December 20, 2019

Normandy summit: Limited success for Zelenskyy, temporary setback for Ukraine



On the personal level, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a great impression at the Normandy group’s summit in Paris, on December 9. Mr. Zelenskyy outshone Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron at this highly publicized heads-of-state/government gathering – the first after a three-year pause at that level – to restart peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine with German and French assistance.

Mr. Zelenskyy, a first-time participant in the Normandy group, played his own persona, conveying friendly informality and street-smart manner but also, on this occasion, presidential and national dignity. He bristled that he spoke for the entire people of Ukraine, “including Russian-speaking people” (as “we are all Ukrainian”), when provoked by Mr. Putin on that score.

Furthermore, Mr. Zelenskyy tried hard to defend certain Ukrainian “red lines” in discussing the terms of a peace settlement at this summit. Even Mr. Zelenskyy’s most serious critics felt reassured (as Ukrainian media coverage attests) in the wake of the president’s performance at the Normandy summit.

International attention riveted on the Normandy quartet talks served to obscure a development of potentially greater significance that took place in Kyiv. There, on the eve of the Paris summit, Ukraine’s presidency and government unexpectedly called (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, December 9) for major revisions to the Minsk “agreements,” which Russia had imposed on Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 with German and French assistance.

Those agreements form the basis of negotiations in the Normandy format and the Minsk Group to Ukraine’s detriment; and the Paris summit itself was meant to refloat the Minsk agreements in their existing form. Kyiv’s last-minute demands for revisions did not strengthen Mr. Zelenskyy’s hand at this summit. But he seems determined to fight another day. Conversely, he weakened his hand at this summit through earlier concessions to Moscow, notably his acceptance of the “Steinmeier formula” as a price for bringing Mr. Putin to this conclave (see EDM, October 3, 17, December 5).

The summit included a two-hour plenary meeting and round-robin bilaterals between the top leaders, including a one-hour Putin-Zelenskyy bilateral. The final document, “Common Agreed Conclusions,” looks potentially satisfactory to Ukraine regarding prisoner exchanges and ceasefire observance (Kyiv is the asking side on both these counts), but heavily favoring Russia on all the other points on the basis of the same Minsk “agreements” (Common Agreed Conclusions, and, December 10). The salient provisions are (quotes when so indicated; otherwise paraphrases/summaries):

  • “The Minsk agreements continue to be the basis of the work of the Normandy format, whose member states are committed to their full implementation.”
  • A full ceasefire all along the frontline is to be introduced before the end of this year (2019). The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission (OSCE SMM) shall monitor the ceasefire, “using its mandate to the full extent and receiving safe access throughout the territory” (diplomatic allusions to Russia and its proxies restricting the SMM’s operations systematically for the last five years).
  • The Minsk Contact Group shall facilitate exchanges of detainees, including a first batch by this year’s end (there are several categories of identified detainees, and Mr. Zelenskyy has made the release of Ukrainian detainees into his declared top priority, which Moscow leverages against Kyiv – see EDM, September 10, 12).
  • The four leaders “express interest” in agreeing, within the Normandy format and the Minsk Contact Group, all the legal aspects of the permanent “special status” of the Donetsk-Luhansk territories, in accordance with the Minsk agreement. And the four leaders “consider it necessary to incorporate the ‘Steinmeier formula’ into the Ukrainian legislation.” (Trapped by his own acceptance of the Steinmeier formula, alongside Donetsk-Luhansk, in the Minsk Contact Group, Mr. Zelenskyy could not oppose the formula’s endorsement at the highest level in the Normandy summit.)
  • The next Normandy summit shall be held tentatively in April in Berlin to discuss “the political and security conditions for, inter alia, the organization of local elections” in the Donetsk-Luhansk territory (political and security, in that order, reverses Kyiv’s “security first” imperative, which Mr. Zelenskyy had publicized ahead of the summit).

In line with previous Normandy summit communiqués, this one has no legally binding value and does not carry the leaders’ signatures. However, it purports to predetermine Ukraine’s course, potentially amounting (if implemented as envisaged) to a situation of limited sovereignty for Ukraine. The document does not include references to Ukraine’s internationally recognized sovereignty and borders. This cannot be surprising, given that Russia occupies the Ukrainian side of a 400-kilometer-long border in the Donetsk-Luhansk territory, while the Minsk agreements would result de facto in sovereignizing and legitimizing the Donetsk-Luhansk “people’s republics,” including through the Minsk-mandated local elections.

The Paris summit has shown that Ukraine remains basically isolated in the Normandy format today, as it was in this conclave’s previous iterations. This time, however, the isolation was less visible due to some festive atmospherics (marking the re-launch of the process after a three-year pause) and Mr. Zelenskyy’s spirited performance, justifiably hailed in Ukraine. Concerns about a possible “capitulation,” while also justified ahead of the summit, were laid to rest by Mr. Zelenskyy’s defense of some Ukrainian “red lines.” The summit’s decisions, however, fully contradict the positions that Mr. Zelenskyy recently embraced in line with Ukraine’s interests and tried to defend at the Paris summit. He seems determined to fight another day.


Post-summit press conference

The Normandy four leaders’ post-summit press conference, unusually lengthy and detailed, allowed some instructive glimpses into their discussions behind closed doors in Paris. There they seemed to have reviewed all the major aspects of implementing the Minsk agreements. And they intend to proceed with this implementation on an accelerated timetable, as the press conference revealed (,,, December 10).

Regarding the special status of the occupied Donetsk-Luhansk territory, Ukraine’s president told the assembled journalists that he agreed to: 1) prolong Ukraine’s existing law on the region’s special status before its December 31 expiry and 2) enact in 2020 a new law on the special status that would incorporate the so-called Steinmeier formula. The formula is about bringing Donetsk-Luhansk’s special status into effect on a permanent basis when elections are held in that Russian-controlled territory.

As Mr. Zelenskyy confirmed at the press conference, the terms of the new law on special status “must be agreed upon in the Normandy format and with all the sides [sic] in the Minsk Contact Group.” That Contact Group includes Ukraine, Russia, the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), meaning that an isolated Kyiv negotiates with three Russian parties, while Russia holds statutory veto power inside the OSCE. Under the Minsk agreements, all decisions related to the political settlement are to be negotiated between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk on a co-equal basis. The December 9 Paris summit communiqué would allow the special status to be negotiated in the Normandy format, instead of or in addition to the Minsk Contact Group format.

The Russian president told the press conference that the special status must be enshrined in Ukraine’s Constitution, again by agreement with Donetsk and Luhansk. This, too, is in line with the Minsk agreements. Mr. Putin called for direct dialogue between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk, being “the parties to this conflict.”

At the press conference, Mr. Zelenskyy confirmed his acceptance of the Steinmeier formula to be introduced into the law on the special status. In this case as well, the Paris summiteers agreed to allow the matter to be discussed again in the Normandy format. Mr. Zelenskyy had accepted the Steinmeier formula in the Minsk Contact Group (acting co-equally with Donetsk-Luhansk) on October 1.

Most recently, however, Mr. Zelenskyy has turned Minsk-revisionist (see EDM, December 9), and he seems hopeful of reopening this issue by raising it to the level of the Normandy format. French President Macron hinted at that in his concluding remarks.

German Chancellor Merkel, however, praised Mr. Zelenskyy for accepting the Steinmeier formula, “a great breakthrough due to Ukraine’s courage, which made it possible for us to hold our meeting today” (, December 9). This had, indeed, been the Kremlin’s key precondition to holding this summit. The Steinmeier formula could well allow the special status to take permanent effect regardless of the quality of those elections in Donetsk-Luhansk.

In line with the Minsk agreements, Mr. Putin reminded the press conference that elections due in Donetsk-Luhansk are a matter for the Minsk Contact Group to discuss. This means Kyiv would be negotiating with Russia and the two “people’s republics” about a special electoral law and all organizational aspects of such “elections” (, December 9). Ms. Merkel wants the Normandy group’s diplomats to help create the “political and security conditions” (in that order, rather than “security first”) for holding those “elections.” While Ms. Merkel apparently seeks a serious discussion, Mr. Macron would like to see conditions created already by the time of the next Normandy meeting in April 2020.

Mr. Zelenskyy responded by making the case for enlarging the composition of the Minsk Contact Group by adding representatives of the millions of internally displaced persons who left the Russian-controlled territory. He had first aired that proposal shortly before the summit (see EDM, December 9).

Mr. Zelenskyy came to the summit hoping to regain Ukrainian control of the 400-kilometer border between Russia and Ukraine in Russian-backed Donetsk-Luhansk, ahead of any elections in that territory. He announced at the summit’s end that he would raise the matter again at the next Normandy summit, with downscaled hopes for a step-by-step solution, correlated in some way to those elections. Ukraine will propose that a new subgroup dedicated to border control be created in the Minsk Contact Group. But considering the Minsk Group’s composition, this is a deadlock – hence Mr. Zelenskyy’s intention to raise the matter to the Normandy group’s level in this case also.

Turning to the matter of Russian and local troops in Donetsk-Luhansk, Mr. Zelenskyy announced, “I have underlined that all foreign troops must withdraw and local military formations be disbanded” as part of pre-conditions for elections to be held there. The other Normandy leaders are not on record with comments on this matter at this summit.

Mr. Zelenskyy also evidently called for revising the Minsk agreements during the leaders’ closed-door meetings. Mr. Putin refused, however: “The Minsk agreements are clear, there is no need to re-negotiate them… If we reopen one point, we will torpedo all the other points.” (The documents are so crafted that each point leads to the next in a tight, pre-determined sequence.)

Only Ms. Merkel hinted at some possible reconsideration: “The question arises, whether the Minsk agreements are to become fossilized [to turn into fossils], or whether they may be revived. Mr. Zelenskyy’s actions make it possible for us to lend some elasticity to these documents and bring them back to life,” she contended. In the context of “elasticity,” Ms. Merkel conceded that the Steinmeier formula itself was not in line with the Minsk documents but went beyond their framework; it is an addition to them (, December 9).

Finally, on Crimea, bringing up Russia’s seizure of the peninsula from Ukraine had been one of Mr. Zelenskyy’s early justifications for seeking a Normandy summit and a bilateral meeting with Mr. Putin (well before calling for the Minsk agreements to be revised). In Paris, however, the Ukrainian president told the press that he (and the summit) ran out of time before he could raise this issue. He would raise it the next time.


The article above is reprinted from Eurasia Daily Monitor with permission from its publisher, the Jamestown Foundation,