The Normandy Four Summit: Modest Expectations – Working Results

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.

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As for France and Germany, we did not observe any extraordinary interest in urgently resolving the conflict on their part. The “fatigue” of the political and expert communities of the two countries from the Ukrainian issue is noticeable, as is the preoccupation with their own problems. Emmanuel Macron increasingly has to deal with the protests in the streets of French cities, while Angela Merkel must manage the transfer of power; both of them must concern themselves with the internal tasks of the European Union. Compared with these priorities, the Ukrainian issue has objectively faded into the background for the Franco-German tandem, although it did not completely disappear from their agenda.

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.

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Moreover, the summit did not lead to the solution of the most significant substantive contradictions – first of all, about when exactly the restoration of Ukrainian control over the lost section of the border with Russia will begin. Under these conditions, the main decisions adopted in Paris are as follows: the exchange of detained persons according to an “all for all” formula before the end of 2019, the extension of the law on the special status of Donbass, the separation of forces in three new areas, and plans for a next summit in the spring of 2020. These decisions don’t solve the whole conflict at once, but at least represent a continuation of the positive trend that began to appear before the meeting. Such a result of the negotiations can be considered reasonably successful, especially since some time ago this hadn’t happened at all.

We should also understand that the summit, of course, carried a certain symbolism in itself, which each side would try to use for its own benefit. In particular, for Russia this was an opportunity to demonstrate clearly that it is still firm in its negotiating position, and appreciates the specifics on the implementation of the Minsk agreements without manoeuvring on the sides. For Vladimir Zelensky, a four-way meeting (like the first personal conversation with Vladimir Putin) became a way to strengthen his authority among seasoned politicians, as well as an attempt to score points with different elements of Ukrainian society, for which he continues to play cards of “reconciliation” and “hardness.” In turn, France and Germany will interpret the summit as evidence of the unity of their duet, the influence of Europe in international affairs and the ability to sponsor a peace process in one of the most acute conflicts of our time. Paris, like Berlin, continues to participate in the Quartet, largely due to inertia, but for Macron even moderate progress in the Ukrainian settlement increases political significance – from the point of view of the growth of his prestige as a pan-European leader and in terms of illustrating the “new course” in relations with Russia.
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