The Impact of the Normandy Format on the Conflict in Ukraine: Four Leaders, Three Cease-fires, and Two Summits

With the world’s attention focused on Russia’s ongoing combat operations in Syria, many may have missed an important summit in Paris, which brought together the presidents of France, Russia, and Ukraine and the German chancellor on October 2. The leaders came together in the so-called Normandy Format to assess progress made toward a resolution of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the implementation of the Minsk II cease-fire agreement, which the four countries negotiated in February 2015.

Created on June 6, 2014, when France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine leaders met on the margins of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day allied landings in Normandy, this was the first meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine since the crisis had erupted in Ukraine. The Normandy Format does not include the United States or the European Union, nor any other European countries beyond France and Germany.

Despite the business-like atmosphere in Paris, expectations for the summit were modest, and full resolution of the conflict is not in sight. Nonetheless, some progress was achieved to strengthen a very fragile cease-fire and, to a lesser extent, postpone a thorny political issue. On the security front, the participants took stock of an improved situation on the ground since September 1, and an agreement was reached to remove lighter weaponry from the line of contact with improved prospects for the removal of the heavier weaponry.

The bulk of the meeting was dedicated to generating a timetable for the organization of elections in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Separatists were planning to hold unilateral elections on October 18 (Donetsk) and November 1 (Luhansk), under locally set parameters. Paris and Berlin, however, made it clear that they would only support elections held under Ukrainian law and according to international and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) standards. President Putin, who departed immediately after the summit and did not speak publicly, apparently used his influence over the separatists as it was subsequently announced on October 6 that their elections would be postponed. There have been no new dates set for these elections.

With the election postponement, Kyiv must now pass a new electoral law under which local elections can be held legally. The parliament must also approve a special status for the separatist regions, as well as create an amnesty mechanism for the separatists if the elections proceed in line with international standards under OSCE observation. It will be very difficult for the Ukrainian government and parliament to approve these measures. Kyiv’s first attempt to get these measures through the Ukrainian parliament was extremely fraught and came with high political costs.

This tenuous political process may open the door to the final stage of the Minsk agreement: the restoration of Kyiv’s control over its border with Russia and the removal of foreign (both regular and irregular) Russian forces from Ukrainian territory. This optimistic scenario isn’t completely unrealistic, but assessing its likeliness raises several key questions.

First, there are legitimate doubts that the path outlined in Paris will be politically sustainable for either Moscow or Kyiv. The level of distrust over Russia’s true intentions remains high in Kyiv and to a certain extent in Berlin and Paris. This reflects genuine concerns about the risk that the calmer situation in eastern Ukraine may only be a tactical move to prevent the renewal of European sanctions in January 2016 or a way for Russia to keep Ukraine quiet while it conducts its military campaign in Syria.

To be sure, Russia retains the ability to escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine. It maintains military capabilities within eastern Ukraine or close to the Ukraine-Russia border. If Russia and its proxies follow through on the steps agreed in Paris, it may be indicative that Moscow seeks a way out of its current military, economic, and political dilemma in the Donbass. The cancellation of the elections planned on October 18 and November 1 is in itself a positive sign, which underscores that Moscow does indeed control the separatists. This positive step must be immediately followed by the removal of heavy weapons and by more extensive and intrusive access by OSCE inspectors.

Ukrainian president Poroshenko faces challenging times in Kyiv. Passing a new electoral law through the Ukrainian parliament will not be easy. Skeptics in Kyiv fear that the reason Russia is reducing the violence in eastern Ukraine is because the implementation of the Minsk agreement will protect Russian interests by ensuring that Moscow’s proxies in eastern Ukraine will have a veto over Kyiv’s national policies. They also fear that the next steps of the process—notably the enactment of a new Ukrainian electoral law—place the political onus on Kyiv rather than on Moscow, reversing the responsibility for a crisis that was created and continues to be fueled by Russia. Continued support to Kyiv from Europe and the United States will be vital to help the Ukrainian government sell tough decisions.

Second, the postponement of the implementation of the Minsk agreement raises questions regarding the renewal or extensions of European sanctions in early 2016. French president Hollande recognized that it was very unlikely local elections could be held in eastern Ukraine before the end of 2015, the timeline originally envisioned in February for the full implementation of Minsk. As this is a pre-requisite for the restoration of Ukraine’s control of the border, the Minsk II cease-fire agreement will be de facto rolled over into 2016. This should not be a major issue in itself: the agreement is a political one, and it doesn’t require anything else other than its participants’ continued adherence to stay alive. Moreover, there isn’t a diplomatic alternative to the Minsk agreement currently on the table.

This delay, which may well last longer than expected if the situation remains in limbo, requires that European sanctions imposed against Russia be prolonged. U.S. sanctions against Russia, although similar in substance, aren’t time limited and do not require explicit extension. Berlin, Paris, and their European partners have been clear since March 2015 that European sanctions would not be lifted until the Minsk agreement is fully implemented.

In January 2016, European leaders may well face a very tricky situation. The Minsk agreement will still be only partially implemented, and Kyiv won’t control its border with Russia. In that context, the sanctions’ current architecture has a good chance of being renewed despite frequent concerns heard in Washington that Europe might not find consensus to sustain sanctions, as they hear some European leaders advocating for suspending some sanctions should the improved security situation on the ground hold into early 2016.

Obviously, Washington will influence the politics of this European debate, despite the United States’ lack of engagement in the Normandy Format. While the majority of Europeans continue to strictly link the fate of European sanctions to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the United States may be increasingly inclined to turn the existing sanctions into a multipurpose tool to address Russia’s behavior, in Ukraine but also beyond Ukraine. This evolution, along with the early stages of the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, would make it very difficult for the Obama administration to reciprocate a European initiative to suspend even a minimal part of the sanctions, even if there was a consensus within the European Union to move toward such a formula.

Last, but not least, stakeholders not included in the Normandy Format continue to question its ability to deliver a full resolution to the conflict. Although the Obama administration and European officials publicly support France and Germany’s independent diplomatic enterprise, many officials and experts in Washington, as well as various EU officials, do not hide their concerns that the two most significant European players are handling the crisis by themselves. Eastern EU member states are concerned that their vision of the crisis and Russia’s responsibility may not be sufficiently reflected by France and Germany in the sense that they would not be tough enough with the Russians. Likewise, Ukrainian officials often complain in Washington that they are being pushed by the two European nations to make compromises they deem unjustified while a part of their territory continues to be occupied by their powerful neighbor.

For their part, both Berlin and Paris are well aware of the limitations of their efforts to identify a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande have underlined repeatedly that Russia was responsible for destabilizing Ukraine, including through the annexation of Crimea, and not the other way around. They do not consider themselves neutral brokers.

Yet, they consider that their ability to bring Russia and Ukraine together has played a key role in limiting further escalation of the conflict. And their main concerns, beyond the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty, from the very beginning have been to avoid escalation, to contain the negative repercussions the conflict may have for European security, and to engage in a diplomatic process conducive to a political settlement.

In that sense, there is little that an alternative negotiating format could have achieved that the Normandy Format did not, even if it hasn’t succeeded yet in all its objectives. To a certain extent, a U.S. presence would run the risk of importing bilateral grievances into a format that isn’t suited to address them, and that could lead Russia to further escalation. Meanwhile, there might be merit politically in including the European Union—as a representative of the 28—in the talks, but the extent to which this would bring additional incentives for Russia to cooperate is unclear.

France and Germany’s coordination with both Washington and Brussels is critical to ensure taking into account their key partners’ concerns regarding the ongoing process. But by being among the two countries making the most significant economic sacrifice through EU sanctions, France, and even more so Germany—whose bilateral trade with Russia may shrink by about €20 billion in 2015—do not lack legitimacy and political clout to conduct the negotiation.

Clearly, the United States should remain very much involved diplomatically, even if on the margins of the Normandy Format. Strong and vocal support to the talks, and input brought to the negotiators, are helpful to sustain the ongoing process. Proactive U.S. political outreach will also be necessary should European leaders begin to have second thoughts about the renewal of their sanctions. More fundamentally, the United States needs to impress upon its European partners that its absence from the Normandy Format isn’t the product of restraint toward its involvement and presence in Europe. It should point out, on the contrary, that these talks prefigure a stronger European leadership to its regional security challenges. The United States also has a clear interest in increasing European defense capabilities to address broader challenges posed by Russia to Europe’s security environment, of which the conflict in Ukraine is only one aspect.

Likewise, both the United States and European countries should make a clear distinction between the fate of diplomacy—and of sanctions—regarding the crisis in Ukraine and the necessity to continue NATO’s military adaptation on its eastern flank. A resolution of the Ukraine crisis and a subsequent lifting of Western sanctions against Russia would not make it irrelevant for NATO to reinforce its ability to deter any Russian destabilizing initiatives on alliance territory. On the contrary, further destabilization in eastern Ukraine should not lead the alliance to put in place a significantly more aggressive military posture toward Russia than the analysis of the Russian military doctrine and capabilities should dictate.

It would be naive to think that the situation in Ukraine will not have a political impact on the preparation of the 2016 NATO Warsaw Summit and on how allies are able to build consensus toward efficient solutions to NATO adaptation challenges. But the United States and its European allies, in particular the “Normandy powers” France and Germany, would be well advised to try to separate both issues as much as possible, so that the adaptation measures decided in Warsaw can be dictated more by concrete military requirements than by divisive political considerations regarding the broader relationship with Russia.

Simond de Galbert is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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