Putin and Zelenskiy make a positive start to the Donbas peace talks in Normandy Four talks, but put off the hardest problems

Putin and Zelenskiy make a positive start to the Donbas peace talks in Normandy Four talks, but put off the hardest problems
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made a positive start to Donbas war peace talks, but will meet again in four months to deal with the most difficult problems. / wiki
By Ben Aris in Berlin December 10, 2019

It was a long and gruelling day for the four leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany who met in Paris in the Normandy Four format for the first time in three years to try and restart the process of bringing an end to the undeclared war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Meetings between the four leaders were organised into pairs and then all four sat around the table as they hacked away at the various issues.

And progress was made. "We agreed on three aspects, on measures that need to be taken immediately. The issue is primarily about ceasefire and the disengagement of forces along the contact line," news agency Interfax quoted German Chancellor Angel Merkel as saying.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy added that "a discussion within the Trilateral Contact Group [Ukraine-Russia-the OSCE] has been agreed on additional disengagement areas simultaneously at three sites, which are of great humanitarian importance to all Ukrainians."

Zelenskiy went on to say that he personally was best pleased with an agreement for an “all for all” exchange of POWs before the end of the year, “so they can come home and spend the holidays with their children and families”. 

“For me human lives are the most important thing and I have already said this many times. The proposed prisoner of war swap before the end of the year was a great achievement,” Zelenskiy said during the press conference that had been delayed until 11pm from 6:45pm as the talks ran well over their allotted time.

There was also an agreement to expand the non-contact zones between the opposition forces and remove men and material as part of movement to a full and permanent ceasefire. OECD monitors are to be given unfettered access to the region and provide 24/7 monitoring of the ceasefire. The process of starting to remove the landmines in the no-mans land between the opposing forces is due to begin at the same time.

However, on two of the most important issues Russian President Vladimir Putin and Zelenskiy came to loggerheads: when and how to hold local elections and when control over Ukraine’s easternmost border would be returned.

The four leaders managed to produce some real progress, which is especially important for Zelenskiy as he hung his presidency on bringing an end to the fighting in Donbas. But they also agreed to disagree on many of the details and will meet again in four months time for a second round of negotiations.

However, Putin came across as in a constructive frame of mind. The war in Donbas has already dragged on for five years and while Russia has calculated that it is in its interests to destabilise Ukraine to prevent it from moving closer to Nato membership, among other goals, it has come at the heavy cost of sanctions, and Russia’s pariah status has weighed on the Russian economy which is stagnating. Given the very visible and active support Merkel and Macron have offered Zelenskiy, Putin suggested that Russia is in the mood to talk but at the same time Putin clearly intends to drive a hard bargain and perhaps hopes to see the sanction pressure eased as a result.

“Russia will do all possible to ensure all the issues are resolved and this crisis ended, but the partners need to engage in direct dialogue,” Putin said.

The fact a meeting of the Normandy Four happened for the first time in three years and the fact that despite the disagreements the four leaders have already agreed to meet again in four months – this time with no preconditions attached – is in itself progress.

Border controls left to last

Zelenskiy was holding out for retaking control of the border before any elections are held but Putin was sticking to his guns, pointing out that the return of the control of the border is the very last thing that happens according to the Minsk Protocols.

“We have divergent views on the question of the border,” Putin said. “We just want to strictly comply with the Minsk Protocols. There it says that Ukraine will establish control over the border on the day after the elections are held, after the politics is finalised. If we start changing items in the Minsk Protocols then we will have chaos.”

Putin was referring to the ninth clause of the 13 point Minsk agreement that sets out very clearly when the control over the border is supposed to happen.

“Reinstatement of full control of the state border by the government of Ukraine throughout the conflict area, starting on day 1 after the local elections and ending after the comprehensive political settlement (local elections in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions on the basis of the Law of Ukraine and constitutional reform) to be finalised by the end of 2015, provided that paragraph 11 has been implemented in consultation with and upon agreement by representatives of certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the framework of the Trilateral Contact Group,” according to the full text of the Minsk Protocols.

Clearly the 2015 deadline for holding the local elections was missed. And point 11 in the above clause relates to changes to the constitution (that was also supposed to happen by the end of 2015) that provides for, “decentralisation as a key… as well as adopting permanent legislation on the special status of certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk.”

Putin is being a stickler for the exact words of the Minsk Protocols that he thrashed out in talks in the Belarusian capital with Merkel and then French president Francois Holland, insisting that everything happens as stated in the document.

Putin also called for the constitutional changes to be pushed through, which has yet to happen, and granting special status of the regions that “should also be made permanent,” Putin emphasised in his remarks. A law on the special status of Donbas has already been passed by the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, but it is due to expire on December 31 and needs to be extended, Putin said.

Merkel said a law on Donbas' special status was also discussed. "Probably, this is the most complicated thing that we noted that is the establishment of a political mechanism on the implementation of the Minsk agreements. The issue is about extending the law on special status. We discussed the whole package of measures which have to be taken on the basis of the Minsk Agreements. The OSCE should ensure support to this mechanism," she said.

Extending the special status and holding the elections are part of the Steinmeier Formula but here too there were clearly disagreements that were put off until the next meeting.

The Paris meeting can be considered a success as it has kicked off a process of dialogue. Even Putin emphasised the need for dialogue, “as when has a conflict be resolved if the two sides don't meet to talk directly?” Putin asked at the press conference.

However, there is still a lot of work to do. Macron and Merkel admitted frankly there were big gaps still on the questions of borders and elections, and these issues are wrapped up in the discussion on the details of the Steinmeier Formula, a plan suggested by former German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is now Germany’s president.

At the next meeting the four will drill into the details of how the Steinmeier Formula should be implemented, which in effect breaks down the steps to fulfilling the Minsk Protocols into bite-sized pieces, and discussion of these problems will also be resumed in the April meeting. Putin insisted that Zelenskiy sign off on a document adopting the principles of the Steinmeier Formula before agreeing to travel to France for the meeting, but clearly there are many sticking points in the details.

Gas transit deal still elusive

As part of the day’s events Putin met privately with first Merkel and then Zelenskiy, while Zelenskiy also had a private meeting with Macron.

The contents of the one on one between Putin and Zelenskiy were not discussed, but Zelenskiy did say that he discussed the gas transit issue with Putin, but said nothing about any progress the two made have made on settling the issue.

Officials at Naftogaz, Ukraine’s national gas company, will be disappointed with the meeting as they told bne IntelliNews a week earlier they hoped that Merkel would come out with a strong statement in support of Ukraine and specifically link permission to start operations of Nord Stream 2 pipeline to deliver gas to Germany with the need for Russia to sign off on some sort of new transit deal with Kyiv. Merkel didn't mention gas during the press conference nor in comments during the question and answer session with the press. However, presumably she did talk to Putin about it during their private one on one.

On the whole Zelenskiy can count his first serious outing on the international stage, where he had to get to grips with the core issue he campaigned on – bring peace to the Donbas, as a success.

Going into the meeting there was speculation that he would be forced to concede too much to Putin to end the war, and that could still happen at the subsequent meetings. But he returns to Kyiv with some more successes under his belt which was essential for him to retain the sky-high popularity and faith of the electorate, of which 74% voted for him. That will also allow him to maintain the momentum he has built up on his hectic legislative programme that was launched on his first day in power. Ukraine’s sovereign bonds have already soared in value on the back of a preliminary deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) at the weekend and they will probably rise again on the back of this meeting.