Wed, 29 Jan 2020

H-Hour For Ukraine's 'Normandy Four'

07 Dec 2019, 00:45 GMT+10

KYIV -- In some circles, it's being called a peace summit.

But the "Normandy Format" meeting in Paris on December 9 seems unlikely to live up to that billing, unless closer adherence to the frequently violated cease-fire in the war in eastern Ukraine counts -- and even that may be a long shot, judging by assessments from officials, analysts, and one of the four heads of state involved.

The meeting will be the first between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France in more than three years, and the first time ever that Russian President Vladimir Putin will come face-to-face with Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the comic actor who was elected president of Ukraine in April after a campaign filled with promises of peace.

That means it's a rare chance for substantial progress toward resolving the conflict in the Donbas, where more than 13,000 civilians and combatants have been killed in fighting between Kyiv's forces and Moscow-backed militants since April 2014, when Russia fomented separatism across Ukraine after seizing control of the Crimean Peninsula.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron may be eager for a breakthrough -- a big step toward ending the only war being fought in Europe today, a conflict that has complicated relations with both Kyiv and Moscow and undermined economic ties with Russia. But there are limits to what Putin and Zelenskiy will do to end the war.

The Kremlin wants to maintain as much influence over Kyiv as it can, using the land held by the separatists it supports in the Donbas as a lever, while the Ukrainian president must balance the benefits of progress toward peace with the potentially disastrous risk of being seen as surrendering to Moscow.

Further complicating matters, the Paris talks come amid a politically charged impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump in Washington that has dragged Ukraine to the fore and raised questions about long-standing U.S. support for the country at a time when officials, diplomats, and analysts say it needs it most.

That all adds up to tempered expectations for a meeting that was in the works for months before a date was finally set and follows steps by both sides to ease tensions, including a big prisoner exchange in September and the pullback of troops from the front line in three locations in October and November.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during a meeting with soldiers while visiting the Donetsk region on December 6. His election campaign was filled with promises of peace.

"I do not expect a breakthrough from the Paris summit," said Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Penta Center for Political Studies in Kyiv. "But, most likely, this summit won't be a failure."

It's an underwhelming assessment, but one that may be shared by senior officials in Moscow and Kyiv.

For Zelenskiy, the summit itself marks a measure of success, according to Alyona Hetmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center, another think tank in the Ukrainian capital.

The fact that Kyiv and Moscow were even able to agree on a new meeting after years of deadlock "is progress made by Ukraine," Hetmanchuk said.

"Ukraine met two Russian conditions for holding the summit...even though implementation of those conditions was opposed strongly inside Ukraine," she said, referring to written approval of what's called the Steinmeier formula -- a German initiative to help restart peace negotiations -- and the troop pullbacks in the towns of Zolote, Petrivske, and Stanytsya Luhanska.

But Hetmanchuk said that while anticipation has been high since the leaders agreed on November 15 to hold the so-called Normandy Format summit -- a name derived from the site of a four-way meeting early in the war, in June 2014 -- hopes should be tempered.

Mano A Mano?

Zelenskiy has suggested his own expectations are modest.

"Often these meetings go in circles, with people repeating the same things to each other," he told reporters from Time, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and Gazeta Wyborcza in an interview on November 30. "Here's what I know from studying them: People have come to these meetings intending for nothing to happen."

A Ukrainian soldier at the line of contact in Zolote in Ukraine's eastern Luhansk region on November 2. More than 13,000 civilians and combatants have been killed in the fighting.

In addition to the four-way talks, Putin and Zelenskiy may also meet one-on-one, Putin aide Yury Ushakov said in November. A Zelenskiy administration official told RFE/RL that a one-on-one meeting with Putin was being considered but that a decision had not yet been made.

While the two presidents may use the Paris talks to address an array of issues, including a potential new agreement on natural-gas transit and supply, the war in the Donbas -- and the future of the portions of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions that are held by the Russia-backed separatists -- will be at the heart of the discussions.

The war began in April 2014 after Russia seized Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula further southwest. Two peace deals known as Minsk I and Minsk II, hammered out over several grueling hours in September 2014 and February 2015 with Germany and France mediating, managed to freeze the front line and curb heavy fighting but did not lead to a lasting cease-fire.

The fighting has raged on, with Ukrainian soldiers dying at a rate of about two or three per week, and few of the steps toward peace set out in the Minsk deals have been taken. Each side has interpreted their wording differently, and Kyiv contends that the terms -- agreed at times when its soldiers were under intense enemy fire -- are more favorable to Moscow.

Going into the talks, Zelenskiy, whose popularity rating has fallen from a high of 73 percent in September to 52 percent in November, according to a recent Kyiv International Institute of Sociology poll, faces pressure on several fronts at home, even as 75 percent of Ukrainians support his talks with Putin.

A Ukrainian Army frontline position near Donetsk on December 5.

"Zelenskiy, hopefully, understands that his room for maneuver is limited," Hetmanchuk said.

The president's critics, including some nationalist groups and veterans and the opposition party of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, claim he is preparing to "capitulate" to Putin by making compromises that would threaten Ukraine's national security and let Russia off the hook after more than five years of armed interference.

No Surrender

Thousands of Ukrainians from those groups and others protested Zelenskiy's dealings with Putin in a series of demonstrations in central Kyiv in October. They are tentatively planning to do so again on the eve of the Paris meeting.

"People want peace, not capitulation," Poroshenko told the Kyiv Post newspaper about the upcoming Paris meeting last month.

WATCH: Troops and civilians adjust to a new reality after forces disengaged along the line of separation between the Ukrainian military and Russia-backed separatists in early November.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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