Standoff: How experts assess Normandy talks on peace in Donbas and Russian gas

Author : Natalia Lebed

Source : 112 Ukraine

The good news today is first of all that the Normandy Four was hosted on December 9 in Paris after three years of inactivity. But will the Quartet leaders manage to convert these gatherings into the real peace in Donbas?
12:32, 11 December 2019

Press Service of the President of Ukraine

Winston Churchill once said: “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”  If we replace Hitler with Putin, this statement would be topical for today. We may have different attitudes towards the policies of Europe, and more specifically France and Germany, but we cannot deny that the two flagship states of Europe are making efforts to help end the Russian-Ukrainian war. Not without taking into account their own interests, of course. The same goes for the United States. Therefore, the good news today is first of all that the Normandy Four was hosted on December 9 in Paris after three years of inactivity. But will the Quartet leaders manage to convert these gatherings into the real peace in Donbas?

It is important to be a diplomat

Representatives of the political forces opposed to the president Zelensky – Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna, Poroshenko’s European Solidarity, Vakarchuk’s Holos - managed to criticize the head of state for the results of the Normandy Four negotiations. Although, as head of the Third Sector Center Andriy Zolotarev says, there was “no betrayal, no surrender. Surrender concerns the previous president, who left us the Minsk agreements. And Zelensky managed to run between the droplets.”

Related: Normandy Summit Common Agreed Conclusions. Full Text

At the same time, international expert Anton Kuchukhidze emphasizes that the situation in which President Poroshenko acted is different from the current one, which fell on the cadence of Volodymyr Zelensky. Therefore, comparing the fifth and sixth president in the context of the war is both unproductive and incorrect.

Zelensky in Paris voiced the same theses that Poroshenko always insisted on 1. Crimea and Donbas are Ukraine, and there will be no federalization. 2. no concessions on gas and the nullification of Ukraine’s victory in trials of Gazprom. 3. control over the border first, elections – second. 4. withdrawal of all foreign military formations from occupied Donbas. 5. Ukraine will not negotiate with the fake republics and does not promise their leaders an amnesty.

In a word, Ukraine’s foreign policy towards Russia remains unchanged, and the “red lines” against which Zelensky was warned before the Paris voyage remained untouched. So, is everything alright?

Yes and no. Good - in the sense that the outcome of the Paris summit could be worse. The bad news is that moving forward is slow. Why this happened - Zelensky himself explained. The almost zero effectiveness of the negotiations rested on the mental, or “psychopolitical” features of his main interlocutor.

"It’s difficult to agree. But there were times when we agreed on something, in some things. Because he (Putin) takes apart each question and we even begin to regulate every word,” Zelensky described the Russian president.

Political expert Denys Bogush says there are three markers by which we can track how Zelensky’s politics go. These are just three words: Crimea, gas, and Donbas. According to Zelensky, he mentioned Crimea but did not manage to develop this topic into a full-fledged conversation. They talked about gas, as well as about Donbas. Allegedly, they have advanced in Donbas issue: they talked a lot about the border, and this was a very important point - Zelensky’s position on border control. Here the president made no concessions, and the red lines were not crossed,” Bogush says.

Related: Normandy Talks 2019: Outcome

Crimea: why the conversation didn’t work out

According to Zelensky himself, the issue of the occupied peninsula was raised by him, but in passing. “If Zelensky had begun negotiations on Crimea issue, then they would have ended there. The Russian side’s position is too tough,” comments Andriy Zolotariov, head of the Third Sector Center.

And Bogdan Petrenko from the Ukrainian Institute for the Study of Extremism gives another explanation. The point is not the rigidity of the Russian position, but that Crimea and Donbas are interconnected things. “There will be no solution for Donbas without having a solution for Crimea. The war in Donbas will continue until the Crimean issue remains unresolved. Here either Ukraine puts up with its loss, or Russia unexpectedly returns the peninsula. And as soon as we solve Donbas issue, Crimea will be on the agenda,” Petrenko is convinced.

Gas: Trump in da game

Firstly, the gas situation is really complicated.

Related: World media on Normandy Quartet talks in Paris

Secondly, the presence of Ukraine’s Minister of Energy Orgel or anyone else in the Ukrainian delegation did not affect the final decision of our state. “Gas surrender” has not occurred - at least not yet. Ukraine holds the defense and fights off Russia's disadvantageous proposals. The latter insists on a short-term contract, while Ukraine needs a long agreement on the European rules of the game.

“It is very difficult when one side insists on one year, and we insist on ten. I think we will find anything. Something in between,” Zelensky hopes.

Thirdly, perhaps, a new arrangement of pieces would take place in the gas world arena. December 10, it became known that the US Congress laid down the introduction of sanctions on Russian energy in the budget for 2020. US sanctions could force European companies to refuse to participate in Nord Stream 2 projects due to high costs, The New York Times reported.

Political analyst Kyrylo Sazonov is set up, however, rather skeptically about this information. "Trump was late with his sanctions. Because Nord Stream 2 will be launched next year. America is playing its own game with Germany," he notes.

And not only with Germany, adds Andriy Zolotariov. “What is the US pushing us to? In order for us to buy liquefied gas from Poland, which will be supplied from the USA,” he says.

Related: Normandy Summit opens new window of opportunities for Minsk Agreement implementation, - EU

Bogdan Petrenko rightly observes that "Ukraine is dictating the agenda. It must play along with one of the two players. Manipulate the existing agenda in order to finally defend its interests."

“It’s clear that now we are at the crossroads of two interests: the United States trying to sell Europe its liquefied gas, and Russia with its own fuel,” Petrenko adds.

The choice of which side is best to play for the expert is obvious. Betting is better on America, he says. "The US sanctions decision opens up more room for Ukraine to maneuver. Just like the court decisions in the dispute between Gazprom and Naftogaz, and the Polish lobby, which insists that Nord Stream-2 be filled with no more than 50%."

At the same time, nothing has been decided yet, Petrenko recalls, and the upcoming events will show where exactly Ukraine is moving.

Donbas and problems with border control

However, the Normandy Four summit was not intended to resolve gas issues. The four world leaders arrived in Paris in order to once again try to stop the bloodshed in eastern Ukraine. At least three of them definitely pursued this very goal. “As far as I understand Zelensky’s positioning, he’s not very interested in the economy. He has a personal ambition – establishing peace. I have the feeling that he is engaged in Donbas most of all and really wants to achieve peace,” Anton Kuchukhidze said.

What did Paris decide on this? To create another group within the Minsk format, which will deal exclusively with the issue of phased control of the Ukrainian border. Zelensky states that the issue of the Ukrainian border is a security issue for Ukraine, and for Russia this is just politics. Realizing this, Zelensky first of all insisted on the restoration of Ukrainian control over the border. “When speaking about the main issue of a peaceful settlement - what should be first - elections or border control restoration?” Ruslan Bortnyk, director of the Ukrainian Institute for Policy Analysis and Management, says.

Related: What happened in Paris: Most important results of Normandy Four meeting

The Steinmeier Formula will later be inscribed in the body or in the final provisions of the law on the special status of Donbas. Bogdan Petrenko already anticipates a difficult reaction of a part of society to this legislative innovation. But this will be later since now the law on the special status of Donbas is prolonged for another year.

“I had moderate optimism both before and after the meeting. Zelensky gave a promise, he went for the result, and there is a definite result. Plus he went for specific deadlines, and these deadlines were announced throughout Normandy Four. The exchange of prisoners should take place before the end of the year, there are also deadlines concerning ceasefire and a withdrawal of forces, even if these decisions are not easy to comply with,” Anton Kuchukhidze says.

What's next?

Well, this looks like we're getting somewhere, but how far does it go? Suppose that the war in Donbas will really be frozen, following the Transnistrian scenario. Which, by the way, is not such a bad option - the conflict itself is out of the hot phase.

However, this is not the only prospect for the coming years or decades. Over time, "support from France and Germany will fall. German business interests will take up, and as for France, it is traditionally more interested in the Middle East," Sazonov says.

Related: Guterres praises outcome of Normandy Four meetings in Paris

 “We can congratulate Zelensky, but his tactical victory poses a threat to the strategic plan. Namely, Zelensky’s loss of his base electorate that voted for him as the “president of peace,” Andriy Zolotariov notes.

But the incumbent president at the beginning of his cadence talked about the fact that he goes only for one term. Consequently, the loss of the electorate should not bother him.

Related: United Kingdom welcomes arrangements reached during Normandy Summit


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