A Normandy summit of ulterior motives
At shortest-possible notice, the leaders of Ukraine and Russia, France and Germany meet in Berlin this Wednesday (19 October) to discuss the war in Eastern Ukraine.
This gathering in the so-called Normandy format, at summit level and announced only a day ago, suggests great urgency.
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However, there has been neither a major escalation in the protracted standoff between Moscow-sponsored separatists and the government in Kiev, nor have there been signs of a serious breakthrough for the better.
Moreover, participants themselves have dampened hopes for success. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said to “have no heightened expectations”.
This was echoed by German chancellor Angela Merkel’s warning that “one should not expect miracles” from this meeting.
The French government was somewhat more ambitious and stated, as meeting goals, a timetable for Donbass elections and military disengagement.
Meanwhile, for the Kremlin the summit was merely to “compare notes” about the implementation of the Minsk accords, the plan for settling the Ukraine conflict, which was devised by the Normandy quartet.
Two years after signature, these accords have clearly failed. None of their provisions has been fully implemented; fighting is an everyday occurrence; thousands have been killed since the Minsk protocols were inked.
This failure to achieve peace is the result of defects in the agreements and in the political constellation that produced them.
First, the conflict parties remain deeply divided over the priority given to military versus political provisions in the agreement. Ukraine insists that basic security needs to be returned to Donbass first.
This means a full ceasefire, the removal of heavy weaponry and of fighters, and the effective verification that these measures are being implemented by the OSCE.
Russia and its local puppets, in turn, put political measures centerstage and demand that the separatist entities in Donetsk and Luhansk be recognized and legitimated, through a special status and elections.
Second, the Minsk setting blurs the role that Russia has played in this conflict. It is beyond doubt, with evidence mounting daily, that Moscow has instigated separatism in eastern Ukraine, equipped and led the armed formations fighting in the Donbass, and organized and bankrolled two illegitimate statelets there.
Yet under the Minsk accords, Russia figures not as foreign aggressor but as peace broker, insisting instead that only direct negotiations between Kiev and Donetsk-Luhansk can end what it portrays as a civil war in Ukraine.
Third, the two actual peace brokers - France and Germany (and with them the entire EU) - are confronted with a dramatic asymmetry of influence over the two sides in the conflict.
The Western powers have far-reaching political and financial leverage in Ukraine, ranging from association and trade agreements through loans to visa liberalization.
Ever since Minsk was signed, Berlin and Paris have brought this weight to bear on Kiev, hoping to exact the necessary concessions to make the peace deal work.
By contrast, political and economic leverage vis-a-vis Moscow is minimal, especially as the EU remains divided on Russia and unwilling to employ its full and considerable arsenal of political, economic and legal sanctions.
This effectively leaves Russia beyond pressure, in impunity and without reasons to compromise.
These fundamental flaws in the Minsk and Normandy formats have not been rectified yet and there is little chance they will be anytime soon. Consequently, peace in Eastern Ukraine remains elusive.
This, naturally, raises the question why the Normandy leaders are meeting at all, and in such a rash manner at that. Arguably, however, each of side has good reasons to attend that extend well beyond the immediate settlement of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
For the Ukrainian government, it is important to get the drama in the Donbas back on the international agenda, overshadowed as it has been for several months by the tragedy in Syria.
Kiev has certainly noticed how Moscow’s killing spree in Aleppo has fuelled Western disillusionment and criticism. It draws a straight line between the Russian wars in eastern Ukraine and in Syria, and hopes to turn Western outrage into greater political pressure and additional sanctions against Russia.
At the same time, Kiev may well be hoping that Western governments’ current preoccupation with Moscow’s wars will deflect attention from the reform process in Ukraine which, since the change in government earlier this year, has slowed to a trickle.
For the leaders of France and Germany, the Normandy meeting is obviously preparation for the EU summit a day later. At that meeting, European policy towards Russia will be a central agenda item, and a controversial one at that.
Increasingly over the last months, EU unity on Russia has corroded, threatening to undermine the principled condemnation and sanctions package that Europe issued to Russia in response to its aggression in Ukraine.
In their effort to revive this consensus, to retain the hitherto EU position towards Moscow, and to extend (if not even expand) sanctions, Paris and Berlin will be all the more credible after another round of talks in the Normandy format.
Just as importantly for forging a strong EU stance, German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Francois Hollande and Russian president Vladimir Putin are also to separately discuss Syria, another major topic for the EU summit.
For his part, the Russian strongman’s attendance at the Normandy summit is just another manoeuvre to undercut European unity.
The increasingly critical and unified position of the EU regarding the Russia’s actions in Syria has certainly not gone unnoticed in the Kremlin.
Consequently, Putin has temporarily halted his bombing campaign in Aleppo and has agreed to another discussion of Donbas.
The purpose of these “concessions” is clear: to strengthen the position of the opponents of sanctions against Russia inside the EU, and to weaken advocates for more robust action to stop the Kremlin’s aggressive conduct.
No sooner the lights switch off in the summit hall, however, the Kremlin can be expected to resume its overt and covert wars.
Today’s Normandy summit will not settle the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. It will, however, forge or fail the EU response to the Russia challenge.
Joerg Forbrig is a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank