Foreign Policy Research Institute

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Foreign Policy Research Institute

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How is the Ukrainian leadership going to agree with Russia on resolving the conflict in Donbas on Ukrainian terms?


On December 10, 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyy first held a face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin in Paris at the Normandy summit, together with the leaders of France and Germany: Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. At that time, the newly elected President of Ukraine had high hopes for the intensification of the process of a peaceful settlement with a view to the subsequent end of the Russian-Ukrainian war in eastern Ukraine. In Paris, the parties agreed on a number of initiatives, most of which were ultimately not implemented.

Today, the negotiation process has effectively reached a stalemate, but the rhetoric of the Ukrainian leadership shows that Kyiv still hopes to give it a new impetus. Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly stressed the desire to hold a summit of the Normandy format, as well as the desire to hold face-to-face talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin. At the same time, the Kremlin was skeptical about the possibility of such a meeting. As Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Russia-1 TV channel, an obstacle to organizing a meeting between Putin and Zelenskyy is Kyiv's «unwillingness» to comply with the Minsk agreements. At present, there are no objective preconditions for changing the Kremlin's policy towards Ukraine. Russia continues to put pressure on Ukraine through aggravation in the East, trying to persuade official Kyiv to negotiate with its LDPR puppets, thereby legitimizing these quasi-formations and avoiding its responsibility for the armed conflict against Ukraine. Russia still keeps checkpoints on the touchline closed, impeding the free movement of Ukrainians living on the front line, and restricting the activities of the OSCE monitoring mission. However, in October, the press began to report on the possibility of holding another meeting in the Normandy format. On Monday, October 11, 2021, Volodymyr Zelenskyy held talks with Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, while the website of the President's office indicated that the parties discussed further steps towards a peaceful settlement in Donbas, as well as preparations for the next Normandy Four summit. The leaders of the three states, inter alia, discussed proposals for agreements that could be considered at the Normandy format summit.[1]

After that, the leaders of Germany and France held relevant talks with Vladimir Putin. Following the talks, the French Foreign Ministry announced a meeting of the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France. Thus, there is a slight possibility that the meeting of the leaders of the states in a quadripartite format will take place by the end of this year. However, given the unchanging position of the Russian Federation and the unwillingness of France and Germany to put pressure on Vladimir Putin, the question arises, what will the leaders of the states agree on and how is the Ukrainian leadership going to agree on the conflict resolution on its own terms in case of a summit?

During this year, a number of ideological articles were published in the Russian Federation: first, Vladimir Putin's article «On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians», and then Dmitry Trenin's article entitled «Reassessing Proximity. How can Russia build relations with Ukraine» and now, in October, an article was published on the same topic by former President, Prime Minister and now Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev. The article is written in a rather aggressive manner and contains harsh attacks on the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy. At the same time, the reader's attention is drawn to profanity and elements of anti-Semitism, which is not typical for state officials. More than 2 million Ukrainians currently live in Russia, but there is no any Ukrainian school in the country. This indicates that despite the Russian leadership's persistent promotion of the narrative of the Russian language oppression in Ukraine, the Ukrainian language in Russia is in a much worse condition. Proof of this are two errors in the title of the article, which is written in Ukrainian. This article substantiates the idea of ??the futility of negotiations with the current Ukrainian authorities and that it is worth waiting for a new one. At the same time, the policy of non-recognition of the occupation of Ukrainian territories, the creation of the «Crimean Platform» and the adoption of the law on indigenous peoples is criticized. The Russian leadership is trying to influence the internal processes in Ukraine, because its sovereignty and independence is a formality for them.

The article once again states the thesis of «external governance»: «it is pointless for us to deal with vassals. Business needs to be done with the suzerain».  It is significant that the article was published before Victoria Nuland's visit to Moscow. The Kremlin stressed that it would resolve the issue of Ukraine only with major powers, as Ukraine refuses to negotiate with the so-called «LDPR». In general, the theses used in Dmitry Medvedev's publication echoed Dmitry Trenin's views on the expediency of continuing hybrid aggression against Ukraine. The Kremlin will continue to destabilize the situation in the information and economic dimensions and will further fuel the low-intensity conflict in Donbas if Ukraine does not fulfill the Minsk agreements on Russian terms.

In addition to the issues of the «Minsk Agreements» implementation, the issue of Crimea is becoming a stumbling block. Ukraine held the inauguration summit of the «Crimean Platform», thus creating the first format in which the issue of de-occupation of Crimea will be discussed. Acting consistently, the state leadership expressed its intention to discuss issues related to the return of the occupied peninsula within Normandy negotiations. For Russia, this scenario is unacceptable. According to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba, the Russian side is «already bargaining» over the agenda of the summit. «The good news is they are already bargaining. If they started with statements that it is not clear what to talk about, the agenda and vision of this meeting, according to them, categorically did not coincide, now they are already bargaining over its agenda».

«But with the Crimean Platform summit, we showed that we will never forget about Crimea, it is not a topic on which there can be compromises. I am convinced that the issue of Crimea will be on the agenda under any circumstances, the question is how it will be publicly covered», Kuleba said.[2] Probably, the issue of the peninsula will become an element of bargaining between the parties and will be moved outside the framework of this particular upcoming meeting, or will not be indicated in the document following the summit. Thus, Ukraine, having raised the issue of Crimea, raised the stakes in the negotiation process and expanded the room for maneuver.

The current Ukrainian leadership still hopes for a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Donbas and hopes for a future meeting. However, given the Kremlin's unchanging position, as evidenced by the rhetoric of Kremlin officials, and periodically published articles, Russia's policy toward Ukraine remains unchanged. Ukraine has no leverage over the Russian Federation, and partner countries: France, Germany and the United States do not intend to increase pressure on the Kremlin and risk a possible escalation of the confrontation with Russia. Thus, it can be expected that the meeting in the Normandy format will not bring political achievements to Ukraine and will not contribute to the restoration of sovereignty over the occupied territories.