The leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany – collectively known as the “Normandy Group” – will meet in Paris on Dec. 9 to discuss a resolution to the more than 5-year-old war waged by Russia against Ukraine. More than 13,000 people have died in this brutal conflict in the heart of Europe, located less than two hours plane-ride from Vienna. All four Normandy leaders want to show progress towards ending this tragedy, as does President Donald Trump, though each for his or her own particular reasons.
Yet a deal to end the war and preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty is unlikely for the simple reason that President Vladimir Putin is dead set on regaining geopolitical control over Ukraine. To paraphrase Zbigniew Brzezinski, Russia in control of Ukraine is an empire, but without it just a state. The danger in Monday’s summit is that Ukraine’s Western partners might be willing to hand control of Ukraine to Putin. If they do so, it will be under the guise of a “special status” for the Russian-occupied Donbas, a notion that President Zelenskyy’s diplomatic advisors have openly discussed as they seek to deliver a peace agreement to a war-weary nation. Under the pretense of diplomatic progress, such a deal could prove deadly to Ukraine’s sovereign statehood.
Putin’s plan for Ukraine is simple: keep Crimea off the table while keeping the conflict on the table until Ukraine concedes this constitutionally mandated status. This is the same deal Putin offered Moldova in 2003 in what is known as the “Kozak Memorandum,” named after Dmitry Kozak, Putin’s special envoy to Chisinau. Applied to Ukraine, it entails giving the Donbas region de facto self-government and a de jure veto over the country’s geopolitical orientation. The best example of this sort of arrangement is the Republika Srpska entity within Bosnia-Herzegovina. Republika Srpska is both autonomous and can block Bosnia’s path towards NATO, as it has done for the last decade. Leaders in Moldova rejected a comparable arrangement not because they wanted to join NATO – they opted instead for neutrality – but because they understood that such a deal would undermine Moldova’s sovereignty. Ukraine’s leaders should beware the same.
Today’s version of the Kozak Memorandum is known as the “Steinmeier Formula” and is named after German President (and former Foreign Minister) Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Steinmeier proposed several years ago that the February 2015 Minsk protocol be jettisoned in favor of a simple quid pro quo between Russia and Ukraine: Russia would “allow” for elections to be held in the occupied parts of the Donbas in return for the conferral of special status. By singling out these two elements of the Minsk protocol, Steinmeier effectively ditched the rest of that agreement. Among the discarded elements are the critical first three points, requiring that Russia implement a ceasefire, withdraw heavy weapons, and allow unfettered OSCE monitoring of the Donbas. With these crucial requirements dropped, the burden of ending the conflict shifts from Moscow to Kyiv, which would then have to come up with a special status acceptable to its eastern neighbor.
This radical dismemberment of the Minsk protocol may be precisely what the leaders in Paris are willing to overlook, though each for a different reason (more on these below). Because if an election were to be held in the Donbas, it strains credulity to imagine it being conducted freely and fairly, particularly since the idea of a United Nations peacekeeping mission, proposed several years ago by then-President Petro Poroshenko, is now off the table. The absence of any international peacekeeping presence in an active war zone makes a mockery of OSCE standards. Consider this: if Russia is able to interfere successfully in elections in the United States by hacking email accounts and engaging in online disinformation, just imagine what it can do on territory controlled by its proxies. And yet, it is all too easy to envisage U.S., French and German leaders arguing that while not perfect, the sheer fact of holding elections is “good enough” to ease some of Russia’s sanctions burden. Any violations of OSCE standards could easily be blamed on Russia’s proxies, and the Kremlin would surely insist it had encouraged them to fully comply.
Moreover, Putin understands even if such sham elections never come to pass, he still gains points. It is to be expected that the negotiation of election modalities will be cumbersome and contentious, which is precisely why Putin would like nothing more than to pass this task on to his proxies. Far better to force Ukraine to discuss these modalities with separatist leaders directly, absolving Moscow of any responsibility and blaming any setbacks on the Ukrainians and/or recalcitrant separatists. As Putin learned from the Geneva International Discussions on Georgia, this sort of endless rope-a-dope gives the international community the pretense that Russia is engaging constructively even if it is merely hiding behind its own anointed proxies.
So why is the Steinmeier proposal even on the table? For Putin, the goal is to convince Western leaders that Russia is willing to compromise so as to set the conditions for lifting sanctions. For Germany’s Angela Merkel, the proximate goal is to ease tensions and show the international community that diplomatic progress is being made. The Nordstream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany is on the cusp of completion and the more Merkel can ease – or at least delay — international pressure to cancel that project because of its potential to weaken Ukraine even further, the more likely the project is to be completed.
Similarly, for France’s Emmanuel Macron, a Paris breakthrough is both a diplomatic feather in his cap and a perfect excuse for expanding bilateral trade and investment ties with Russia, a longstanding priority. Finally, although President Trump won’t be attending the Paris summit, his July 25 phone call with President Zelenskyy shows just how much he wants Ukraine to forge a settlement with Russia. With a diplomatic breakthrough in the offing (even of the artificial Singapore Summit variety with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un), Trump can finally consummate his special relationship with Vladimir Putin.
President Zelenskyy is the one with the most to lose if the Steinmeier Formula is accepted as the way forward, unless he receives strong written assurances from Merkel and Macron on the conditions required of Russia, including compensation for potential foregone transit of Russian gas across Ukrainian territory if the Nordstream 2 pipeline is built. Zelenskyy ran on ending the war in the Donbas (along with fighting corruption and growing the economy), and so it is understandable that he wants to demonstrate progress, particularly as his polling numbers begin to slip.
Furthermore, Zelenskyy’s weakened position vis-à-vis the Trump administration following the American president’s persistent efforts to pressure Zelenskyy into pursuing sham investigations have surely raised concerns in Kyiv regarding the reliability of the United States as a long-term security provider and champion of Ukrainian sovereignty. The surprising resilience within Republican circles of the Russian-influenced conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election only amplifies these fears and leads Zelenskyy to believe that he has to make what he can of the current deal on the table.
Moreover, there have been encouraging signals that could lead Zelenskyy to believe a deal is possible: Russia and Ukraine exchanged prisoners, Russia returned Ukrainian naval ships ambushed in November 2018 (albeit stripped of equipment), and the two sides disengaged in a few key spots along the line of contact.
Zelenskyy, therefore, likely feels the time for a breakthrough is now. The question is at what cost, and whether the West will have his back when the deal is being implemented.