Normandy: Better Than the Alternatives

The fundamental logic of successful political settlements that end armed conflict requires that the parties are simultaneously strong and weak, writes Valdai Club expert Paul Saunders. It is because this balance is so difficult to find, and to sustain during extended negotiations, that political settlements are rare in comparison with either military victories or very long wars.

Some commentators in the United States and Europe appear to view the December 9 meeting among the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine—the so-called Normandy Four—as a disappointing exercise that produced only marginal progress, if any. Yet marginal progress is likely to be the most promising approach to resolving the crisis in eastern Ukraine. Moreover, notwithstanding its limitations, the Normandy group is probably the best available format for talks that could produce a viable agreement. Wishing otherwise is to ignore significant constraints on all sides, especially Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky and US President Donald Trump.

The fundamental logic of successful political settlements that end armed conflict requires that the parties are simultaneously strong and weak. More precisely, they must be strong enough to avoid unacceptable concessions (otherwise the weaker party will generally prefer to keep fighting) and weak enough that they cannot hope to impose a solution at an acceptable cost (otherwise the stronger party will generally prefer to keep fighting). It is because this balance is so difficult to find, and to sustain during extended negotiations, that political settlements are rare in comparison with either military victories or very long wars. 

The Normandy Format and the Story of the Hamster Wheel
Hans-Joachim Spanger
If there is more to the ongoing efforts than managing a frozen conflict and if the Minsk path to conflict resolution is clearly blocked, a new approach must be found. The classic alternative is the internationalization of the conflict through the creation of a UN protectorate.
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At the same time, successful settlements require that the political leaders on each side of the table are sufficiently strong to conduct negotiations, to make concessions (since the balance described above typically requires concessions on all sides, though not necessarily equal concessions), and to implement any agreement that results. Even if parties to a conflict can pass the strength/weakness test, weak leaders on one or more sides can doom negotiations. This often leads to long low-intensity wars, which avoid the political costs of a negotiated settlement while limiting the wider costs associated with continued fighting.

The central challenge in pursuing a political settlement to the conflict in eastern Ukraine is that with only very limited military assistance from the United States at its allies, and despite a military that has become stronger and more effective during the conflict, Kiev is the weaker party. Worse, the Ukraine government is weak enough to be close to the threshold at which continued fighting is more attractive for Ukrainian leaders (and to Western leaders, who face little to no practical cost from continued fighting) than a bad deal. This leads to a perverse situation in which the weaker Ukraine’s position is, the stronger Ukraine’s president must be in order to pursue and implement a settlement.

Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, was not sufficiently strong domestically to implement the Minsk agreements that he negotiated. Indeed, some have argued that Poroshenko knew this and intended the Minsk process to slow rather than end the conflict. Whatever Poroshenko’s aims, however, Kiev has committed to agreements that will not be easy for Zelensky to fulfill—regardless of the order in which key steps like elections in the contested regions and restoration of Ukraine’s control over the Ukraine-Russia border occur. Ukraine’s domestic politics thus necessitates a gradual process. From this perspective, observers should be more skeptical toward breakthroughs than toward incremental advances.

Normandy Four: How Should We Evaluate the Outcome of the Summit?
Artyom Sokolov
The Paris summit can be assessed as a rather accomplished attempt to give a new impetus to the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Following the victory of Vladimir Zelensky in the presidential election, changes in a number of key variables occurred within the confusing equation of the Ukrainian crisis. This gave hope for concrete results in resolving the Donbass situation.
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Incremental advances in Normandy meetings are also good news because the alternatives to the Paris-Berlin-Moscow-Kiev quartet are less likely to succeed. US President Donald Trump can contribute little to a Ukraine peace process in view of enduring suspicion among American political and national security elites following investigations of Russian interference in the US presidential election and an impeachment process focused squarely on Ukraine; therefore, a US-led process seems improbable, though Washington could likely scuttle an outcome it doesn’t like. A United Nations Security Council process would require US-Russia agreement to produce needed Security Council resolutions and would founder for the same reason. Moscow would likely reject a process led by the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which Russian leaders see as unfairly pro-Western. Russia would also probably reject talks with NATO or the European Union unless the negotiations involved a parallel Russian-led multilateral group—something Western governments would not accept.

The other problem with looking for alternatives to the Normandy group meetings is that pursuing other options requires starting over both procedurally and substantively. Developing new procedures would consume valuable and possibly irreplaceable time. Likewise, it is not obvious that understandings developed in one forum would transfer quickly and completely to another. Abandoning Normandy would mean taking big risks in Ukraine’s uncertain political environment; who can be sure how long Zelensky’s post-election political honeymoon will last? Even the Normandy process may end up taking too long.

The Good Results of the Normandy Four Summit
On December 13, the Valdai Discussion Club hosted an expert discussion on the results of the Normandy Four summit; in attendance was Andrei Rudenko, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation.
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Time also matters because the extent to which each party is committed to a political solution may change with new domestic and international developments. Indeed, observers in the West, Russia and Ukraine already doubt the other parties’ commitment; if any of them are right, then the format in which negotiations eventually collapse is irrelevant. Yet even here, Normandy has an advantage: a more advanced process probably cannot conceal insincere intent as long as a new one. The next Normandy meeting, planned in four months, will test commitment on all sides.
Hostages of Normandy Process: Ukraine as a Systemic International Problem
Andrei Tsygankov
There is no way out of this vicious circle. I repeat: Ukraine is a systemic problem. It reflects all the main contradictions between Russia and the West at the stage of world order transition. The problem of Ukraine can only be resolved if these contradictions are resolved.
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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.