KYIV – The leaders of the Normandy Four countries – Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France – have finally agreed to hold a summit on December 9 in Paris in an attempt to resume the long-stalled negotiations over the future of eastern Ukraine. Moscow had delayed agreeing to a date, and even now continues its attempts to set the summit’s terms.
Meanwhile, complex discussions are under way between Kyiv and Moscow on the transit of Russian gas through Ukraine after the present contract expires at the end of the year. With Gazprom making proposals that Naftogaz finds unacceptable, the current negotiations are stalled.
Much of the discussion in the media in Kyiv is about what can be expected from the Normandy Four summit. Will the Ukrainian president be able to stand his ground when he finally meets Russian President Vladimir Putin face to face, especially if the German and French leaders do not back him sufficiently? And many commentators are saying that, if no progress is made, then it is time to either abandon or expand the Normandy Four format.
There have been rumblings also from within the ruling Servant of the People party. The head of its parliamentary faction, David Arakhamia, declared on November 12 that the terms of the Minsk agreements were “smothering” Ukraine. Everyone can see, he stressed, that Russia is blocking progress, and therefore “this gives us grounds to reformat things in a new way. If not the Normandy format, let’s expand things and call on the U.K. and the U.S.,” he suggested.
But the international setting is problematic for Kyiv and some observers even see a danger of temporary isolation. Washington is absorbed in what some observers have already labelled “Ukrainegate” and doubts have been raised about the extent to which President Donald Trump will be prepared to support Ukraine.
Frustrated with the long-standing paralysis of the Normandy Four format, Berlin and France have both pressed for a new summit – the last was held in 2016 – and have encouraged the new Zelenskyy administration to be “conciliatory.” But they have also seen the strong domestic reaction within Ukraine to any hint of “capitulation” before Moscow, and have noted that President Zelenskyy has taken a firmer stance in defending national interests than expected.
But a new factor has now appeared which may or may not work in Ukraine’s favor. In recent weeks, there has been something of a rift between the French and German leaders for reasons not related to Ukraine, and it is not clear to what extent this might affect their behavior at the summit.
French President Emanuel Macron has been outspoken in his criticism of NATO and has blocked Northern Macedonia from joining the European Union. He has been accused of seeking to ingratiate himself with Mr. Putin and his enthusiasm to host the summit in the French capital has raised questions.
On the other hand, German Chancellor Angela Merkel continues to back the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline project bringing gas from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea. This scheme bypassing Ukraine is politically and financially damaging to it. The German leader has sought to lessen the blow by obtaining assurances from Moscow that Ukraine will remain a transit country. But, as the current negotiations demonstrate, this is easier said than done.
Ukraine’s Minister of Energy and Environmental Protection Oleksiy Orzhel considers it unacceptable to sign new a one-year agreement with Russia on gas transit through Ukraine, under condition of waiving arbitration. Gazprom is also insisting that the decision of the Antimonopoly Committee of Ukraine to impose a fine on Gazprom for “distortion of economic competition” be reversed, and that Naftogaz-Ukraine’s petition to initiate an investigation against the Russian company by the European Commission be withdrawn.
As Kyiv-based analyst Paul Niland has aptly pointed out, “One of Russia’s demands in this negotiation was that Ukraine drop the claim of $3 billion dollars from Gazprom awarded by a court of arbitration in Stockholm. That’s not a negotiation, that’s extortion.”
For political newcomer President Zelenskyy, dealing with the Kremlin has required a fast learning curve in which intuition and acting skills are not enough. Moscow’s constant shifting of the goalposts in setting the terms for the peace process to move forward have, if anything, better informed Mr. Zelenskyy about its methods and goals. While continuing to stress his commitment to achieving peace, the neophyte president has been forced to clarify and toughen his position.
President Zelenskyy’s evolution in this direction appears to have taken the Kremlin by surprise, and Russia has been less and less enthusiastic about dealing with him within the Normandy Four group. After all, he can hardly be accused of being an anti-Russian nationalist threatening Russian-speakers in Ukraine or of being unrepresentative of the country’s population.
Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vadym Prystaiko believes that the Kremlin has painted itself into a corner. Moreover, by agreeing to accept the Steinmeier formula as a basis for discussion at next summit and to the disengagement of military forces in three pilot spots along the frontline, Ukraine has called Russia’s bluff. On November 12 Mr. Prystaiko told a TV audience, “Speaking about disengagement and the readiness of the Russian side for it, I think when we started this process in the summer, they did not believe at all that we were capable of moving this way. Now the ball is in Russia’s court. Russia is cornered.”
Certainly, the Kremlin is not sounding more conciliatory. On November 18, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov called on Paris and Berlin to respond to Kyiv’s refusal to negotiate directly with the occupation administrations in Donetsk and Luhansk, and to grant an amnesty to those who have taken up arms and committed crimes in Ukraine’s east. “We hope that our French colleagues, as hosts of the Normandy summit, will make every effort to remove [such] ambiguities,” he said.
Since then, Foreign Affairs Minister Prystaiko has countered that Kyiv is ready for “sensible” compromise, but that it will not yield on fundamental issues. He and others have revealed that a communiqué to be adopted at the summit has already been drafted and agreed.
For his part, President Zelenskyy says his main objective will be try to move the negotiations from talk to agreement on a specific timeframe for ending the war and “the return of our territory.” He told journalists on November 19 that the immediate goal is to secure the release of all Ukrainian prisoners still held by Russia on the basis of an exchange of “all for all.”
Finally, one encouraging new development should be mentioned. This week, two senior German representatives have expressed understanding and strong support for Kyiv’s position.
Germany’s new ambassador to Ukraine, Anka Feldhusen, stated that the Steinmeier formula can be implemented only when the sides of the conflict in the Donbas get to the election process, which in her opinion will take a while. “I think the election is a long way off, and there are other steps to be taken first,” the diplomat told the Kyiv-based news agency Interfax-Ukraine. She expressed hope that negative reaction to this scheme was “primarily due to the fact that people do not know in what context this formula was found.”
Furthermore, while on a visit to Kyiv, German Foreign Affairs Minister Heiko Maas reaffirmed that the role of Germany and France in negotiations on a Donbas settlement is to uphold the territorial integrity of Ukraine rather than act as neutral mediators.