The first meeting in over three years of the heads of state and government of the so-called Normandy Four is set to take place on December 9 in Paris.
This four-way negotiation format (France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine) brought about the Minsk I and II agreements of 2014 and 2015 aimed at ending the war in eastern Ukraine. While the nitty-gritty of the actual implementation of Minsk II is being handled—as yet by and large unsuccessfully—by a number of working groups that convene regularly in Minsk and include representatives of the non-government-controlled areas in Ukraine, the Normandy format frames the negotiations and provides a communication channel to the rest of the world.
Each high-level meeting in the Normandy format marks an internationally visible political commitment to the negotiations; herein lies the significance of the upcoming Paris summit, which is unlikely to deliver a major breakthrough.
The election of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had renewed the momentum to seek a solution to the war through negotiations. Zelenskiy’s popularity is dependent on showing resolve and results in the war-torn Donbas region. He changed the tone and direction of the Ukrainian government’s approach, reached out to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and showed willingness to revisit the so-called Steinmeier formula on the sequencing of a special status and local elections for the non-government-controlled areas.
A ceasefire brokered with Zelenskiy’s involvement lasted longer than previous ones, an exchange of high-profile prisoners took place, and a partial troop withdrawal was agreed and implemented. Last week, the OSCE confirmed that it had received notification from the Ukrainian government and the two Russia-backed “people’s republics” in Donbas of the completion of a troop pullback near the frontline village of Petrivske, following two other similar disengagements. This step cleared the way for the meeting on December 9.
The fact that the summit is held in Paris fits French President Emmanuel Macron’s wish to present himself as the driving force of European foreign policy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will remain much more critical of the idea of Western reengagement launched by Macron ahead of the last G7 meeting.
While it is unlikely that the summit will provide a clear path toward a special status or local elections for the non-government-controlled territories, all four negotiators should keep in mind that the residents based in the non-government-controlled territories still voice a preference for staying within the Ukrainian state.
According to a ZOiS survey from 2019 (face-to-face interviews in the government-controlled part of Donbas and telephone interviews in the non-government-controlled part), about 55 percent of respondents in the non-government-controlled areas prefer to remain part of the Ukrainian state (31 percent with a special status within Ukraine, and about 24 percent without). In the government-controlled Donbas, about 65 percent envisage the non-government-controlled territories returning to Ukraine without any special status, while 31 percent consider a special status necessary.
The upcoming Normandy summit will help increase local knowledge of the ongoing peace negotiations. Opinion poll data show that the local population in the Kyiv-controlled part of Donbas is significantly less aware of the Minsk agreements than three years ago.
In the ZOiS survey from March 2019, 40 percent of the respondents in the government-controlled Donbas said they did not know anything about the Minsk II agreement. In 2016, only 19 percent said so. A further 35 percent in 2019 stated they knew “very little” about the agreement. By comparison, the residents in the non-government-controlled areas felt more informed: here, only 13 percent said they knew nothing about Minsk II, while 24 percent said they knew “very little.”
The negotiators should also keep in mind the close people-to-people links across the frontline, both in terms of physical crossings of the contact line (predominantly from the non-government-controlled area to the government-controlled area) and communication with friends and relatives. In the ZOiS survey, about 54 percent of the respondents in the non-government-controlled areas reported having friends or relatives in the government-controlled Donbas, while about a third of the respondents in the government-controlled Donbas referred to such deep links in the opposite direction.
Putin holds all the cards to maintain political leverage through a persistent low-intensity war in the Donbas. Nevertheless, the Normandy summit will be a test of Russia’s interest in eventually ending a costly war that is becoming harder to justify domestically. The summit also puts Zelenskiy’s presidency to a test at a time when his popularity has begun to fall and his handling of the Donbas issue has given rise to anti-government protests.
Despite that expectations should be limited, it is important to acknowledge the signaling function the meeting on December 9 will have.
It renews the commitment to the negotiation format to which there is still no alternative. It also reminds the world of the importance of the war in the Donbas, a critical issue in the tense relations between Russia and the West that tends to be sidelined by other events. And, last but not least, any small improvements the talks can bring for people living in the war zone are well worth the long-overdue effort.
Gwendolyn Sasse is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin.