s efforts, the specific obligations that he assumed in this format, in particular, to scrap the legislation that was not in line with the Minsk agreements.…So, this conflict is at the centre of the tension that we are experiencing today, and Russia and the European Union definitely need to resolve it in order to move forward in our relations.”
After meeting for three hours with Zelenskyy the next day in Kyiv, Macron said in a joint news conference that Putin and Zelenskyy had personally assured him of their willingness to implement the Minsk agreements: “This shared determination is the only path that will allow us to find a durable political solution. We have now the possibility of advancing negotiations….Our will for the following weeks is to stabilize the situation, to re-engage by using new guarantee mechanisms for de-escalation. We have to resolutely implement the Minsk agreement and continue to have dialogue for the shared security and stability of our continent.” But, he cautioned, “It will take time to get results. We cannot resolve this crisis in a few hours of talks. It will be the days and the weeks and the months to come that will allow us to progress.” And, he reiterated, the Minsk agreements provide “the only path allowing us to build peace…and find a sustainable political solution….and the best means to protect Ukraine’s integrity.”
After his meeting on Tuesday with Macron, Zelenskyy said, “We expect that in the near future…we will be able to hold the next talks between the leaders of the Normandy quartet.” But as yesterday’s long meeting of the representatives of the N4 leaders made clear, the differences among the four remain. Indeed, after meeting for almost nine hours, the representatives – the same four who met in Paris two weeks ago – were even unable to agree on a joint declaration at the conclusion of the meeting. After the meeting, Dmitry Kozak, the deputy chief of staff of Putin’s executive office, said, “Unfortunately, almost nine hours of negotiations ended without any visible, tangible results expressed in documents. We tried to agree on the final statement of our negotiations, proceeding from the previous meeting in Paris on January 26. We agreed [at Paris] that the Normandy format should overcome all differences regarding the interpretation of the Minsk agreements at any cost since the Normandy format is a control mechanism when it comes to the Minsk negotiation process in the Contact Group. But today it wasn’t possible to overcome these differences.”
In the press conference after his meeting yesterday with British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov gave an unvarnished view of the current state of play in the Normandy format talks: “We spoke at length about the lack of progress on the Minsk agreements, which are not just being sabotaged by Kiev, but are now openly rejected by representatives of the Ukrainian regime. We reported on our steps towards persuading those who have influence on the Kiev regime to convince Vladimir Zelensky and his government to fulfill their obligations under the Minsk agreements as approved by the UN Security Council resolution. We seem to have different interpretations of the Minsk agreements, although I do not see how they can be interpreted differently from what is written there in black and white. “
Andriy Yermak, the head of Zelenskyy’s office, said there had been no breakthrough at the N4 meeting yesterday, but that both sides had agreed to keep talking: “The Ukrainian side is set on constructive dialogue. Everyone confirmed today that we have the Minsk agreements and they need to be fulfilled. I hope that we will meet again very soon and continue these negotiations. Everyone is determined to achieve a result.” A key stumbling block in the negotiation reportedly has been the refusal of Kyiv to negotiate with the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics created by the pro-Russian separatists in portions of those regions.
Yesterday’s N4 meeting was obviously a disappointment for those who thought the flurry of high-level diplomacy might result in some progress this week in resolving peacefully the current situation in and around Ukraine. Nevertheless, the high-level diplomacy will continue. Macron will no doubt speak again soon by phone with Putin if he has not already done so, and Scholz will meet with Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Monday and with Putin in Moscow on Tuesday. And the Normandy format discussions will continue behind-the-scenes with another N4 meeting agreed for next month. But in the meantime, the Russian forces in Belarus continue the large-scale joint military exercise that began yesterday. And Ukraine and Europe wonder whether those forces will move – and if so, eastward back to Russia or southward into Ukraine – after the exercise concludes next weekend.
David R. Cameron is a professor emeritus and lecturer in political science and the former director of the MacMillan Center’s Program in European Union Studies.