There is an opinion among expert community that exhausting the interlocutor for many hours of negotiations is a favorite technique of Vladimir Putin. But on December 9 in Paris, his meeting with Ukrainian counterpart lasted only a quarter of an hour. I mean a tete-a-tete meeting. After all, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrived in the French capital not only to meet face to face with the head of the Russian Federation - he was also expected to negotiate with the Normandy Four. And there were bilateral conversations with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. After this, the quartet gathered in full force. But it seems that all these formats did not give any effect. The high expectations from the meeting in Paris created an incredible excitement the day before, but the modest results of the negotiations will become a cold shower for those who were waiting for a breakthrough on gas and resolving of Donbas conflict.
Did they agree on anything?
Laconic communication between Zelensky and Putin (without the delegations of the two countries) could mean two mutually exclusive things. Either the parties did not agree on anything, or agreed on everything. “Good, businesslike,” Putin answered the question of how his talks with Zelensky passed.
However, the parties did not agree on the restoration of Ukrainian jurisdiction over occupied Donbas and Ukrainian control over our border. “We have come to dilemma about the borders and haven’t agreed,” Ukrainian Truth wrote, citing an informed source. Putin proposed first to hold elections in uncontrolled territories of the East, and only then to transfer control over a section of the border to Ukraine. However, Zelensky did not agree with this sequence of actions. The only thing the Ukrainian side has taken is the withdrawal of forces in another three sections of the border until the end of March 2020. In addition, the OSCE SMM will monitor the situation in Donbas around the clock.
"President Zelensky is a good fellow, very firmly and correctly holds his position, there is no capitulation. There’s still a conversation, while everything’s going very right from the state’s position, "Interior Minister Arsen Avakov who was part of the official delegation, commented on the conversation.
As for the previously announced new law on a special procedure for local self-government in certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which should have included Steinmeier’s formula approved at the Minsk talks, it will not be available yet. The extension of the current law was agreed. It stated that Ukraine is committed to implementing the Steinmeier formula in the Constitution, but so far without any specifics.
There was no progress on the gas issue, which will be discussed in more detail below. “We agreed that we will continue to agree,” the head of Naftogaz Yuri Vitrenko commented to reporters. But another important agreement was reached - to exchange prisoners before the end of this year, in the all-for-all format.
As for the issue of Crimea, then, apparently, it did not arise at all. Given the entire course of the Normandy meeting, the final communiqué of its participants is purely declarative. At a press conference that Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky did not hide that they did not find common ground on political issues. Zelensky ultimately stated that he had little progress today: “I would like to achieve more.”
The next summit in this format should be held in four months.
This story began in June 2014, when the French Normandy celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Allied landings during World War II. President of France Francois Hollande, then President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin met (among other world leaders) at the celebration. Hollande wanted to take this opportunity and talk with the four about the situation with the Russian-Ukrainian war. Thus the "Normandy format" was born.
Since then, the Normandy Four met four more times - at the end of 2014 in Berlin, at the beginning of 2015 in Minsk, in the fall of 2015 in Paris (this is where the famous "Steinmeier formula" appeared) and in the fall of 2016 in Berlin. The Berlin meeting ended with a decision on the implementation of Minsk agreements and the promotion of Steinmeier formula, which provided for the holding of elections in occupied territories of Ukraine in accordance with Ukrainian law. After the election, the law on the special status of certain Donbas regions entered into force, and before that it had to act on a temporary basis.
After the Berlin visit, Putin refused to continue to meet with "Normandy" colleagues. There is probably a certain symbolism in the fact that the sixth president of Ukraine opened the sixth round of these negotiations. At least in this Zelensky is consistent: after election, he has repeatedly stated that he considers the Normandy format to be the only effective platform. And to make it even more effective, the President of Ukraine tried to expand the negotiating table by join the United States to them. However, this idea was a failure.
Without the United States - the traditional four leaders of Normandy group gathered on December 9 in Paris. Before (October 1, 2019) Ukraine gave its written consent to the implementation of Steinmeier formula, and also withdrew troops in the area of Zolote, Petrovske and Stanytsa Luhanska. After putting forward many new conditions and delaying the meeting in every way, Russia finally agreed on the date of the summit. During it Volodymyr Zelensky, who had previously met with Macron and Merkel, first met with Putin.
Zelensky vs Putin: historical "battle"
But earlier Zelensky had an opportunity to speak with him on the phone. Such calls were not completely inconclusive. At least in view of the fact that after one of such negotiations, 35 Ukrainians returned home, among them - captured sailors and political prisoners. However, calls were calls, but what made Putin change his mind and agree to the next Normandy meeting? Without exaggeration, this question was the biggest mystery of historical meeting.
“I remember his (Zelensky) performance at comedy show in Moscow somewhere in the 2000s. All this was talented and funny. Apparently, he is a good specialist in the field in which he has worked until now - he is a good actor. But it’s one thing to play someone, and it’s another thing to be someone. He hasn’t shown himself yet. We will wait and see,” Putin sneered on the eve of the meeting.
A similar desire - to see Putin and understand his intentions - was expressed by the Ukrainian president. “It’s very important for me, I’m such a person, very sensitive. We spoke on the phone with the President of the Russian Federation when they liberated the sailors. But this is a telephone conversation, and I want to see a man. And I want to bring from Normandy the understanding and feeling that everyone really wants to end this tragic war," Zelensky was convinced two days before his visit.
Experts meanwhile noted that the Ukrainian leader may overestimate his own strength and underestimate the insidiousness of their counterparts. “Putin is an experienced security officer who spent almost his whole life with clients like Zelensky trying to recruit or intimidate them. After meeting with Putin, Viktor Yanukovych agreed to slow down Ukraine’s European integration. After meeting with Putin, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan refused Armenia’s European Integration,” recalls political commentator Vitaly Portnikov on the pages of Radio Liberty’s website.
“What am I afraid of? I’m not selling our country to anyone, never, for nothing,” Volodymyr Zelensky swore on a talk show, collecting a record level of support: more than 90% of spectators agreed with the Ukrainian president during his speech.
But why did Putin agree to come to Paris? Deputy Prime Minister Kuleba believes that the reason for this is not a very good state of affairs in the homeland of the Moscow leader. "Although our Russian colleagues are always making a happy face and saying that they are doing well, in reality they are not doing fine. There is also sanction pressure and President Putin’s rating is falling inside the country. And all this prompts them to make certain compromises and concessions. The legal processes that take place in international jurisdictions are also an important factor, "he said on the air of the ICTV channel.
Another version is put forward by MP of the previous convocations, who now lives in Paris, Andriy Shkil. "The gas theme will be the backdrop to the negotiations," he said. Gas really could prompt Putin to carry out the Paris voyage.
Gas should be discussed separately. And it’s worth starting with the mention of the “gas war” of Russia and Ukraine that took place in 2009. Its consequence was that the fuel ceased to be supplied not only to Ukraine, but also by through territory of Ukraine to the EU. The European Union did not like this state of affairs, which prompted it to accept the adoption of the Third Energy Package.
What it is? A block of laws that, roughly speaking, regulates the flow of gas to Europe. The third energy package prohibits the concentration of transport networks, energy production and marketing in one’s hands. This is the so-called "unbundling." A separate operator is established to implement it, independent of those who produce gas and who sells it. In Ukraine, the law on the introduction of such an intermediary entered into force only on November 17, 2019, although it had been waiting since 2015.
Thus, for a long time, unbundling was blocked. Ukraine could not complete it, since the transit contract with Russia, valid until the end of 2019, does not provide for a GTS operator other than Naftogaz. And Gazprom did not agree to change this. But the current ten-year gas transit contract between Russia and Ukraine expires on December 31, 2019. Thus, you can run an independent operator; it was created and received the name "Gas transmission system operator."
However, this happened at the last moment, and the case has not yet been completed. At least because the Third Energy Package of the EU provides that operator independence can be discussed only after its certification. The Gas Transmission System Operator LLC has not yet passed such certification - according to Naftogaz estimates, it will take another one and a half to two months for all approvals.
Gazprom emphasizes: Ukraine has not completed the implementation of the Third Energy Package, which, in fact, is true. Therefore, a logical question arises: how to solve the gas issue? The Ukrainian government declares that from next year our side is ready to transport Russian gas to the EU only according to European rules. Moscow is doing everything possible and impossible to work according to the old scheme.
On December 4, Vladimir Putin called the position of the Ukrainian side unacceptable. “I constantly repeat that we are ready to preserve Ukrainian transit. We are currently negotiating in Vienna. This is no secret. True, the conditions offered to us by possible Ukrainian transit operators are economically unacceptable. For now. But I hope that it will be possible somehow to agree on positions, "he said.
Gas issue for Germany and France
The gas issue is not easy for Europe as a whole. Germany supports the Nord Stream-2 project, which is expected to double the volume of Russian gas entering Europe through Germany. This, of course, is strongly opposed by Ukraine, as well as America. On December 5, on the sidelines of NATO summit in London, Angela Merkel and US President Donald Trump spoke about this. The latter noted that the United States has not yet decided on the sanctions against countries participating in the project, and for Germany in particular, Trump hopes that this country will solve the Nord Stream problem itself.
"We actually have not yet determined this. I really think that this is a problem that Germany will have to solve. Maybe for Germany it will not be a problem. I actually hope that this will not be a problem, but we will talk about this, "Trump said.
But while Merkel will talk about gas with American President, there is another topic. The attempt on the former Chechen field commander in Berlin has complicated relations between Germany and Russia. It's about Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, who was shot in the head. The chief prosecutor of Germany believes that, according to the evidence, the murder committed on German soil was ordered by either the Russian authorities or the leadership of Chechnya.
The situation is very reminiscent of the poisoning of former GRU employee Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia in the UK in March 2018. The parallels here are obvious, and, apparently, Merkel is not going to turn a blind eye to the bloody incident. In any case, at the already mentioned summit, the chancellor promised to talk with Vladimir Putin on the subject of Khangoshvili.
President Emanuel Macron will also have something to talk about with his Russian counterpart outside the Normandy format. French Le Monde found out "the details of hacking the mail of Macron's campaign headquarters by hackers from Russia." Events took place 2.5 years ago - during the presidential race.
"The newspaper released evidence of the technical interference of two hacker groups directly related to the Russian special services in the presidential election campaign in France," MP Shkil writes on Facebook. And he adds: since the article was posted by president-oriented Le Monde, "such a publication looks like a correction of France’s foreign policy, exactly on the eve of Normandy meeting in Paris."
The foreign policy of France is a separate irritant for the Ukrainian expert community. Recently, the head of this state declared that he advocates giving the relations between Europe and Russia a “new dynamic”. But, as Andriy Shkil notes, “I would advise caution and attention to Emmanuel Macron’s new rhetoric regarding the Russian Federation. France’s position on the Minsk process is the same as it was. The problem with Zelensky’s position is that he has worse relations with the West than its predecessor, but I don’t think that he will be able to put his peace initiatives on the shoulders of Merkel and Macron. In spite of this, Europe will not give any reason to believe that it forced Zelensky to make concessions that he himself considers unacceptable or impossible."
“Less anti-Western pessimism and anti-European sarcasm,” Shkil calls. “The fate and future of Ukraine is in the hands of the one to whom the Ukrainians have entrusted all power in the country.” It is difficult to disagree with this.