The Normandy Four summit, which has just ended in Paris, became one of the main international events of the passing year: after more than a three-year pause, the leaders of Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine gathered again in full force to try to make headway in resolving the conflict in Donbass. However, regarding the specific results of the meeting, both officials and experts (at least Russian, German and French ones) accurately predicted that there wouldn’t be any major breakthrough. The main reason for this was the well-known duality which still characterises the whole situation.
On the one hand, in recent weeks and months some positive changes have indeed taken place, which made the summit possible. Cautious hopes could be connected with the figure of Vladimir Zelensky himself, who came to power accompanied by the slogans of an early peace; the notion was popular among most voters. The fact that he had several telephone conversations with Vladimir Putin only confirmed that a personal dialogue between the leaders, even after a pause, had been established and is developing step by step. Conciliatory gestures were made: there was an exchange of detainees (including those who became widely known), and Russia returned Ukrainian ships which had been seized in the Kerch Strait. After long delays, the “Steinmeier formula” was finally signed, and a withdrawal of forces took place in some sections of the frontline in Donbass.
On the other hand, the reasons for doubts about the expediency of a new meeting were also warranted. First of all, this was related to the negotiation position of Kiev: the intention to somehow revise or adapt the Minsk agreements, which Vladimir Zelensky often declared, was completely rejected by Moscow in advance; it also did not meet unequivocal support among the Western European partners. Instead of going through the planned steps in a pre-agreed sequence, the Ukrainian leadership intended to rearrange them in an arbitrary order (starting with regaining control of the eastern border), tighten and almost disrupt them in every way (like the “Steinmeier formula” and withdrawal of troops) or completely circumvent them (including the special status of Donbass in the Constitution). Accordingly, such an approach a priori deprived any negotiations of agreement compliance guarantees, which meant that the very meaning of the talks was blurred. Zelensky’s proposal of the need to quantitatively expand the Quartet, adding the United States and Britain, wasn’t considered constructive either.
The results of the summit, as far as they can be estimated shortly thereafter, demonstrate that this duality has not disappeared, and restraint in expectations and assessments has been and remains a reasonable approach. Whatever the final communiqué and political statements the Ukrainian leadership has signed, the same question repeatedly remains unanswered – is it going to actually follow its promises? In this regard, the grounds for scepticism remain, given that Zelensky has been forced to reckon largely with the part of Ukrainian society that has accused him of “betrayal” and draws “red lines”, as well as with the coverage that the topic of Ukraine receives in the USA against the backdrop of the American domestic political struggle.