Zelensky and Putin in Paris: What Is Success?

Speaking on a treadmill ahead of the first Normandy format summit in over three years and his first-ever meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin on Monday, December 9, Ukraine’s president Zelensky promised “no treason” and insisted that by renewing talks that have been frozen for three years, the summit “is already a victory for Ukraine.” “Some say that it’s impossible to have a dialogue with Putin” he continued, “but without a dialogue we’re like on a treadmill—we are running forward, but not moving.” His words set the scene for a low-expectations summit that is at once fail-proof and unlikely to yield breakthroughs.

Since his inauguration, Zelensky has stubbornly pursued a meeting with Vladimir Putin in spite of Kyiv’s uneven negotiating position and Moscow’s foot-dragging, and in the face of staunch criticism from his political opponents. The Ukrainian president’s flexibility has paid small dividends. Zelensky has fulfilled Moscow’s (shifting) preconditions for dialogue by signing on the controversial Steinmeier formula, which would allow Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe-monitored elections to take place in separatist-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts as a first step toward implementing the terms of the ceasefire agreement signed in Minsk in September 2015. Zelensky’s decision to accept the Steinmeier formula was met with immediate protests in Kyiv and other cities; while most Ukrainians want an end to the conflict, substantial opposition exists to ceding de facto control of the separatist regions.

Zelensky’s acceptance of the Steinmeier formula did though encourage Moscow to engage—albeit begrudgingly—and paved the way for the upcoming summit. The Ukrainian president now has two overarching goals in Paris: to deliver immediate, tangible relief to Ukrainians citizens and to test Russia’s sincerity in negotiating a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Given the opposition to negotiating with Putin, Zelensky needs to return from Paris with something tangible. Items on the agenda for the December 9 meeting include an extended cease-fire, a second major prisoner swap, talks on extending Ukraine’s gas supply contracts with Russia, elections in the separatist-controlled regions, a special status law for Donetsk and Luhansk, and control over the Ukrainian border.

A cease-fire and a prisoner swap should be well within reach. No party will want to walk home empty-handed, and at least officially, both Ukraine and Russia are interested in a cessation of hostilities and the return of prisoners. If Zelensky left Paris with these deliverables only, the summit would meet the low bar for success laid out in advance by the Ukrainian side.

In a brighter scenario, Ukraine and Russia would include a prisoner swap and an extended cease-fire as well as a timeline for targeted negotiations on more intractable issues, including the language of a special status law and the organization of local elections in the separatist areas. This result would validate Zelensky’s argument that a summit is a worthwhile pursuit that opens doors for dialogue and prevents backsliding on the Russian side. Moscow, once a party to international talks on terms that Russia itself agreed to, will face political incentives not to disengage.

A third and less likely “breakthrough” scenario would be one in which Ukraine and Russia agree on the above, plus a sequencing of implementation of the Minsk agreements that have so far derailed the peace process. The Minsk II document envisions elections in the separatist-held territories taking place before a withdrawal of troops; but Zelensky has pledged not to agree to elections held “at the point of a gun,” telling Time that he “does not support the way this is spelled out in the [previous] agreements.”

After signing onto the Steinmeier formula, Zelensky emphasized that elections in the separatist-controlled regions could only be held under Ukrainian law, and only after Moscow had returned control of the border—the same issues that have held up implementation of the Minsk agreement from the beginning. It is hard to imagine Moscow demonstrating flexibility by agreeing to border control before elections. Putin has made clear his belief that the impetus is on Ukraine to fulfill its political commitments.

On the other hand, Russia faces its own incentives to demonstrate flexibility in order to secure a final agreement. Russia’s primary foreign policy aim in Ukraine is retaining influence over Ukraine’s strategic direction. The least costly way to guarantee this is via a change in Ukraine’s constitution granting special status to Donbas, effectively establishing a pro-Russian contingent with veto power inside Ukraine’s parliament. Removing the sequencing roadblock would create the political space for Zelensky to attempt to pass this law at home, putting the ball firmly in his court.

Moreover, the window of time to pass such a law is finite. Any change to Ukraine’s constitution will be a tough political sell for the Ukrainian president. Zelensky is best positioned to make this sell now, while he retains relative—though slipping—popularity, and while his party enjoys a majority in parliament. The political prospects for such a controversial amendment will decline with time, as Zelensky’s political leverage inevitably erodes.

The absence of progress in negotiations may force Kyiv to pursue alternative options. One would be to abandon attempts to re-integrate eastern Ukraine and settle for humanitarian support to Ukrainians living in occupied territories, effectively creating a frozen border as in northern Cyprus. This is an unfortunate, last-resort option for Ukraine, but one that allows Kyiv to pursue its European aspirations, while saddling Moscow with responsibility for the occupied territories. This outcome does not serve Moscow’s aims and may serve as an additional incentive for Russia to be a productive participant in negotiations.

Much further in the background for Russia is the prospect of European sanctions removal. Although Russia will not subjugate its foreign policy aims for sanctions relief, and Europe is unlike to seriously consider sanctions relief in the near future, recent statements by French President Emmanuel Macron about the need for Europe to “reopen a strategic dialogue” with Russia suggest that European and trans-Atlantic unity on maintaining sanctions may not last forever.

The ultimate prize for the Kremlin is an agreement securing special status for the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and normalization of relations with Europe. A breakthrough in political negotiations places these goals within closer reach for Putin.

No matter what happens on December 9, a political resolution will be contingent on additional future talks. This is because any “special status” law for the Donbas will ultimately have to be approved by the Ukrainian Rada (parliament) and negotiated between Kyiv and representatives of the occupied territories. The process of beginning these negotiations will only begin after the Paris summit, according to Rada chairman and Servant of the People head Dmytro Razumkov. At the same time, the summit is unlikely to backfire completely. Zelensky, Putin, Macron, and German chancellor Angela Merkel all have too much political capital invested to walk away with nothing. The challenge will be to determine whether there is a way forward on the questions of elections and control of the Russia-Ukraine border that all sides can accept. Based on the experience of the past four years, expectations should remain limited.

Cyrus Newlin is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jeffrey Mankoff is deputy director and senior fellow with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program.

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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Jeffrey Mankoff
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Cyrus Newlin