The fact that not a single decision made during the Normandy Four talks in Paris was committed to paper allows the parties involved to freely interpret the results and frame their own context.
The long-awaited summit in Paris on Friday is being overshadowed by international concerns about Russia's military intervention in Syria this week. Photo: AP
Oct. 2 in Paris saw the latest meeting of the leaders of the Normandy Four — France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine — with the participation of foreign ministers. The main topic of the meeting was the implementation and prospects of the Minsk agreements, the deadline for which expires at the end of the year.
New realities influencing perceptions of the Minsk agreements
The last time the Normandy Four met for top-level talks was in February 2015 in Minsk. Since then, the situation has changed dramatically in the conflict zones and in Ukraine in general. So, too, has the international climate.
Many experts attribute the abatement of military activity in recent months in eastern Ukraine to Russia’s change of strategy. Unable to achieve the upper hand through force, Moscow is trying to channel the implementation of the Minsk agreements toward the gradual erosion of Ukrainian statehood by destabilizing the country internally, using the Donbas settlement process as the main tool.
Decentralization of power is in full swing in Ukraine, and the changes should be facilitated by the impending local elections. Particular attention needs to be paid to improving the combat capability of Ukraine’s armed forces, reforming the judicial system, and cleansing the courts and prosecutor's office of persons caught up in corruption schemes. All of this is happening, albeit slowly and not always smoothly.
Since the meeting in Minsk, Ukraine has joined in the international sanctions against individuals and legal entities in Russia accused of destabilizing the situation in the country or violating the rules of international law by operating in areas temporarily beyond Kiev’s control.
But it is the external background that has changed most of all. Whereas the Minsk negotiators were able to focus on a single issue — resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine through 17 hours of talks, in Paris there were other no less important items on the agenda for Germany and France, above all the refugee crisis and the related problem of terrorism, as well as Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria.
Although the events in the Middle East are seemingly unrelated to Ukraine, the “ghost of Syria” also had a seat at the table in Paris.
Ahead of the Normandy Four meeting, Vladimir Putin, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel held talks with each other to discuss the recent events in Syria. That same day, Oct. 2, the governments of France, Germany, Britain, Turkey, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Qatar issued a joint statement calling on Russia to immediately halt its air strikes in Syria, since they are allegedly killing civilians, not ISIS terrorists.
The different objectives of the Normandy Four
The parties to the meeting had a range of objectives. Ukraine, for instance, was determined to scrap the elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which are beyond its control. These elections threaten to undermine the Minsk agreements and, ultimately, cause a frozen conflict. That, in turn, would not assist the internal political reforms currently in progress.
Russia’s primary aim was to prevent the tightening of existing sanctions and the introduction of new ones. Moreover, the Russian side seems to have been gauging the reaction of its European colleagues to the latest developments in Syria.
The goal of the French president and the German chancellor was to show the international community (primarily Europe and their own electorates) that despite the skepticism surrounding the Minsk process, significant results have been achieved. Chief among them is the outline of a future plan on the further settlement of the conflict.
Results of the latest Normandy Four talks
The talks produced a number of agreements. In particular, the parties agreed on a ceasefire — or rather the start of the withdrawal of light weapons (below 100 mm caliber). The withdrawal process is set to last around 40 days, starting Oct. 3.
The parties also agreed to strengthen the OSCE mission and grant the organization access to all territories beyond official Kiev control. Some agreements were also struck on humanitarian, hostage and amnesty-related issues. Russia, for its part, stated that elections in the uncontrolled areas of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, slated for Oct. 18 and Nov. 1, respectively, would not go ahead.
As a result of the four-hour item-by-item talks, it was decided that the Minsk agreements must be implemented in full, which in turn will require additional time.
At the joint final press conference, the French and German leaders expounded a common vision of the future of the Minsk process, noting, in particular, the decision to prolong it until 2016. That was necessitated by two interrelated problems: the holding of elections in territories not under official Kiev control, and the resumption of Ukrainian control over individual sections of the Ukrainian-Russian border.
Putting agreements into action will be difficult
It seems to follow from the above that the Minsk agreements will be slightly supplemented and adjusted as a result of the Paris talks with a view to relaxing the time constraints and giving the parties additional scope to fulfill all their obligations. How these oral amendments will be woven into the context of the written and signed Minsk agreements is not clear. It is known only that the ideas expressed during the meeting will be submitted to ad hoc working groups for “fine-tuning.”
Moreover, the fact that not a single decision made during the Normandy Four talks in Paris was committed to paper allows the parties to freely interpret the results and frame their own context, giving rise at times to wishful thinking. That will undoubtedly strike a discordant note during the deliberations of the working groups, and also at the meeting of the relevant foreign ministers scheduled for November this year.
Therefore, as the German chancellor carefully pointed out, despite having achieved some “fairly good” agreements under the Normandy format, it remains to be seen whether they can be put into action.
The practical implementation of what was struck in Paris is where the major problems lie. Despite the fact that Ukraine has achieved (at least verbally) the abolition of the elections in the self-proclaimed DPR and the LPR, Kiev has so far been unable to utilize the Minsk arrangements for the benefit of its own national interests. As experience shows, the only party to the process it can truly rely on is itself. Berlin and Paris have once again demonstrated the aloofness of arbitrators.
Much will depend on Russia. Having retained its strong influence over the leadership of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR), Moscow can now turn the implementation of the Paris arrangements into a constructive or destructive process as it sees fit.
Russia could extract even more wiggle room from its engagement in the armed conflict in Syria. Despite Merkel’s statements that she sees no link between Ukraine and Syria, it is unlikely that Moscow has not considered exploiting any one of these factors if the situation does not develop to its advantage.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.