Both politicians and the public are focusing their attention on the Normandy format summit that is to take place in Paris on December 9 after a long break. This time, apart from its focused agenda that is devoted to indisputably important and complicated issues of settlement in Donbass, the summit fits into the broader context of significant international events, at least from a media perspective. It so happens that at least three of these events (gas, WADA and the Union State) are chronologically close to the date of the Normandy summit. So it is natural to expect that there will be a cumulative media response to all these events from the international public. In this case, the results of the discussion on Donbas (no matter what they are) could lose media distinction and become just part of a broader news outburst. Moreover, the prevailing perception of other events could affect the way the media treats the Normandy summit as such. This cumulative effect could affect Russia’s overall international image in significant ways, so it should not be underestimated for that reason.
As for the Donbass agenda, the situation is somewhat complicated. This is affected by the domestic political situation in Ukraine and a 20 percent decline in President Zelensky’s approval ratings. Nationalist right-wing radicals and Petro Poroshenko’s former entourage continue to pressure Zelensky. This is clear from the disengagement of troops in Donbass and the continuous threats to Zelensky. He is being told that if he signs something they don’t like at the Normandy summit he will no longer be president of Ukraine. Zelensky’s own social mobilization resources look fairly limited so far. By and large, his attempts to stage “peace marches” in October and November to counter actions by the radicals ended in failure. Scandals and the first signs of corruption inside the Servant of the People, the ruling parliamentary party in the Ukrainian Parliament, also show that the emotional support that Zelensky and his team enjoyed half a year ago may be dissipating.
In this context, the Ukrainian president has come up with his own formula for a settlement in Donbass, which is an “innovation,” compared to the traditional provisions of the Minsk agreements. The gist is as follows: elections in Donbass can only be held after the OSCE (or other peacekeepers) establish control over the Ukrainian-Russian border, and after all LPR and DPR militia units are disbanded and replaced with Ukrainian troops. Only those parties that are registered in Ukraine will be allowed to take part in the elections, fully controlled by the Ukrainian CEC. Importantly, based on his desire to quickly replace the local authorities in Ukraine, Zelensky is talking about holding the election as soon as in the spring of 2020, or in the fall at the latest. Obviously, this approach leaves little room for maneuver and makes it almost impossible for the anti-Ukraine public in Donbass to express its will. This is related to the vague situation on renewing the Ukrainian law on Donbass’ special status for 2020.
In effect, the main intrigue of the Normandy summit consists in whether the Ukrainian president succeeds in pushing through his “Zelensky formula” (fully or partially) and presenting it as the summit’s common decision. And of course, if this plan fails, Russia will be blamed for everything.
However, the current dynamics of Russian-Ukrainian relations is not limited to the Donbass agenda. Gas policy plays a no smaller part in it. The contract on the transit of Russian gas via Ukraine to EU consumers expires in the end of this year. Russia-EU-Ukraine trilateral talks have not resulted in consensus, at least for the time being. Indicative in this respect is Zelensky’s statement on his intention to submit the discussion of the gas issue to the Normandy summit (which is being convened for a completely different reason). Moreover, some media regard the news from “the gas front” as much more important than the settlement in Donbass. In this way, the Normandy summit will receive additional emphasis from the media on EU energy security, the reaction to which may be no weaker than to Donbass.
There is one more reason behind the attention of the media to the upcoming summit that has to do with the urgency of the Ukrainian issue in the domestic political struggles in the United States. In this context, there are enough influential forces in Washington who are not interested in a peace settlement in Donbass (this will enhance the role of the European countries in influencing Ukraine in spite of the US, and will weaken the notorious “party of war” in Kiev on which many groups in Washington placed their bets in their anti-Russia strategy). Also, the US anti-Trump circles may perceive normalization or détente in Russia-Ukraine relations in the context of Trumps well-known advice to Zelensky to resolve his issues directly with Vladimir Putin. This will prompt the media to think that Zelensky is following Trump’s course rather than the Democratic Party in Washington. This will again create the threat that Ukraine will still present serious and damaging material on Biden. Furthermore, a settlement of the gas issue is not in US interests because US LNG is being increasingly promoted as an alternative to Russian gas in EU markets. To sum up, during the summit various US forces will further increase their pressure on Zelensky and it may happen that he will be pushed to a negative outcome in the talks.
There are two more events that are not related to Ukraine but chronologically overlap with the Normandy summit. One of them is a meeting of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA’s) Executive Committee, to take place in Paris on the same day, December 9. The participants will discuss the allegations against Russia on the Moscow anti-doping lab’s database. If they are upheld, sports-related sanctions will be imposed on Russia. Understandably, if these events are discussed in parallel, on the same day and in the same city, the media will be tempted to assess them together. In this case, a negative outcome for Russia in both events (or presented as negative) will lead to a cumulative negative effect in the Western media with a new series of accusations against Russia.
The other event is tentatively expected to take place one day before the Normandy summit. This is a summit for the Union State of Russia and Belarus. Its open agenda provides for the discussion of roadmaps on the integration of the two countries in the framework of the Union State. It is no secret that some forces in the West try to draw parallels between the political dynamics of Belarus and Ukraine to prompt Belarus to follow in the latter’s footsteps. In this context, the character of relations in the Union State may well be used for new information attacks against Russia in the Western media and the cumulative media effect of this direct comparison between Belarus and Ukraine is also easy to predict.
The upcoming Normandy summit on Donbass is important not only in itself, as before, but coverage by the Western press could well acquire a much broader context and provoke a new wave of accusations against Russia. It is important to realize this and be ready for it.