Understanding the Normandy Format and Its Relation to the Current Standoff with Russia

Amid mounting tensions with Moscow, senior diplomats from France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine will meet in Berlin on February 10 in the so-called Normandy format in an attempt to find a way out of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. After years of stalemate, this format has been revived in Paris on January 26 with the hope that these negotiations on the Donbas conflict could contribute to the larger diplomatic effort to de-escalate the current standoff with Moscow. Yet, this diplomatic path remains treacherous, especially given the military pressure exerted by Russia, and will ultimately depend on Putin’s intent to genuinely engage in this process and Ukraine’s ability to find suitable compromises.

Q1: What is the Normandy format and why is it meeting now?

A1: The Normandy format is a diplomatic grouping created in June 2014 with the aim of finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict following Russia’s military aggression. Despite the diplomatic engagement of Paris and Berlin, this tenuous political process has borne little fruit since its creation and has been stalled for the past two years, with Moscow and Kyiv having seemingly irreconcilable positions. Given this context, the mere fact that the four countries managed to meet in Paris and agree on a joint declaration has raised measured hopes that this diplomatic venue could contribute to de-escalating the current crisis.

In conjunction with other diplomatic efforts through the NATO-Russia Council, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and U.S.-Russia strategic stability talks, the Normandy format could prove to be a useful platform for dialogue to lower the temperature at a time of high tensions with Russia. Compared to other fora, the Normandy format presents the advantage of having the main actors—namely Ukraine and Russia—around the table to discuss the burning issue of the conflict in the Donbas. In an ideal scenario, finding a political solution to this years-long conflict could contribute to reducing current tensions, therefore helping the larger discussions with Russia over the security order of Europe. However, the approach is not seen without risks, as there are concerns in some circles that Russia’s demands might compel Ukraine’s Western partners to pressure it into accepting disadvantageous outcomes in the Normandy format to avoid a wider confrontation with Moscow.

As agreed in the joint declaration, the same senior diplomats will meet again in Berlin on February 10 to discuss how to break the current impasse regarding the Minsk agreements. This meeting will take place in the midst of intense diplomatic activity from the United States and its European allies, as recently witnessed by the visit of President Macron to Moscow and then Kyiv, to resolve a broader standoff with Russia. If progress is made in this venue, then a summit involving the heads of state of each country may be scheduled to confirm a new approach to resolve the conflict.

Q2: What is the Minsk process and what has it achieved so far?

A2: Since its creation, the Normandy format has served as a platform for high-level political discussions to stimulate progress toward resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine. In 2014, the members of the Normandy format established the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG), comprising Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE, as the venue for technical consultations to develop a peace plan. Talks led to the September 2014 Minsk Protocol and Memorandum and the February 2015 Package of Measures, which together outlined conditions for the settlement of the conflict. Four working groups on political, security, economic, and humanitarian issues were later created and have included the participation of representatives from the separatist regions.

These documents, collectively known as the Minsk agreements, are repeatedly characterized as the best way of ending the conflict through diplomacy. They include providing “special status” to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, organizing local elections there, restoring the Ukrainian government’s full control of its border, and disarming fighters in separatist-held areas.

Yet, neither Ukraine nor Russia agrees about the sequencing of steps envisioned in the agreements, nor have they sought to implement them in good faith so far. Most Ukrainians oppose them on the grounds that they require Ukraine to cede too much sovereignty to representatives of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, who are perceived as puppets of the Kremlin. The Ukrainian government has also sought to avoid adopting required political reforms, fearing they are a constitutional Trojan horse. Meanwhile, Russian diplomats, denying the presence of any Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, insist that Moscow has no obligations under the agreements and is merely a mediator. Russia also objects to Ukraine’s refusal to engage in “direct dialogue” with the separatist forces or to devolve power to them on foreign policy matters, but these are not explicitly required by the agreements.

Recent meetings of the Normandy format have focused extensively on how to break the impasse, but with limited success. The most recent gathering of the Normandy four heads of state in Paris in December 2019 yielded a joint communiqué outlining several agreed steps to jump-start the moribund peace process. While limited prisoner exchanges were conducted, hopes of a breakthrough were soon dashed. Deeply entrenched disagreements emerged on various points. First, Russia and its proxies in the separatist-controlled areas demanded that Kyiv withdraw legislation they believed was in violation of the Minsk agreements. Second, participants sparred over how to implement a confidence-building mechanism that foresaw limited direct dialogue with self-appointed authorities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, a sensitive point for Kyiv, as mentioned earlier. Third, Russia and participants from separatist-held areas pushed a “road map” for the implementation of the Minsk agreements and made all work in the TCG conditional on its acceptance. Ukraine responded by developing its own version, and the talks hit a dead end as participants proved unable to reconcile the competing documents.

Q3: What are the main priorities of Ukraine and Russia in these negotiations?

A3: Ukraine’s top priority is to reestablish a cease-fire, and ultimately the full control of its border, before turning to the resolution of thornier political issues, which it believes can be achieved only through a meeting of the Normandy format leaders. Ukraine has several reasons to push for such a meeting; it is a far friendlier format than the TCG, where Russia defers to its proxies to make key arguments, and it reinforces the notion that Russia does, in fact, bear certain responsibilities in the conflict. Yet, Ukraine will need to reconcile the fact that it committed to unfavorable compromises in the Minsk agreements, which were signed at a time when it had suffered tremendous battlefield losses. In recent statements, top officials have become more overt in their calls to revise the Minsk documents to address these problems. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba explicitly rejected the idea of special status for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions—a key stipulation of the Package of Measures—and refused to engage in direct dialogue with separatist leaders.

Russia’s primary goal is to obtain a political settlement that would anchor its influence over Ukraine, in particular its foreign policy decisions, through the separatist regions even after they return to government control. For the Kremlin, this week’s talks are an opportunity to force Ukraine to comply with its interpretation that Russia has no obligations under the Minsk agreements and that Kyiv should engage directly with Donetsk and Luhansk to reach a diplomatic resolution in an “internal manner.” The belief that Ukraine is not acting in good faith to implement its obligations under the Minsk agreements underpins Russia’s demand that Kyiv should undertake certain reforms before “rewarding” Ukraine with a meeting of the Normandy format leaders. Presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov recently stated that Kyiv must implement “at least some” of these agreements for a meeting of the Normandy format leaders to take place.

Q4: What are the opportunities and stumbling blocks of the talks?

A4: Although the positions of Russia and Ukraine continue to differ immensely, the Paris meeting on January 26 sent positive signals with the adoption of a joint statement by the four countries for the first time since their 2019 Paris Summit. The declaration is tightly worded but contains some slight diplomatic openings that could contribute to the immediate goal of a de-escalation.

On the political front, the four countries reaffirmed in the statement that “the Minsk agreements are [still] the basis of the work for the Normandy format” and tasked the TCG and its working groups to intensify their work to resolve differences over these agreements. The Ukrainian government has already shown some signs of goodwill by withdrawing proposed legislation that was considered by Moscow to be inconsistent with the Minsk agreements, although Russia’s position remains firm. The upcoming meeting in Berlin will have to define a diplomatic path to make a meaningful conversation possible, as for the past year and a half, nearly all work in the TCG has been made contingent on reaching an agreement on competing “road maps.” Although tricky, acknowledging differences in the interpretations of the Minsk agreements could give a chance to reframe the discussion on the essence of the peace process.

On the security front, the signatories supported an “unconditional observance of the cease fire and full adherence to the measures to strengthen the cease fire of 22 July 2020.” Restoring silence along the contact line would be a welcome development, as cease-fire violations have risen recently, and Russia has more largely increased its military presence in the region. Yet, this commitment is still very fragile, as witnessed by recent incidents, and would require tangible confidence-building measures. In Russia’s view, this would require formalizing direct contact between Ukrainian armed forces and separatist fighters through a so-called “coordination mechanism.” Kyiv has sought instead to develop a different arrangement involving a third party to avoid the appearance of acknowledging the separatists’ legitimacy, but it has made little headway. Provided that an agreement can be reached on that issue, which is far from certain, other confidence-building measures could include the withdrawal of heavy weaponry from the demarcation line and the establishment of new disengagement areas, as agreed in 2019.

With a tangle of obstacles on the security and political tracks, there may be an impetus to resolve humanitarian issues as a way to generate positive momentum. Discussions could focus on the reopening of crossing points, many of which remain nonoperational because separatist forces refuse to open them under the pretext of public health measures, and on exchanges of prisoners and hostages. Both of these actions were foreseen in the 2019 Paris Summit conclusions. To avoid linking humanitarian issues to a fraught political negotiation process, these issues would be better handled at the working level for now.

Q5: What could be a way out?

A5: It is a positive sign that, for the moment, the Ukrainian and Russian leaders seem willing to give these discussions a chance. President Zelensky recently stressed that “as long as conditions are conducive, we must meet and talk” before adding that “the ongoing negotiations reduce the chance of escalation.” The Ukrainian president reaffirmed his full support to the peace process during his joint press conference with President Macron. After a five-hour-long meeting with the French president in Moscow, President Putin confirmed his willingness to pursue dialogue but kept nonetheless an aggressive tone, insisting that Ukraine had to implement the Minsk agreements and repeating his threat of a military intervention.

It is unclear how long the Normandy format will remain a viable platform for discussions if it fails to generate any new ideas or approaches. Russian representatives do not appear ready to make any meaningful compromises. Meanwhile, Ukraine is well aware that accepting all Russia’s demands would introduce tremendous domestic upheaval.

Progress is possible if Moscow drops its false narrative that it is not a party to the conflict and shows readiness to honor its own commitments involving the withdrawal of forces. Meanwhile, Kyiv would need to find a way to present practicable proposals on the political track. A negotiated solution would include elements of both. Otherwise, the diplomatic approaches to resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine will be at a dead end.

If successful, these talks could help diffuse the wider crisis involving Russia and Ukraine that exceeds the framework of the Normandy format. France and Germany will therefore need to wear their multiple hats—as members of the Normandy format, as major European security players, and as NATO allies—very carefully to ensure their approaches are fully aligned to properly address a multifaceted security challenge.

Andrew Lohsen is a fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Pierre Morcos is a visiting fellow with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program.

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Andrew Lohsen

Pierre Morcos