On December 9, the Normandy format meeting will be held in Paris for the first time in three years. Leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France will gather in the French capital to resume negotiations on the settlement of the conflict in the Donbas. It is in Paris that the first personal meeting between Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin is planned.
So how did the Normandy format come about, what were the results of past negotiations and with what expectations are the participants coming to Paris?
Where did the Normandy format come from?
The four-party negotiation format for the settlement of the conflict in the Donbas appeared in June 2014, when leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France met at the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Allied troops landing in Normandy. The meeting took place several months after the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in the Donbas. Petro Poroshenko was not even officially Ukrainian president at the time -- the inauguration was held the day after the first Normandy meeting.
Then in the town of Bénouville in northern France, President François Hollande, with the assistance of Chancellor Angela Merkel, organized the first tete-a-tete meeting between Poroshenko and Putin. According to the Hollande administration, the meeting lasted 15 minutes. At the meeting, Poroshenko and Putin agreed to meet again shortly to discuss ceasefire in the Donbas.
Since then, the French president and the German chancellor have mediated all subsequent talks in the Normandy format. The meetings of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany came to be called Normandy Four summits.
From left to right: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Fifth President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Benouville, France, June 6, 2014. Photo: EPA / REGIS DUVIGNAU / POOL
Who else took part in the negotiations on Donbas?
The Trilateral Contact Group (TCG), comprising representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the OSCE and the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic”, began its work in June 2014. The work of the group was intended to facilitate the diplomatic settlement of the conflict in the Donbas. The group’s work was subsequently considered also by the Normandy Four. The TCG is composed of several working subgroups that develop agreement texts for conflict resolution.
The TCG repeatedly approved decisions to cease fire, but all of them were soon thwarted. Currently, the Ukrainian delegation to the TCG is headed by the second president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma.
In the subgroup on political issues, Ukraine is represented by the former deputy head of Kyiv City State Administration Oleksii Reznikov, on security issues -- by Deputy Joint Forces Commander Major General Bohdan Bondar, on humanitarian issues -- by former Ombudsperson Valeriia Lutkovska, and on socioeconomic issues -- by former deputy economy minister Ihor Veremii.
An important aspect of TCG's work was the exchange of prisoners of war. At the request of Russia, Viktor Medvedchuk, whose child was christened by Russian President Putin, was often involved in the work of the humanitarian subgroup of TGG. In just four major exchanges, more than 300 Ukrainians have been recovered from the captivity of “LPR”, “DPR” and Russian prisons.
The TCG drafted the text of the so-called Minsk Protocol on September 5, 2014. It was signed among others by the then leaders of the self-proclaimed "LPR” and “DPR", Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky. They also signed the so-called "Minsk-2", which was devised by the Normandy Four.
At the ministerial level or their representatives, meetings in the Normandy format were mostly held in Berlin. Most preparatory meetings were held on the eve of the talks of the leaders of the four countries. There have been over 15 such meetings.
What has been achieved in previous meetings?
The Normandy Four's next meeting was held on the sidelines of the ASEM Summit (Asia-Europe Meeting) in October 2014 in Milan. There, the leaders of the countries discussed the Minsk Protocol, the so-called “Minsk-1”, which was developed by the TCG and signed on September 5, 2014. In the protocol, the parties for the first time agreed on:
1. withdrawal of illegal armed formations from the territory of Ukraine;
2. granting special status to Donbas;
3. amnesty for those who have not committed serious crimes;
4. exchange of all detained persons;
5. holding local elections.
Following the talks in Milan, President of Ukraine Poroshenko commented optimistically on their outcome: he was hopeful Russia would fulfill its obligations under the Minsk Protocol. However, the conflict in the Donbas did not end.
In early 2015, escalation of the conflict began: fighting was underway at the Donetsk airport, and in Volnovakha militants fired at a passenger bus. The shelling then killed 13 people.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, meeting in Milan, Italy, October 17, 2014. Photo: EPA / DANIEL DAL ZENNARO
Thus, “Minsk-1” failed, and therefore there was a need for new negotiations. Leaders of the Normandy format met again in Minsk on February 11, 2015. Negotiations lasted 16 hours, their result was the signing of a new document -- Minsk agreements or "Minsk-2".
This did reduce the intensity of the confrontation, and Ukraine's Western partners imposed sanctions on Russia: they are in effect until the Russian Federation fulfills its part of the obligations. The 2015 Minsk agreements did not differ much from the 2014 protocol. However, this time they were signed at the level of heads of state, and the text of the document defined the following procedure for fulfillment of the parties’ obligations: first, local elections are to be held in the territory of the self-named republics, and only then will Ukraine regain control of the state border with Russia.
The current Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy opposes such a sequence of events, despite it being specified in the 9th point of the agreements. In an interview with several Western newspapers, he said: "To be honest, I disagree with how this issue was resolved (restoration of control of Ukraine's border in the Donbas - ed.) in Minsk. According to the Minsk agreements, elections must be held first, then control over the borders will be assumed.” Zelenskyy assured that the Ukrainian authorities would not accept this scenario.
It is because of this position of the Ukrainian president in particular, that the success of the Paris talks this year is in doubt.
"There is no attempt to put pressure on Zelenskyy to make concessions, but no one plans to give him gifts either," says Moscow correspondent for Le Monde Benoît Vitkine in a comment to hromadske. "The French say: ‘It is clearly stated in ‘Minsk’ that border control should be restored at the end of the election process.’ Therefore, the French will not support Zelenskyy here and will not pressure Russia to recognize this sequence of events."
The order of fulfillment of other clauses of the agreements is also interpreted differently. In particular, the participants of the Normandy format could not agree on what should happen first: the elections or coming into effect of the Donbas special status. To break the deadlock n negotiations, then-Foreign Minister of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier proposed the following formula: Donbas Special Status will come into force on a temporary basis on election day. If the OSCE recognizes the elections as fair and legitimate, it will then continue to operate on an ongoing basis.
Steinmeier suggested this formula at another meeting of the Normandy Four in Paris on October 2, 2015. Then the negotiations lasted five hours, and the participants acknowledged that they would not be able to fulfill the Minsk agreements by the end of the year.
The last Normandy Four consisting of Poroshenko, Putin, Merkel and Hollande met on October 19, 2016 in Berlin. No documents were signed as a result of the summit.
After that meeting, Putin announced he would no longer take part in the Normandy format negotiations.
From left to right: Vladimir Putin, Francois Hollande, Petro Poroshenko, Angela Merkel and Alexander Lukashenko at the signing of the Donbas ceasefire agreement, February 11, 2015. Photo: EPA / MYKOLA LAZARENKO
What happened in the three years without Normandy Four meetings?
Diplomatic attempts to resolve the conflict in the Donbas have not stopped. There have been several major exchanges of prisoners between Ukraine and the militants since the Normandy format leaders' meetings were held. The first of these took place on December 27, 2017, under President Poroshenko. Then 73 hostages returned from the captivity of self-proclaimed “LPR” and “DPR”.
The second major exchange took place under new President Zelenskyy: on September 7, 2019, 35 prisoners who were illegally detained in Russia returned to Ukraine. Among them were 11 political prisoners, including Oleg Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Volodymyr Balukh, Roman Sushchenko and others.
24 Ukrainian sailors who were captured by the Russian Federation after the shelling of Ukraine's warships in the Kerch Strait on November 25, 2018 also returned home. Then, responding to the incident, President Poroshenko declared martial law for one month in 10 Ukrainian regions.
In the spring of 2019, the United States, Canada and the E.U. imposed new sanctions on Russia because of the incident in the Kerch Strait. On May 25, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ordered Russia to return Ukrainian sailors. Although the Russian Federation officially disagreed with the court decision, the sailors returned to Ukraine, albeit under the guise of exchanging prisoners.
The move in the West was seen as one of the steps towards rebooting the Normandy talks. But the exchange was not enough.
What were the prerequisites of the Paris Summit?
The date of the meeting in Paris was postponed several times. In particular, due to the Russian Federation putting forward new conditions for it to take place. One of the Kremlin's demands was to put the "Steinmeier formula" to paper. On October 1, Ukraine formally agreed to the implementation of the formula. Zelenskyy’s assistant Andriy Yermak announced that in case of successful negotiations in Paris the obligation to implement the formula will be enshrined in the Ukrainian legislation as well.
Also for the Paris summit to go ahead, Moscow demanded that forces be separated at three sections along the Donbas demarcation line. Recently, the troops were disengaged in Zolote and near the settlement of Petrivske. Earlier, forces were separated near Stanytsia Luhanska. Thus, the Ukrainian side fulfilled all the prerequisites on its part for the meeting of the Normandy Four.
President Zelenskyy has publicly stated that he has three goals in the Paris talks:
1. Provide for the exchange of prisoners and find out how many Ukrainian citizens can be returned and when;
2. Arrange for a lasting ceasefire;
3. Ensure the withdrawal of all armed formations before the elections are held in non-government-controlled territories of Ukraine. According to Zelenskyy, they should coincide with local elections across the country, i.e. October 2020.
The president said that if these three issues are resolved, it will become clear "who really wants or does not want to end the war". On December 5, his aide Yermak said that if the Russian Federation does not demonstrate its willingness to implement the Minsk agreements, Ukraine has a plan B: "to build a wall" along the contact line.
The expectations of the Russian side differ from the aspirations of the Zelenskyy team. The Kremlin also stated that they were willing to implement the Minsk agreements, but interpreted them differently. In particular, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry Sergey Lavrov said that Ukraine should negotiate directly with the “LPR” and “DPR”.
“Ukraine will definitely not do this,” Zelenskyy said on the "Freedom of Speech with Savik Shuster" TV program.
Instead, the head of state proposes to introduce other representatives of Donbas, internally displaced persons affected by the conflict, into the TCG. So far, the occupied territories were solely represented in Minsk by the militants.
French President Macron said he hoped the meeting in Paris would help "build a new architecture of trust and security in Europe". But since the beginning of his term, President Macron has changed his attitude to Russia. After his election, he called Russia one of the problems facing the E.U. Lately, he has been increasingly talking about the need for dialogue and cooperation with the Kremlin.
Macron expects the Paris summit to help bring Minsk agreements closer. To achieve this, he is working with German Chancellor Merkel. The official German position has not changed in three years: there is no alternative to Minsk, and sanctions from Russia cannot be lifted until it fulfills its obligations. However, the intra-German context has changed since the last meeting of the Normandy Four.
“The expectations are quite modest. No one expects a breakthrough,” says Mattia Nelles, an analyst at the German Center for Liberal Modernity in a comment to hromadske. Nelles points out that since the last Normandy format talks, the German parliament has changed: “About 30-40% of the new parliament prefer to deal with the Kremlin as before (before the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the conflict in the Donbas - ed.). And of course, that influences Angela Merkel’s [behavior] in the discussion.”
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