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Putin and Zelensky are meeting for the first time in Paris. What could they possibly agree on?

Source: Meduza
Toms Kalnins / EPA / Scanpix / LETA
Update: The summit has concluded with all parties encouraging a full ceasefire and an all-for-all prisoner exchange by the end of 2019. The next Normandy Four summit has been scheduled to take place in four months. Volodymyr Zelensky called the results of the negotiations “a draw.”

Volodymyr Zelensky, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, and Emmanuel Macron have gathered in Paris to begin talks in the so-called Normandy Format. It will be the first meeting among the Ukrainian, Russian, German, and French leaders since 2016 — and the first in-person conversation between Putin and Zelensky. Renewing the talks was a part of the new Ukrainian president’s campaign platform, and the process of organizing the current summit has been ongoing for several months. The negotiations only became possible after Ukraine’s government agreed to the Steinmeier Formula, Russia and Ukraine conducted a prisoner exchange, and forces both in the Ukrainian military and from the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics retreated from several towns located on the country’s front lines. Dmitry Kartsev looked into the results the world can expect from the Paris summit and asked why it is even necessary if its output will likely be quite modest.

Political reconciliation in the Donbas

What Zelensky wants: The central question in these negotiations will be the political future of the territory now controlled by the self-declared DPR and LPR. As Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadim Pristaiko has noted, some elements of the Minsk Protocol “must be adapted if only because all of their deadlines have already passed.” Indeed, the end of 2015 is listed in the agreements as the key point when elections should have been held in the Donbas, both foreign and illegal combat units were supposed to have been withdrawn, and Ukraine was meant to have undergone constitutional reforms. None of those things have occurred to this day, but Ukraine’s government obviously means more than a technical deadline extension when it uses the word “adaptation”: It also wants to change the order in which the Misnk agreements are put into effect. Even though Zelensky has decided that Ukraine will accept the Steinmeier Formula, which essentially suggests placing new elections before all else, the president and his administration have continued to insist that voting should take place only after the region is completely demilitarized. As Ukrainian experts have pointed out, the Ukrainian president’s views on that question differ little from those of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, despite Zelensky’s efforts to present himself as a contrast to the previous administration.

What Putin wants: Russia’s position has not changed over the past several years: Its leaders believe the Minsk Protocol should be carried out to the letter and in the order prescribed. They also believe the Ukrainian government should hold direct negotiations with DNR and LNR representatives, essentially granting them legitimacy. Sources have told the newspaper Kommersant that Russia also wants to legally ban the prosecution of armed separatists from the self-declared DNR and LNR.

Could they come to an agreement? Seeing as both sides’ positions have changed little since their last Normandy Four meeting, one can hardly expect some kind of breakthrough on this front. Western experts have argued that according to the latest sociological data, the residents of the self-declared DNR and LNR would prefer to remain within a Ukrainian state, but it’s far from certain that Russia and the separatists it supports would take that data into account.

The Minsk accords also call for constitutional reforms in Ukraine, and Kyiv has officially said it is prepared to undertake those reforms. However, they would be limited to “additional powers” for the territories of the current “people’s republics,” and that’s unlikely to satisfy Moscow either. On the other hand, total amnesty for the separatists would hardly satisfy Zelensky and his team either.

The only thing that could likely spark agreement here is the extension of a “special status” law for the Donbas separatist regions that was passed back in the Poroshenko era. However, that could hardly be called a victory for Zelensky, who has already promised to pass a new version of the law (which DNR and LNR leaders have asked to review). The Ukrainian president has also said he will introduce an updated law only after negotiating with Putin.

Ceasefires and troop withdrawals

What Zelensky wants: A ceasefire is the most obvious point that has the highest potential for agreement but the lowest chance at realization. That’s especially true if you take into account the number of comparable ceasefire agreements that have been accepted and subsequently not followed. Ukrainian leaders have said that to achieve a ceasefire within the bounds of the Minsk agreements, they would want all forces to retreat two kilometers (1.24 miles) from all front lines along 400 km (248.5 miles) of territory. The Ukrainian army’s retreat from several towns in the fall of 2019 was one of the conditions that Moscow demanded before agreeing to meet in the Normandy Format.

What Putin wants: The Russian government, as well as self-declared DNR and LNR representatives, have not commented on the idea of a total troop withdrawal, but given the fact that such a move is included in the Minsk Protocol, Putin is unlikely to object to it, at least in word if not in deed.

Could they come to an agreement? It shouldn’t be hard to agree on both a ceasefire and a military withdrawal. What’s more difficult will be achieving those things: In the fall, Zelensky had to travel to the demarcation boundary himself to convince Ukrainian volunteers to follow his orders. If we’re talking about the entire 400-km front line, then the number of unhappy armed individuals involved would only grow, and so would the Ukrainian president’s problems in handling the responsibilities he’s taken on.

What Putin and Zelensky have said about each other

Zelensky on Putin: We’ve spoken over the phone, but that’s a phone conversation. I want to see him in person, and what I want to bring back from the Normandy talks is an understanding and and a sense that everyone really wants to gradually end this tragic war.

Putin on Zelensky: Mr. Zelensky himself, naturally, doesn’t look like a Ukrainian nationalist. But it’s hard for me to say whether or not he will be able to handle them.

[…]

I don’t know this individual, but I hope we will meet someday. By all appearances, he’s a good professional in the area he’s worked in so far — he’s a good actor.

Control over the Russian-Ukrainian border

What Zelensky wants: According to the Minsk agreements, Ukraine is supposed to retake control of its border with Russia after local elections are held in the Donbas, with full control being restored only after constitutional reforms. Kyiv would prefer to accelerate that process because Russia would otherwise be able to continue providing any aid they please, especially military aid, to the leaders of the self-declared DNR and LNR. Not long before the current negotiations, Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Andrey Danilov announced that Ukraine would like to reverse that sequence of events, regaining control of the border and only then holding elections. Zelensky, in turn, said he had a plan for the border that would provide an alternative to the Minsk agreements, but he has declined to provide any details about that plan. Sources have told RBC that the Ukrainian president may want to establish international control over the border using, for example, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and separatist fighters who have not taken part in active shooting.

What Putin wants: The Russian side has insisted on maintaining the order of the Minsk agreements, and that means it will not consider a scenario in which DNR and LNR fighters leave the border before elections take place. The idea of bringing international monitors to the border was already put forward in 2017, and back then, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov said such a move “would protect Donbas residents from deadly threats” because “Ukrainian military forces could follow, and not just them, but extremist squadrons as well who are notorious for their inhumane actions.” Nothing has indicated at this point that Moscow’s position has changed since then.

Could they come to an agreement?

Hardly. The border question is too important for both sides for them to decide it technically rather than politically. A political resolution will be impossible as long as Ukraine holds the position that the self-declared DNR and LNR subsist on Russian support and Russia argues that the Ukrainian government would immediately destroy the separatist governments if those two parties were left to face each other one-on-one.

The Donbas conflict negotiations in Minsk. February 11, 2015
Tatiana Zenkovich / pool / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Prisoner exchanges

What Zelensky wants: The first prisoner exchange of Zelensky’s presidency took place on September 7, when Moscow and Kyiv traded 35 individuals each. Russia freed the Ukrainian sailors captured at the Kerch Strait, along with filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who’d been convicted of terrorism and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Ukraine released RIA Novosti Ukraine editor-in-chief Kirill Vyshinsky and Vladimir Tsemakh, who has been called a key witness in the downing of a passenger plane over eastern Ukraine in July 2014. 

Ukrainian officials say 113 Ukrainian nationals are still being held in Russia, and several hundred more are incarcerated in the self-declared separatist republics in Donetsk and Luhansk. The exact number of Russians, as well as separatists, now in Ukrainian prisons is unknown, but it could be as many as a thousand people. Officials in Kyiv have rejected the idea of exchanging “all prisoners for all prisoners,” arguing that certain “crime bosses” without any ties to the Donbas conflict might find their way onto the release list.

What Putin wants: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said previously that Russia seeks an “all for all” prisoner exchange, while also hinting that the details here are open to negotiations, to ensure productive talks between the two presidents.

Could they come to an agreement? Probably, yes.

Gas transit

What Zelensky wants: The issue of gas supplies isn’t formally part of the “Normandy Format” talks, which focus on resolving the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, but observers have expressed certainty that Putin and Zelensky will address the problem. Gazprom’s contract for sending gas to Europe through Ukraine’s transmission network expires at the end of the year. This business is worth $3 billion a year to Kyiv, and the government seeks a new 10-year contract, which Zelensky says is one of his presidency’s top priorities. 

A long-term deal is important to Ukraine because of the impending launch of the “Nord Stream 2” gas pipeline, which runs across the Baltic Sea floor to Germany, as well as future competition from “TurkStream,” a pipeline across the Black Sea. Once these transitways are operational, Russia will theoretically be able to circumvent Ukraine entirely when supplying gas to Europe. Officials in Russia have indicated that this could be disastrous for both Ukraine’s state budget and the country’s energy market. For several years, Kyiv has had to repurchase Gazprom gas sold to European countries, collecting the supplies as they pass through Ukraine’s transmission network. Putin says sending gas in the opposite direction from Europe isn’t possible, which means Ukraine could be left without Russian gas entirely if it can’t reach a new transit agreement.

What Putin wants: A few days before his planned meeting with Zelensky, Putin said the construction of Nord Stream 2 doesn’t mean Russia intends to cease all gas transit through Ukraine. So far, Gazprom has offered to extend its existing contract with Ukraine or sign a new one-year agreement, renouncing “all reciprocal claims in international arbitration and terminating all litigation.” The proposal first and foremost concerns litigation in a Stockholm arbitration court, where the Ukrainian company “Naftogaz” already won roughly $2.5 billion from Gazprom and later filed a lawsuit demanding another $12 billion in compensation for the Russian company’s construction of bypass routes and refusal to fulfill transit-contract obligations. Defaulting on these obligations threatens the seizure of Gazprom’s bank accounts and property in Europe. Additionally, Russia has also offered to resume direct gas sales at reduced prices.

Could they come to an agreement? A new gas deal is more realistic than breakthroughs in other areas, and it’s not very politically risky. Ukraine’s position is pretty strong: the government says it has sufficient reserves to make it through the winter. In this case, transit disruptions might do more damage to Gazprom’s reputation as a reliable supplier for European consumers, especially given that Nord Stream 2 probably won’t be operating at full capacity by the start of 2020, when Russia’s current contract with Ukraine expires. Also, rejecting Ukraine’s gas transmission system could lead to new European antitrust lawsuits against Gazprom. Finally, there’s also the possibility that the U.S. will impose sanctions against the companies building and operating Nord Stream 2, which could delay its activation indefinitely. 

The status of Crimea

What Zelensky wants: Defending the need for direct negotiations with Putin, Zelensky has said talks under the Normandy Format make it possible, “at least in the discussion,” to raise the issue of Crimea. A few days before the Paris meeting, Zelensky said he planned to ask other world leaders if Russian-Ukrainian negotiations about Crimea’s future would be possible with U.S. mediation.

What Putin wants: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has already said that “any discussion about Crimea is impossible” and insisted that the format of negotiations makes no difference on this issue. Zelensky is unlikely to hear anything different in Paris.

Could they come to an agreement? No.

If Putin and Zelensky likely won’t agree to anything major in Paris, what’s the point of it all?

Why Zelensky needs these negotiations: He needs to show his constituents that, unlike his predecessor, he’s ready to use all available and feasible means to reduce tensions and alleviate the humanitarian situation in easter Ukraine, at the very least. In other words, Zelensky needs direct dialogue with Moscow. This was part of his presidential campaign. At the same time, he needs to demonstrate that these talks don’t amount to capitulation, as his opponents back home claim. If Zelensky returns from France with an agreement about a new prisoner exchange and a ceasefire, plus the promise of further negotiations, he’ll be able to say the trip was a success.

Before the talks, Zelensky said Ukraine’s armed forces should be ready for any development. He’s also said he has a “Plan B” in case a peaceful settlement proves to be impossible. The president hasn’t shared many details about this alternative, but he’s said it would involve offering a last chance to “everyone who self-identifies as Ukrainian” to leave the separatist enclaves. What would happen to the territories is unclear, but Ukrainian and Western experts have been actively discussing the possibility of dividing the country according to the model established in Cyprus, where a military coup in 1974 by the Greek Army prompted Turkey to invade and proclaim the independent Turkish Republic of North Cyprus. Unable to find opportunities for coexistence, the two state entities closed their boundaries to each other. Political analysts say this could allow Ukraine to resume its European integration (just as the Republic of Cyprus did), and responsibility for the Donbas would shift to Moscow.

Admittedly, this would run against Zelensky’s election platform and effectively continue Petro Poroshenko’s presidential agenda. On the other hand, negotiations in Paris (and possibly subsequent talks) would show that Zelensky at least tried.

Why Putin needs these negotiations: Putin’s motivations are harder to grasp, given that Moscow hasn’t taken any steps in recent years to resolve the situation in eastern Ukraine. This creates the impression that the Russian authorities are essentially happy with the frozen conflict, which serves as a source of constant instability for Ukraine and grants Moscow indirect influence on the country’s political situation. 

Attempts to assess this impression and guess what Putin really wants in Paris all stumble against the closed nature of Russia’s political decision-making system. Russian experts close to the Kremlin say Putin’s main goal isn’t progress with Zelensky, but convincing the negotiations’ other two leaders, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, of his own peace-loving disposition, paving the way for the “strategic dialogue” with Russia advocated by France’s president. The timing is good for Putin not just because of Macron’s new rhetoric, but also because Germany (despite formally maintaining its rigid position) is on track to complete the construction of Nord Stream 2. As noted by Time magazine’s recent cover story, President Zelensky, unlike Poroshenko, can’t rely on the West’s unequivocal support — especially after his unflattering remarks about European leaders in a phone call with Donald Trump. In Paris, Putin will have the chance to prove himself a more convenient and beneficial partner, thereby further complicating Zelensky’s situation.

According to Center for Strategic and International Studies experts Cyrus Newlin and Jeffrey Mankoff, Putin’s ultimate goal is European sanctions removal. In certain respects, the Russian economy has adapted to life under sanctions, but a near-zero growth rate combined with rising protest sentiment suggests that the situation isn’t as stable as it seems, and the Russian authorities would absolutely welcome the restoration of normal foreign economic relations.

Finally, according to the same CSIS experts, if Putin really wants to achieve the reintegration of the Donbas into Ukraine (while retaining Moscow’s influence in the east, of course), now is the perfect time. As long as Zelensky controls the entire Ukrainian power system thanks to his majority in the Verkhovna Rada, he can introduce the legislative reforms necessary for that purpose. However, his popularity is already starting to decline, and that will only make reintegration more difficult for Moscow going forward.

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Text by Dmitry Kartsev

Translation by Hilah Kohen and Kevin Rothrock

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