On April 30, foreign ministers from the four Normandy Format countries – Ukraine, France, Germany, and Russia – gathered via video-conference to further discuss the conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, said at a briefing following the meeting, that they had discussed how to provide safety from the coronavirus for Ukrainians living on non-government controlled territory.
“Both the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – ed.) monitoring mission, and the International Committee of the Red Cross must be given full access to those territories for them to fulfill their duties,” stated Kuleba.
He also told his counterparts about the steps the Ukrainian government has taken in order to ensure that the residents of the occupied territories could continue to receive their pensions.
“This question needs to be resolved in the framework of the Minsk Agreements and exclusively on the Ukrainian legal field,” noted the minister.
He also said that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov raised the issue of the “consultative committee” which would consider issues of regulating the Donbas conflict, but, according to Kuleba, the other ministers simply let him say his piece and did not engage.
All four foreign ministers also decided to send a recommendation to the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk for them to more quickly discuss issues of safety and ceasefire. Additionally, the ministers congratulated each other on the recent prisoner exchange, but Kuleba stated that this result is far from the Ukrainian government’s goal of an “all-for-all” exchange.
“Russia and Ukraine need to continue cooperation. To use the opportunity, I’ve emphasized that the release of Ukrainian citizens on RF (Russian Federation – ed.) territory, and the territory of occupied Crimea, is necessary,” added the minister.
Kuleba said that the meeting’s mood was constructive, but sometimes tense, and explained that the participants had successfully covered all of the day’s talking points and agreed to “continue negotiations.”
Yesterday, Ukraine’s FM said that the reason for the Normandy Format meeting on the ministerial level was to “find an impulse to fulfill the decisions of the Paris summit.”
Meanwhile, the German foreign minister announced that the next Normandy summit on the level of the countries’ leaders was scheduled to be held in Berlin in May. But Kuleba, on the way to the briefing, said that “there was no need to hold a summit for the purposes of holding a summit” and that “it’s too early to talk about an exact date.”
In answer to a journalist’s question at the briefing regarding Russia’s refusal to hold to its promises about a ceasefire, Kuleba seemed to agree, stating that “there is a problem about the lack of trust [in Russia] due to the fact that the RF is violating, unfortunately, its promises. But we need to keep working. We have the Russia we have, there’s no other Russia. And we have to keep talking.”
Maria Zolkina, a political analyst from the Democratic Initiatives fund, said that she’d found some “positive moments” for Ukraine in the latest discussions:
“This discussion can be considered a peculiar moment in the history of ‘consultative council’ that was agreed upon on March 11. Russia came out with a speech, but Lavrov’s presentation turned into a monologue to which the other foreign ministers didn’t react. This was Russia’s positive – but the fact that this wasn’t at all discussed very eloquently shows that this is a condemnation of the consultative council. The Ukrainian side cannot strongly refuse [the consultative council], seeing as there was a preliminary agreement on the level of Ukrainian negotiators and heads of state. But looking at all the process, we can say that we’ve made a ‘step backwards’,” Zolkina commented.
The analyst continued by saying that the Germans, who were moderating the meeting, were primarily waiting for some decisions on humanitarian questions – a weakening of the permit regime at the checkpoints, and the opening of new checkpoints on the contact line after the pandemic. But there weren't any agreements on that humanitarian question.
Oleksiy Matsuka, the editor-in-chief of News of Donbas, said that the meeting was mostly a formality but the very fact that it was held gives hope for peaceful regulation of the conflict.
“There are all the signs of intentions for a peaceful solution, despite the lack of a ceasefire. But the effective middlemen, Berlin and Paris, didn’t give this a chance to develop, and there is also Zelenskyy’s idea of establishing peace in the Donbas which he’d expressed at the start of his candidacy before becoming president,” said Matsuka.
Roman Bezsmertnyi, Ukraine’s former representative to the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk in both 2015-2016 and in 2019, said that “the meeting was held – and that’s a positive.” According to the ex-representative, it’s good that Ukraine is insisting on questions regarding the ceasefire and on decisions for social issues as well as prisoner exchanges for prisoners held in Russia and occupied Crimea. Though, he admits, it is true that the question of paying people’s pensions, is, in Bezsmertnyi’s words, “one of the instruments of bankrupting Ukraine.”
As for the negatives in the negotiations, the ex-representative criticized Foreign Minister Kuleba’s use of the phrase “detained persons”, instead of “captives”, as the former omits the concept of “Russian aggression”. As for the consultative council, Bezsmertnyi did not see the positive noted by Zolkina. “The Russian side, in the form of an ultimatum, insists that if there’s a consultative council, then they’ll move on something. Lavrov has taken this position…”
He also said that any summit in Berlin won’t be held at least until the coronavirus quarantine is over. “We probably won’t get the meeting until there’s an understanding that people don’t go outside without masks.”