Zelensky and EU leaders want the Normandy summit to show they are giving diplomacy a chance. But the risk all lies on their side, not Putin’s
Following intense back and forth throughout much of this year, the heads of government of Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France – the so-called Normandy format – have finally agreed to meet to discuss the implementation of the second Minsk agreement, which set out a 13-point peace plan for eastern Ukraine. While Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky promised during his election campaign to “sit down with Putin”, Russian president Vladimir Putin has not appeared eager to take him up on the offer. Russia postponed the date for a new Normandy meeting on several occasions as it pressed for certain preconditions for joining such a summit, which included a written Ukrainian commitment to the so-called Steinmeier formula and the implementation of military disengagement agreements. Even now that the parties are finally going to be in the same room together, expectations are low that the summit will produce much progress because of the distance between their respective positions.
Zelensky’s main goal is to reduce the suffering of the population in eastern Ukraine and facilitate communication across the frontline. Much like his predecessor, he will try to work bottom up by seeking to reach ceasefire and disengagement agreements, conclude prisoner exchanges, and establish better facilities to cross the frontline in order to reach out to people within the occupied territories. Putin, on the other hand, senses no reason to remove the pressure on Ukraine, as he sees a Western camp in disarray – Donald Trump causing chaos in Washington and Emmanuel Macron directing diplomatic overtures towards the Kremlin. From Putin’s perspective, the longer he waits, the better the concessions he might extract from Kyiv. And, the longer the breakaway regions remain beyond Ukrainian government control, the more difficult it will become to integrate them back into Ukraine. A weak, divided Ukraine is a helpful state of affairs for Russia.
In the run-up to the meeting the Steinmeier formula has attracted much of the attention, but it is not actually on the gathering’s agenda. The Steinmeier formula – in short – led Ukraine to adopt a special status law for Donbas, under which local elections would then take place both there and in Luhansk. The law would enter into force only if the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights confirms the elections as free, fair, and in accordance with Ukrainian law. While this sounds reasonable on paper, the situation on the ground does not allow for its implementation.
Putin senses no reason to remove the pressure on Ukraine, as he sees a Western camp in disarray
The Ukrainian special status law – which Moscow argues is unsatisfactory – is set to expire by the end of this year, and Kyiv and Moscow disagree on how a replacement should look. Free and fair elections under Ukrainian law would require extensive preparations, and so, to allow Ukrainian politicians to compete on a fair basis, not only does the security situation have to improve and Russian forces to withdraw, impartial administration of these territories would also be needed: from voter registration, to guaranteeing media access, to providing for the safety of speakers and attendees at campaign rallies. Only an international force could provide such an impartial transitory administration – such as in Kosovo after 1999 – but talks on such a force have stalled for years. There is still a very long way to even discuss the preconditions for the implementation of the Steinmeier formula.
The nervousness in Ukrainian society and press about this Normandy meeting comes from fears of a ‘capitulation’ to Putin; it reflects diminishing trust in France and Germany to mediate such a process, rather than the substance of the Normandy talks itself. Macron’s recent statements that Russia should not be considered an enemy, his idea of negotiating a new security order with Russia (implicitly putting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity on the table), and endorsement of Russia’s missile moratorium, have seriously discredited him in the West and made him a figure of ridicule in Moscow. Macron’s particular mix of wishful thinking, superficial arguments, and simplistic concepts means that he could well end up backing some of Putin’s maskirovka (deceptive manoeuvres to lure the enemy into making mistakes) at the summit. It will fall to Angela Merkel to keep calm, focused on deliverables, and handle Putin’s ducking and diving. Still, after the German government’s own moves to protect the Nord Stream 2 project from the European Commission, in eastern Europe trust in Germany is at an all-time low.
In fact, Putin may advance on a different front at the summit: it seems that Putin wants to force Zelensky to directly engage with the puppet governments of the People’s Republics of Donetsk (DNR) and Lugansk (LNR). To raise the stakes for Zelensky and gain attention, right before the summit the DNR and LNR governments flagged escalatory measures: they intend to ban Ukrainian from the school curriculum, have revived talk of further “integration” with Russia, and widened the claim of their rule to their entire respective oblasts (administrative divisions). Taken together, such a package would allow Putin to keep Donbas and retain the status quo (or even to de-escalate the conflict, should he so wish), while discarding responsibility and formal ownership for the mess he created. In consequence he would then demand that Europeans lift sanctions, as further Minsk implementation would effectively be seen to rest within the responsibility of the DNR and LNR governments, and he would formally contest any suggestion that he has any influence over them (when, in fact, he has had tight control since day one).
With such long odds – a weak West, time on Russia’s side, and traps laid – what is in it for Zelensky? What can he realistically achieve? Firstly, it is about domestic policy: he does not want his predecessor to still be the one who had the last word with Putin. Secondly, it is about demonstrating the will to try everything in his power to bring about peace – showing this both to his population and to a reluctant Western audience; and to overcome the public image of a static and purely reactive Ukraine. Thirdly, even if progress at the summit is limited, humanitarian achievements – such as prisoner exchanges – matter for those suffering from the conflict. From Zelensky’s point of view, it all adds up to being worth a try. For the Europeans, on the other hand, the summit is important for signalling to their domestic audiences – and economic lobbies asking for sanctions to be lifted – that diplomacy is still alive, and that pressure must be kept on Putin to make him live up to his Minsk agreement signature. Still, the road to fully implementing Minsk has many minefields to pass through, and accidents can happen at every steps.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.