Kyiv is pinning its hopes on the new administration of United States President Joseph Biden to help rebalance and restart both the Normandy forum and the Minsk Contact Group. The Minsk Contact Group operates at a level roughly equivalent to the ambassadorial, below the head of state/head of government or ministerial levels of the Normandy format. In the established modus operandi, from 2014 onward, the Normandy forum (Ukraine, Russia, Germany, France) provided guidelines for actions in the Minsk Group and held the latter accountable for implementation. Since 2020, however, Russia has “frozen” the Normandy forum and shifted the active negotiations into the Minsk Contact Group, where the West is unrepresented while Moscow holds three chairs (its own and those of Donetsk and Luhansk) and positions itself as a mediator (instead of party to the conflict). To counter these Russian tactics, Kyiv is turning to the Biden administration for help.
According to Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Volodymyr Yelchenko, Kyiv hopes that the new administration in Washington would “directly” (in its own right) join the negotiations in both the Normandy and the Minsk formats. Ukraine‘s deputy prime minister and minister for reintegrating the occupied territories, Oleksiy Reznikov, considers it feasible that US representatives should join the moderators of the Minsk Contact Group’s sectoral working groups (of which those on security and on political affairs are of paramount importance). The United States along with the United Kingdom could join these negotiations based on “certain obligations under the  Budapest Memorandum [on security assurances to Ukraine]”. This would, however, presuppose that the Biden administration would or could reverse the predecessor Barack Obama administration’s decision, in the spring of 2014, to ignore the Budapest Memorandum.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the Minsk Contact Group’s overall moderator via the OSCE chairmanship’s representative. Sweden holds the organization’s rotating chairmanship in 2021, and Poland is scheduled to follow in 2022. Both countries are Ukraine-friendly, generating some hope in Kyiv that these two consecutive chairmanships might help to counteract Russia’s manipulative tactics in the Minsk Contact Group. The OSCE’s chairmanships, however, by definition, may not represent the views of their national governments. The chairmanships are, instead, obligated to reflect the OSCE’s consensus-based positions, as negotiated internally (and non-transparently) with the veto-wielding Russia. The OSCE’s chairmanships are not free even to choose the terminology of their statements, let alone make policy decisions without Moscow’s approval.
As the OSCE’s incumbent chair, Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, explains it for Ukrainians, she must adhere to “such terms as ‘conflict in Ukraine,’ instead of ‘Russian war against Ukraine,’ because I am chairing the OSCE, a consensus-based organization… There are times when my statements as the OSCE’s Chair differ from my language as foreign minister of Sweden, a member country of the European Union. But such are the OSCE’s realities”.
That principle applies also to the Minsk Contact Group’s overall moderator, who is appointed by the OSCE’s chair as its Special Representative, subject to Russia’s consent. As the OSCE plays the mediator’s role between Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk, so the Minsk Group’s moderator must be even-handed between them. The holder of that position since 2020, Ambassador Heidi Grau of Switzerland, has become a participant in the Normandy forum’s meetings; she took part in the January 12 meeting most recently.
That change signifies yet another tactical success for Moscow. Its representative to the Normandy forum, Dmitry Kozak, had demanded, in mid-2020, that representatives of Donetsk and Luhansk be allowed to participate in Normandy meetings in order to bring their views there. Kozak’s gambit—under the threat, moreover, to abandon the Normandy process altogether—was a bluff designed to elicit less than he demanded but still a net gain for Russia. Germany and France agreed to allow the Minsk Group’s overall moderator to participate in Normandy meetings after Kozak insisted that the moderator must bring the views of “all Minsk Group participants” (i.e., Donetsk-Luhansk’s views also) into the Normandy forum. This comes in addition to Moscow already fronting for Donetsk-Luhansk in the Normandy forum. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “We closely consult with Donetsk and Luhansk ahead of every Normandy meeting”.
Russia’s seizure of Crimea is an issue that the Normandy forum has excluded from its agenda from 2014 to date. Kyiv’s attempts to introduce that issue have been turned down by the other three participants: Russia deems that issue non-negotiable while Germany and France would not “clutter” the agenda with an issue that could impede “progress” toward conflict-resolution in Donbas (even as Russia itself blocked that process; whereas adding Crimea to the agenda could have provided some counter-leverage to Russia on Donbas). No international forum is currently mandated to discuss Crimea. Accordingly, Kyiv seeks to create an international “Crimean Platform” that could address Russia’s seizure of the territory, appropriate sanctions for continuing unlawful actions, uphold Ukraine’s legal titles to the peninsula, and put forth possible redress measures.
In his recent interview with the US media outlet Axios, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated, “I asked my partners and Russia: Name the platform where Crimea is on the agenda. Are you saying that we should give up on Crimea? As president, I cannot afford this and do not want to and will never accept this”. The Normandy powers Germany and France are not embracing the idea. Zelenskyy raised this issue in his latest telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, according to the Ukrainian readout. The German readout, however, omitted this matter entirely. The French ambassador in Kyiv, Etienne de Poncins, has stated that more information is needed about the actual purposes of such a platform.
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