A Tie so Far: Tricky Talks With Tough People in Paris
10 December, 2019
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, attend a joint news conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Monday Dec. 9, 2019 EPA-EFE/LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL

"We have just started to be diplomats and would call it a draw," comments the President of Ukraine in response to the question "Who got the upper hand?" at the meeting with Vladimir Putin. It’s 1 a.m. Paris time. The first Normandy Summit in over three years – and Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s first chance to resolve the Donbas conflict – lasted almost 10 hours. Russian and Ukrainian leaders’ meeting tête-à-tête took one hour.

Despite no breakthrough and key issues not being resolved for years – such as the revision of the Minsk agreements that would ensure Ukraine controls the border during the elections in the Donbas –  both the Ukrainian side, Germany, and France choose to call the meeting “a restart of the negotiation process”.

The parties agreed to make progress and concessions. Namely, an exchange of prisoners by the end of the year with the formula of "all for all" (according to the Ukrainian president, there are 72 people forcibly held in the occupied Donbas), a complete ceasefire by December 31, the disengagement of troops in three more areas, which will be determined in Minsk, continuation of the so-called “Special status” law in force, extension of the OSCE SMM mandate. The next meeting in the Normandy format is scheduled to be held in four months. So how did the parties reach these agreements?

New Ideas And Old Crises

Ukrainian president Zelenskyy arrived in Paris on the eve of the summit, on Sunday, December 8. He brought with him a notable entourage – Minister of Foreign Affairs Vadym Prystaiko, Presidential advisor Andriy Yermak, Chief of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Ruslan Khomchak, his chief-of-staff Andriy Bohdan, his deputy chief-of-staff Kirill Timoshenko, presidential advisor Serhiy Shefir, SBU head Ivan Bakanov, Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov, and Naftogaz executive director Yuriy Vitrenko. A few people even showed up “just in case” – to contribute their areas of specialty if there was to be some significant progress.

The Russian delegation wasn’t anything to sneeze at either – Alexey Miller, the head of Gazprom was there, as was their energy minister, Alexander Novak, and of course, Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov, who handles all Donbas-related questions. 

Prior to the summit, representatives of Zelenskyy’s administration sounded out a new idea which the Ukrainian side was intended to put forward. Specifically, the idea was to create joint Ukrainian–’People’s Republic’ police patrols, in order to somehow control ‘that territory.’

Press waiting for the arrival of the Normandy summit participants in the courtyard of the Élysée Palace. Paris, France, December 9, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / Hromadske

Despite the fact that Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron have a reputation for always being late, the meeting at the Élysée started on time, at 3 p.m. Paris time. The Ukrainian president arrived on a rather humble Renault, compared to the Russian Aurus Senat, a giant armored limousine of Russian make, which was shipped as cargo to France from Russia.

Zelenskyy walked up the inner courtyard to meet Macron, ignoring the loud questions of Russian journalists about what he would consider to be a success in the talks and whether or not he’ll visit Moscow for the Victory Day celebrations on May 9.

President of France Emmanuel Macron (right) meets President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the Élysée Palace. Paris, France, December 9, 2019. Photo: Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / Hromadske

Putin arrived last, walking past the military honor guard with a noticeable limp. According to the summit’s program, before the four-way talks themselves, each leader was to have bilateral talks with both Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. These meetings took about two hours.

And if in Ukraine, people worried about how the ‘young new president’ will be able to beat the “experienced KGB man Putin”, Western journalists and analysts were expressing the same concerns about Macron. He’s considered to be far too arrogant and impatient.

President of France Emmanuel Macron (right) meets President of Russia Vladimir Putin at the Élysée Palace. Paris, France, December 9, 2019. Photo: Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / Hromadske

The previous day, Macron stated that Europe cannot count on the U.S. and NATO, meaning that questions about security cannot simply ignore Russia. And taking into account just how much Macron wants to bag some quick wins, Europeans are worried that Macron may be stretching himself too far in orchestrating this meeting in Paris and forcing through progress that, in reality, does not exist – especially given a background of unrest at home. 

On the very day of the Normandy summit, Paris saw wide-scale strikes against pension reform – schools and public transport have been shut down since December 5. And despite the fact that the strikes occupied French headlines, these days most of the major Western media are writing about the war in the Donbas.

The Deadlock

Hundreds of journalists, who have registered for the meeting, eagerly take pictures of two small screens in a luxurious room with gold-plating and crystal chandeliers. The video is silent and lasts a few minutes: the four leaders are sitting down at the negotiating table. This is all the information available. Whilst the conversation goes on, there are no leaks or rumors.

The media are trying to catch at least something: did the Ukrainian president shake Putin's hand? The photographers were unable to capture the moment on camera, and they entered the meeting room separately – with German Chancellor Merkel between them. But Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov reports a handshake. Subsequently, answering the question "Can one shake Putin's hand?", Zelenskyy said, "Do we want a result, because why go so far just to spit at someone?"

Reporters watching the Normandy Four appear on the screen at the Press Center, Paris, France, December 9, 2019. Photo: Nataliya Gumenyuk / Hromadske

It is at the summit, that we receive a confirmation that the head-to-head talk between Putin and Zelenskyy will take place. Everyone was intrigued. After lengthy discussions about whether the meeting would take place before or after the four-sided summit, everyone agreed for them to return to Merkel and Macron for dinner after their bilateral meeting. Thus, it would become clear whether it makes sense at all for the presidents of Ukraine and Russia to communicate with each other, but they will also inform Paris and Berlin of the matter in question.

READ MORE: Restarting the Normandy Format, 3 Years Later

The key question is, in fact, whether Putin came to reach an agreement and whether he is ready for anything at all? If the Ukrainian, French, German media were able to speak with their leaders' teams the day before, Russian journalists – both pro-Kremlin and independent – insisted that they were not briefed. All as one refer to the same material in the Russian publication Kommersant, which states that the Kremlin is most interested in maintaining the status quo and will not deviate from the Minsk Protocol.

The most contradictory point in the document signed in the winter of 2015 is the 9th point which stipulates the sequence of events: first the elections in the Donbas, and only then the restoration of Ukrainian control over the border. This dispute led all previous Normandy talks into a dead end and lasted three years, since meetings in this format had not been held since 2016. But the Élysée Palace made it clear that Zelenskyy's words about wanting to reconsider this order "have legitimacy."

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, French President Emmanuel Macron, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Monday Dec. 9, 2019. Photo: Nataliya Gumenyuk / Hromadske

"The meeting will last for another five to ten minutes," – such messages are sent to the media every hour. The joint press conference and announcement of the communique with the outcome is put back from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. CET. Only one media per country is allowed to ask questions. And less than an hour before the leaders come out, information emerges that there will be no new decisions – such as regaining control of the border with the Russian Federation in the occupied Donbas territories, an actual date for elections in the Donbas or joint patrolling of territories.

“Why are you so gloomy?” we inquire of the Ukrainian delegation passing by. "Everything in order, we’re just all tired" – the head of the Presidential Office Andriy Bogdan and his deputy Timoshenko both seem to force a smile. It’s clear they are excited and eager to show support for the president and a longtime friend in every way possible without giving away too much.

Ukrainian delegation after the talks, Paris, December 9, 2019. Kirill Timoshenko, left, Andriy Bohdan, Vadym Prystaiko, Serhiy Shefir, and Ruslan Khomchak, right. Photo: Anastasia Stanko / Hromadske

A Renewed Plan for the Donbas

"We are re-launching this format and hope to have the prisoner exchange by the end of the year," French President Macron said during the briefing by Zelenskyy and Putin.

Putin stressed that instead of "all for all" the exchange should start with "all identified for all identified". The Ukrainian president later specified that this implies about 72 prisoners in the Donbas.

READ MORE: "People in Donbas Don't Think It's Their War" - Former OSCE Rep Hug

Hromadske sources say that during the talks, when asked about prisoners in the occupied Crimea or those who were transferred from there to Russia, Putin pretended to be amazed at the number of people and was not ready to give away those he considered "Russian citizens."

Zelenskyy said that talking about expanding the list on that day could be a hindrance even for those 72 to be freed by the New Year. But the negotiations will continue.

Merkel said calmly and thoughtfully that she is pleased with the meeting. The German Chancellor noted that the mandate of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission will be expanded – it will now operate around the clock, not 12 hours a day as it has been so far.

Other arrangements include a complete ceasefire by the end of 2019. Also, by the end of March 2020, the troops should be disengaged in three more settlements in the Donbas. What the settlements would be, should be agreed in Minsk. However, it won’t be strategic points like Shchastia, Luhansk region. Merkel says it could be areas "near Stanytsia [Luhanska] and Petrivske."

Within the next 30 days, the Trilateral Contact Group must agree on new border crossing points. Finally, an updated plan for the demining of conflict-affected areas was agreed upon.

As French analysts told Hromadske, they believe Merkel’s and Macron’s position was to “support Zelenskyy, and predictions of some critics that the Ukrainian president will be alone against the other three at the negotiations had no grounds.”

During the night, the Élysée Palace didn’t give a single comment. “For the French president it was important to show that he brought Putin to Paris, and although the opportunities are very limited, and [positions of] Ukraine and Russia are still far apart, there is a cautious movement.”

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Monday Dec. 9, 2019. Photo: Nataliya Gumenyuk / Hromadske

A separate paragraph in the final communiqué refers to the need to implement the political provisions of the Minsk agreements. In particular, "to incorporate the ‘Steinmeier formula’ into the Ukrainian legislation, in accordance with the version agreed upon within the N4 and the Trilateral Contact Group." Furthermore, the Ukrainian Parliament must vote in favor of the continuation of the law on the Special Order of Local Self-Government of Certain Areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions, which is still in force.

READ MORE: The Sunday Show: Ukraine Awaits the First Normandy Meeting in Three Years

Zelenskyy later explained that since the text of the law has to be agreed in Minsk, it is easier to keep its old version in order not to get stuck.

"Border control and elections were the most difficult issues, and we have differences here with the Russian president," Zelenskyy told Hromadske's correspondent.

The Ukrainian side provided examples: where elections were held without border control, conflicts usually continued. An alternative compromise could be to gain final control over the two days before the election – Ukrainian border guards would gradually establish it and complete the day before the elections.

Zelenskyy also told Putin that if “the disengagement is going at the same pace as now, it [control over the border] will happen in no less than 20 years”, when Zelenskyy himself, and Putin, “will be gone”.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Monday Dec. 9, 2019. Photo: Nataliya Gumenyuk / Hromadske

Returning to Merkel and Macron, as if seeking support, Zelenskyy stressed that he would like to have more progress on all issues, but it is impossible to resolve everything in one go. Yet, in four months, another meeting must take place, to which the President of Russia has publicly agreed. There are no additional conditions for the meeting to happen.

The representatives of Zelenskyy’s office made it clear that Putin was constantly repeating the same thing: “Ukraine did not fulfill the agreements”, and therefore “it is taking time”.

When asked by Hromadske why Russia is categorically opposed to Ukraine's control over its own border at the time of the elections which can help the resolution of the conflict, Putin referred again to the Minsk agreements. “Why unstitch Minsk? If we unstitch it, all the rest will fall apart.”

Following the formal press conference of all four leaders, Zelenskyy gave a separate press briefing in front of the Sofitel Hotel near the Élysée Palace. The residents of the hotel had to squeeze through the Ukrainian press pool of about 70 journalists, the largest at the summit.

Informal briefing of President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy with members of the Ukrainian delegation, Paris, France, December 9, 2019

During the late conversation, Zelenskyy picked up words carefully, specified that although the meeting was dedicated to the Donbas, he did mention Crimea. He did not attack Putin because of diplomacy, nor did he give an emotional assessment of his predecessor Petro Poroshenko. 

However, he said that the call for "No capitulation" protests in Kyiv "was used at the negotiations by the Kremlin as an example of radicalization". Zelenskyy said again that the point about the border in the Minsk agreements is improper, but it wasn’t him who signed it.

But he added that "maybe it could not have been otherwise under those circumstances".

READ MORE: Rebooting Normandy: 6 Questions About the Talks

“Putin wants to regulate every word. And I'm a quick man. Putin has other natural biomechanics. It is difficult to agree on whether we can go further – we will see, but there were moments in which we agreed and there were concessions. It was a very difficult dialogue with very tough people,” the President of Ukraine summed it up.

The worst that can happen is that nothing will happen. This is how the Ukrainian government team assessed the negotiations the day before. The main thing is “at least some dynamics”, Zelenskyy’s team members said then. Everything went as expected, they say now.

/With the support of the Russian Language News Exchange

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