The first President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, expressed the conviction that Zelensky and Putin would be able to agree on a settlement of the conflict in the Donbas when they meet in person. He said that during the 5th meeting of the Astana Club political forum on November 12. Nazarbayev suggested holding this meeting on the territory of Kazakhstan.
On top of all, according to Nazarbayev, he has already talked to both sides about that. Though he never reported on how Putin reacted to his proposal, but it is known that Volodymyr Zelensky reportedly spoke in favor of the idea. "I have already received Zelensky’s consent to a tête-à-tête meeting, I informed the President of Russia about this. Now we’ll see. If a neutral platform is needed, I proposed Kazakhstan," Nazarbayev said.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry reacted to this nearly a sensation, noting that the Kazakh leader is somewhat exaggerating the degree of readiness of the President of Ukraine for such a meeting.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Vadym Priestayko officially commented on the situation. In his version, Zelensky and Nazarbayev’s contact took place back in Japan - during the visit of the head of our state to Japan. Nazarbayev was the first to offer his mediation services.
“If you need help, I’m ready to help. Zelensky’s response was: Thank you, we need any help, let’s meet,” Prystayko reproduced the dialogue between Zelensky and Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev’s proposal was purely diplomatic, the Foreign Minister insists. In other words, seriously no one considered this option, and even more - no one gave no consent to this.
In addition, the proposal is difficult to implement from a practical point of view.
"Nobody wants to offend anyone, but we are happy with what we are having now - a negotiating position in Minsk. It is convenient for everyone. I don’t think that the meeting can be held in Astana. It's more likely to be held in Berlin or in Paris," - Minister Prystayko said, referring to the Normandy format.
So, was it Nursultan Nazarbayev's wishful thinking? Or is there something left behind the scenes in his words? Let's ask the experts.
Nursultan is paying his own game
“An experienced person like Nazarbayev (no matter what we think of to his political career) would never make such statements for nothing. It’s not a “servant of the people” who loves provocations. I would trust his words. Obviously, there are certain agreements," political analyst Yevhen Bulavka commented.
"Probably, Nazarbayev can be trusted, especially since he made a statement 14 hours after a telephone contact with Putin. That is, it is obvious that there exists some kind of a dialogue. It is not necessary that the meeting takes place, but the option was clearly discussed with the presidents of Ukraine and Russia. “This may be a kind of fallback in case of the failure of the Minsk talks, as well as the failure of the meeting of the Normandy Four. If no meeting succeeds, then it is possible to hold a meeting directly,” Ruslan Bortnik, the director of the Ukrainian Institute of Political Analysis and Management, believes.
“What Nazarbayev wants and what may be in reality is not the same thing. He is watching how Belarus's kinglike Lukashenko acts when providing a platform for Ukrainian-Russian negotiations and offers himself as an intermediary. Obviously, Nazarbayev wants to take advantage of this case," political expert Kirill Sazonov said.
“We understand that such a meeting cannot be held, since there are no grounds for that. Nothing prevents Putin and Zelensky from meeting in the Normandy format, ”without the participation of Western mediators. That is, to meet in person in a separate room within the framework of the Normandy talks. Does Nazarbayev needs to act as a mediation here? It seems to me that no. Kazakhstan is simply trying to improve its image through such a mediation," Bogdan Petrenko, the deputy director of the Extremism Study Ukrainian Institute, believes.
He adds an important thing: “The whole story with Nazarbayev’s statement humiliates the Ukrainian side even more because it allegedly demonstrates that the Ukrainian side agrees to concessions for the sake of contacts with the Russian Federation. But Nazarbayev is following his own way in order to perform as a mediator as Belarus does. Just look, Lukashenko-the-dictator is already on his way to Austria - he is free from non-acceptance by European capitals. Nazarbayev wants to achieve this as well."
Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down after a 30-year presidency, seeks underwhelming recognition. “A person is already aged, and in his last years he is trying to achieve at least some success in international
affairs,” Bohdan Petrenko sums up.
Zelensky is too keen on contacts with Putin
However, let us suppose - for a minute at least - that Nazarbayev really got the consent of Volodymyr Zelensky to hold a bilateral meeting. What are possible scenarios of this?
“As for Zelensky, he recklessly agrees on all these options. However, let us not forget that there is also Putin. Knowing Putin's position, one can immediately end all conversations on the issue. Putin does not agree to such a meeting – he does not need it now at all. He will postpone this meeting until December-January, because during this time he can put forward a lot of new conditions,” Kirill Sazonov says.
“Zelensky wants to meet Putin - anytime, anywhere. He wants it so much that it does noteven make sense. Maybe Zelensky wants to outwit Putin – it is self-confident of rabbit that hopes to tie a constrictor snake into a knot. It is quite naive, because, as Zelensky’s colleague Prystaiko's noted, it is the Russian tanks that are deployed near Donetsk, not ours near Kaluga. Now, when the positions of the parties are so different, all these meetings will lead to nothing,” the expert says.
Ruslan Bortnik, however, does not see Zelensky as a rabbit, and in Putin – as a constrictor snake. “Is Zelensky ready for confrontation with Putin? It was once said that he was not ready for a debate with Poroshenko, but for Poroshenko it ended with a loss. So let us not underestimate our president and diminish his negotiation opportunities. This is not at all a key issue for such a meeting,” Bortnik says.
He believes that bilateral contact would be easier in terms of organization. “Such a meeting does not imply a preparatory base and the conditions for holding it. For example, a successful Normandy meeting requires the introduction of Steinmeier formula, disengagement of forces, agreeing on the final document, etc. You do not need it for a tete-a-tete meeting. Of course, the issues of Donbas, gas regulation will be dominant, and the parties may touch on the transit of Russian gas through Ukraine, energy sources, etc. The last two issues are on the agenda of both Ukrainian-Russian and Ukrainian – Kazakhstan relations,” Bortnik said.
Yevhen Bulavka is concerned not only about what Zelensky would say to Putin one-on-one, but also about issues, the Ukrainian president would be speaking about with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
“The agenda for Putin and Zelensky's agenda contacts concern not only a hypothetical tete-a-tete meeting, but also a meeting in Normandy Format. And in both cases, it is not clear why he is in such a hurry to meet Putin and what will he bring to the table. It is clear that he should demand a solution to the security situation in Donbas, withdrawing mercenaries and Russian weapons from there, establishing control over the border, and should raise the issue of Crimea.
However, the current government has taken a loyal stance on the Russian Federation, practically dropping a term of “aggressor state” from their rhetoric. President Zelensky is ready to fulfill the conditions of the Russian side, which is why the agenda of his meeting with Putin is of particular interest and concern. One can only guess about what could be the subject of compromise on his part, "Bulavka notes.
At the same time, Bohdan Petrenko also believes that Russia would by no means insist on an early meeting of the two presidents, as this deprives it of the opportunity to work out a new package of caprices. “There can be no meeting, and it was actually confirmed by the Russian side, which now puts forward the same requirements as before the meeting in Normandy Format.
It is not beneficial for Russia to accelerate contacts with Ukraine - if a hypothetical meeting between Putin and Zelensky were to take place in the near future, it would mean that Ukraine would not fulfill the additional conditions that the Russian side might impose on it. For example, a new ‘wish’ is that the Steinmeier formula is established in the Ukrainian law. At least, that is how it sounded from the pages of Russian media, which, apparently, simply reacted to another statement by Putin, but showed it as positions already agreed upon. Therefore, Russia will continue to delay the meeting to make as many concessions as possible.”
What does Russia want and what the West will say?
Mentioned by Petrenko desire of Moscow to make Steinmeier formula to become part of Ukrainian legislation is one of the demands of the Kremlin. Russia’s Representative at Trilateral Contact Group on Donbas Borys Gryzlov announced one more condition on November 13.
“Russian delegation urged Kyiv side to provide the extension of the action of law (on special status of Donbas and begin the dialogue with the representatives of Donbas in political subgroup on amendments to this law, necessary for implementation of Steinmeier formula”, Gryzlov said. And added that “for full-fledged imposing of special status” of Donbas, Ukraine needs “its entrenchment in the Constitution”. According to Kremlin, all of this will be “one of the preconditions” for settlement of situation in the region.
Kyrylo Sazonov drew attention to the terminology used by Kremlin for provision of its goals. “Gryzlov says that ‘Kyiv authority’ should start dialogue with Donbas (he put Russia out of the issue as it is not the side of the conflict). Then Gryzlov demands the special status for Donbas. Due to such demands, it will be postponed as long as possible to connect the agreement on Donbas with gas contract and achieve the extension of the contract for another year,” Sazonov noted.
Yevhen Bulavka drew a parallel with “Khasavyurt Accord” which formally provided independence to Chechnya and kept the position of Aslan Maskhadov”. Probably, he supposes, Ukraine will be enforced to hold some dialogue on these agreements, amid which, current frozen conflict between Moldova and Transnistria looks to be the better variant.
Bulavka also drew attention to the fact that European capitals watch all these obscure plays with surprise. “If Zelensky did not agree one-on-one meeting with Putin with Macron and Merkel, they would not like it.
Because security of Ukraine was and remains to be the issue of concern in these countries, they provided the help to us, which, particularly, lied in the synchronization of the decisions made by their governments, with interests of Ukraine. I suppose that Zelensky believes in his lucky star, his talent that he may put a spell on Putin…But such belief will have negative influence on our relations with the West. For the West it will mean that Ukraine wants to stay face-to-face with Russia. Possibly, Zelensky wants really this?”, he asked.
It is unknown what does Zelensky wants but Nazarbayev provided a bad service to Ukraine. “The Russian side is interested in such statements anyway. Because it shows them once more that the move toward the right direction “wearing down” Ukraine. Because Ukraine looks for any links to Russia, which would allow to hold Normandy Format,” Petrenko underlines.
“In the West, the scenario of meeting of Zelensky and Putin might be perceived quite negatively. Because if it takes place, Ukraine and Russia will show that they are ready to refuse from the western support, from the services of the west peacekeepers. It will be perceived jealously and negatively,” Ruslan Bortnyk predicts.
Still, the Normandy Format meeting looks to be more realistic that one-on-one meeting of Zelensky and Putin. However, if two presidents have the necessity to talk in private, it is possible to do in Paris or Berlin. Normandy Format may gather and within the four parties, the bilateral talks of Zelensky and Putin may take place but it will be later and there is no point to come to Kazakhstan for it,” Sazonov believes.
Meanwhile Ukrainian side stated that at the session of the mentioned Trilateral Contact Group on November 12, all obstacles for holding of Normandy Format were lifted. Surprisingly, Russia also agreed on it. “We observe the positive dynamics in the number of directions of the preparation for Normandy Format,” Spokesperson of Russia’s President Dmitry Peskov noted.
It is a particular secret with what such readiness to sit down to talks is tied. However, possibly, there is no such readiness. Russia continues to play its game and expend time as our experts say.