September 27, 2019

Putin overplays hand with Normandy summit, inadvertently rescues Zelenskyy from the brink



The Kremlin has derailed the summit of the Normandy group’s (Russia, Germany, France, Ukraine) leaders, which was supposed to be held on September 16, in Paris. Apparently, Russian President Vladimir Putin determined at the last moment that his far-reaching objectives for this summit could not be fully achieved at this point. The Normandy group had not held a summit in the last three years. The derailed heads-of-state/government gathering is still expected to be held in Paris, but without a substitute date as yet.

Moscow’s move to thwart or delay this summit has confounded Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and it embarrassed French President Emmanuel Macron. Both had eagerly sought this summit and built high expectations on it. The recently elected Mr. Zelenskyy is hostage to his promises that he would bring “peace” by agreement with Mr. Putin in the Normandy framework by the end of this year. Mr. Zelenskyy’s team hopes to achieve a quick preliminary agreement with Mr. Putin, based on elements of the Minsk accords favoring Russia, but short of a conclusive Ukrainian capitulation as the Kremlin seeks in the Donbas. For the moment, however, the Kremlin’s preconditions to holding this summit have forced Mr. Zelenskyy (or his non-transparent team of advisers) to pull back from the brink at the last moment.

For the host president, Mr. Macron, this was to be “his” summit; and the likely rescheduled summit would still be his. Mr. Macron is the only one among these four leaders who has established close bilateral relations with each of the other three, co-opting Mr. Zelenskyy early on (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, April 17). It is Mr. Macron’s ambition to project France as convener and mediator in settling this major European crisis, upstaging Germany in the process.

To French diplomacy, implementing the Minsk accords on Russian-approved terms is a means toward the larger goal of bringing Russia back into Europe arm-in-arm with France, as Mr. Macron indicated in his annual speech to French diplomats (Le Monde, August 27). This goal can be attained at Ukraine’s expense by cajoling Mr. Zelenskyy into concessions to Mr. Putin within the Normandy framework. Meanwhile, co-opting Mr. Zelenskyy is Mr. Macron’s attempt to displace German Chancellor Angela Merkel from the first-fiddle seat on Ukraine that she held during Petro Poroshenko’s presidency. For her part, Ms. Merkel displayed none of Mr. Zelenskyy’s and Mr. Macron’s eagerness to precipitate this summit, and her spokespeople had ambiguously suggested that more time would be needed to prepare it.

Mr. Putin’s top advisor, Yurii Ushakov, publicized Russia’s far-reaching objectives for this summit on September 13, three days before the event’s scheduled date. Mr. Ushakov named several “prerequisites” to holding the summit, the main condition being the Normandy leaders’ acceptance of the “Steinmeier formula” for the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Mr. Ushakov demanded a “written codification of the Steinmeier formula” at the leaders’ summit, as well as finalization of the summit’s concluding document ahead of the event itself, with implementation guaranteed by an “iron agreement” (Interfax, September 13).

Authored in 2015-2016 by Germany’s then–minister of foreign affairs, Frank-Walter Steinmeier (head of state since 2017), the Steinmeier formula enjoys official support in Berlin and Paris, as well as the eager embrace of Russia. For its part, Ukraine desperately but also creatively resisted it in the Minsk Contact Group’s negotiations during Mr. Poroshenko’s presidency. The Steinmeier formula‘s collective acceptance (as Mr. Ushakov suggested) by the Normandy summit would mean, in practice, imposing it on Mr. Zelenskyy’s Ukraine.

The Steinmeier formula basically prescribes the following sequence of steps to implement the Minsk agreements: Ukraine would enact a special status for the Russian-controlled territory of the Donbas in Ukraine’s Constitution; municipal-level “elections” would be staged on that territory, by agreement with the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” and notwithstanding the presence of Russian and proxy forces; Ukraine would bring that special status into effect temporarily on the date of those “elections” and on a permanent basis after those “elections” receive the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s blessing (i.e., within days). The withdrawal of “foreign” forces and the restoration of Ukrainian control on the Ukrainian-Russian border in that territory are matters to be negotiated after those political steps would have been taken. The two “people’s republics” and their military organizations would remain in place, unaffected by the municipal-level “elections.” The Minsk Contact Group has generated an abundant record of negotiations over the Steinmeier formula in the last three years.

The Normandy leaders did not hold any summit during this three-year period. Under the ground rules of this process, the top leaders are entitled collectively to hand down instructions to the Minsk Contact Group. The Kremlin apparently expects the Normandy summit, when held, to break Ukraine’s resistance in the Minsk Contact Group. This would require Mr. Zelenskyy’s acquiescence at the Normandy summit. Mr. Zelenskyy’s eagerness for a quick-fix “end to the war” and a bilateral meeting with Mr. Putin at this Normandy summit encouraged the Kremlin to expect foisting the Steinmeier formula on Ukraine’s new president. Mr. Zelenskyy’s wholesale rejection of the Poroshenko legacy, including on matters of war and peace with Russia, further emboldened the Kremlin.

On the other hand, the Steinmeier formula remains anathema (on a par with “federalization”) in Ukrainian public opinion. The representatives of Mr. Zelenskyy’s team must take this fact into account. For all their eagerness to have a meeting with Mr. Putin, so as to “end the war”/“make peace” by their self-imposed due date (this year’s end), Ukraine’s leeway for concessions to Russia is limited. Mr. Zelenskyy’s negotiators therefore attempted to finesse the summit’s preparations at the level of senior aides in the Normandy format as well as in bilateral contacts with Russian counterparts. These awkward attempts surfaced in the tense negotiating endgame, which derailed the Normandy summit planned for September 16.



The endgame that derailed the summit of the Normandy group revealed the degree of the novice Ukrainian presidency’s readiness for concessions to Russia, as well as Russia’s all-or-nothing approach. This resulted in a quasi-ultimatum by the Russian president via his adviser Mr. Ushakov, which, in turn, compromised the planned Normandy summit in Paris, where Mr. Putin hoped to enshrine the Steinmeier formula inimical to Ukraine.

On September 12, the Ukrainian president confirmed that his negotiators were, as of that moment, discussing the “Steinmeier formula as a road map, with clear deadlines, for implementing the Minsk accords.” This was to be enshrined at the summit of Normandy leaders scheduled for September 16, in Paris. Moreover, Mr. Zelenskyy called for “follow-up steps to include contact with President Putin” bilaterally, in parallel with the Normandy format (Interfax-Ukraine, Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, September 12).

In several public statements on September 13, Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Vadym Prystaiko declared: Russia currently shows “a certain thaw, a warming-up“ toward Ukraine (alluding to the prisoner exchange) (Ukrinform, Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, September 13); “There is nothing treasonable, neither defeat nor victory in the Steinmeier Formula” (Interfax-Ukraine, Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, September 13); and Kyiv considers the possibility of accepting local elections in the occupied territory of the Donbas as part of Ukraine’s local elections to be held countrywide in 2020 (Ukrinform, Interfax-Ukraine, September 13). According to corroborating reports, Kyiv officials did consider accepting “elections” in that territory, if Russian and proxy forces are “confined to barracks” for the duration (i.e., instead of being withdrawn or dissolved, for which there is no prospect whatsoever by 2020) (Ukrinform, September 13).

Moscow evidently took those awkward finessing attempts as prevarication by the Zelenskyy team, and moreover as prevarication from weakness. This prompted Mr. Putin’s warning via Mr. Ushakov: the Steinmeier formula and binding Ukrainian commitments are Russia’s preconditions to discussing a peace settlement at the summit. This last-minute intervention confirms (as do Mr. Prystaiko’s statements) that Mr. Zelenskyy’s team members had discussed these matters with Moscow and were wavering.

By the same token, the Kremlin’s warning caused the Zelenskyy team to pull back from the brink. The Kremlin inadvertently rescued Mr. Zelenskyy in this sense. Mr. Prystaiko went public again in the late evening of September 13 to announce that the Normandy summit was off: “Three sides were ready to meet in Paris on September 16, but the Russian side could not make it in time [sic] to the meeting. We are looking to set another date” (Ukrinform, Ukrayinska Pravda, September 13).

Backtracking statements ensued from Mr. Prystaiko after the summit’s derailment. “We are not going to introduce any special or non-special status into the Constitution,” he declared, adding later that local elections in the occupied Donbas “should be held if we manage by 2020 to evacuate the troops and achieve the other [democracy-related] prerequisites” (Ukrinform, Interfax-Ukraine, September 14).

These vacillations reflect the dysfunctional nature of the Zelenskyy team’s Russia policy at this early stage in the new administration. Mr. Prystaiko, a well-respected diplomat with a distinguished record of service, is the public face of that policy. However, he is subordinate to and dependent on not only the novice president, but also on Mr. Zelenskyy’s close circle, composed of a mixture of political operatives, former business partners and film producers. They positioned their boss as the anti-war, pro-peace candidate – now president – who is supposed to deliver on those promises.

Within that close circle, lacking all foreign policy experience, Andriy Yermak – a film copyright lawyer and film producer in his own right – currently handles contacts with the Kremlin, although there might be other channels employed as well. Former President Leonid Kuchma is (again) Ukraine’s chief delegate in the Minsk Contact Group. Apart from reinstating Mr. Kuchma in that post, Mr. Zelenskyy’s team seems determined to jettison his predecessor’s Russia policy, in effect dismantling that policy’s institutional apparatus.

Mr. Poroshenko’s five-year administration had built that institutional apparatus which comprised respected professionals in the Presidential Administration staff, the National Security and Defense Council, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the delegation to the Minsk Contact Group, as well as the relevant parliamentary committees. They coordinated their efforts in the last three years to forestall dangers (constitutional changes under duress, Donbas “elections,” special status, Steinmeier formula), enact a legislative shield against unilateral concessions (2018 law on Ukraine’s Donbas policy) and mobilize international support for Ukraine on those issues.

The Poroshenko administration conducted its policies on such issues with a fairly high degree of transparency and accountability, having understood the value of public support when Ukraine was faced with a tripartite Moscow-Berlin-Paris alignment in the Normandy format. Mr. Zelenskyy’s team, however, has at this early stage shown an inclination for non-transparent contacts with the Kremlin, and hopes to launch a bilateral Zelenskyy-Putin negotiation process in parallel with the Normandy process. The latter is, admittedly, risk-fraught for Ukraine, but less so than a bilateral Kyiv-Kremlin channel would be.


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