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Biden’s Normandy format: what changes and threats we can expect from US entry into the Donbas talks

After a week of Joseph Biden’s shuttle diplomacy – i.e., his talks with Putin, Western European leaders, NATO’s Eastern Flank, and President Zelensky – cautious but essential conclusions can be drawn for Ukraine.

Statements by the White House after the conversation with Putin, details of Joe Biden’s talks with the leaders of the Eastern European “nine”  and comments on the conversation with Zelensky from one of the high-ranking officials of the Biden administration give quite serious signals to Ukraine.

And most importantly, these events outline the threats that Ukraine may face very soon. In particular, the threats to the negotiations on Donbas.

And a lot depends on whether Kyiv will be able to stop dangerous processes “at their roots.”

Crisis Game: A Successful Kremlin Tactic

In recent months, Russia has been systematically raising rates. The Kremlin requires a new order of distribution of “spheres of influence,”, especially in Europe. And before the video meeting with Biden, the Russian leader stopped hiding this demand.

To achieve this goal, Putin uses his usual methods, such as blackmail (from Russian troops on the border with Ukraine to gas levers). And the meeting with Biden for the second time in a year is actually under Kremlin’s duress. Moreover, it proves that Putin’s tactics are successful: he demands attention – and he is taken into account.

Now he has taken up the most serious argument: threats of a new invasion of Ukraine. And do not think that the danger of further deteriorating relations with the West can stop it. On the contrary, the Kremlin is quite satisfied with such tensions.

This must be understood in assessing the Kremlin’s loudest demand that the West give Russia guarantees that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO.

Moscow is well aware that such demands will never be officially met.

However, the West may well start discussing this with Russia. And this is exactly what Russia wanted!

And it seems that Russia achieved it. The Biden and Putin administrations decide to continue the dialogue, and Biden is beginning to prepare international consultations with Russia on issues that concern the latter. Including security in Europe. It means that the future of NATO will be brought to the table.

This increases Russia’s weight as an international player, gives it the opportunity to demand concessions from the United States, bargain, and find a “compromise” that will include certain security concessions from the West. That is, by creating a crisis on its own, Russia has a chance to emerge victoriously!

In addition, the talks themselves create tensions and a loss of confidence within the Alliance, where not everyone is thrilled with talks with Putin on strategic issues. And this is another achievement for the Kremlin.

This difficult situation should also be understood: does everything suit Ukraine in the dialogue between the West and Russia? Where are the pitfalls? And how can the Ukrainian government not fall into the trap of Russian-American “detente”?

Between positives and risks

In itself, Biden’s conversation with Putin was not a “betrayal” for Kyiv, and Ukraine’s interests were not betrayed during these talks. On the contrary, the United States has shown Russia that there will be no further dialogue without de-escalation on its part.

This US requirement is unalterable. There is also no alternative to refusing to fix the commitment: never accept Ukraine to NATO.

There is every reason to believe that this position is sincere: the United States has repeated this many times, both in public statements and during negotiations. This is an unconditional positive for us.

By the way, it should be emphasized that the talks were not limited to talks at the highest level. Suffice it to mention the statement of US Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who said that he communicates with his Ukrainian counterpart almost every day; Although it is unclear who he meant, Yermak or Danilov, the important thing is that the consultations behind the scenes have been going on all this time. And not only with us.

And what about sanctions?

Many Ukrainian politicians called it a “betrayal” that the US defense budget did not include so-called “hellish sanctions” against Russia, such as the disconnection of Russian banks from SWIFT, sanctions for servicing Russia’s public debt, and so on. However, these ideas are not buried. Washington explains that it has decided to detain them as a deterrent, warning Russia of harsh action in the event of a new attack on its part.

In response, the Kremlin has begun to consider raising rates to the level of the Caribbean crisis. Putin hopes that Western powers are not ready to go to the end and will eventually agree to negotiations for de-escalation.

And this is where the dangers and risks for Ukraine begin.

First, against the background of the dialogue between the West and Moscow, Kyiv will not receive anything more so far: no new weapons, no support in the form of preventive sanctions against Russia. The West will not dare to increase the already high voltage.

Secondly, now, unfortunately, there is a possibility that the “Ukrainian question” can only become one of the episodes in a serious agreement between Russia and Western countries. According to another journalistic insider, there is growing dissatisfaction within NATO with the US response to Russia’s threats. Eastern European members of NATO strongly disagree that the United States, Germany, France, and Italy have a dialogue on security issues with Russia.

Ukraine should take advantage of this dissatisfaction to become part of such negotiations through consultations in various formats (Lublin Triangle, Visegrad Plus One, Bucharest Nine). But this will not happen without a principled position from the Ukrainian authorities.

Is the US going to Donbas?

The White House officially supports the preservation of the Normandy format, but at the same time hints at greater involvement of the United States in the settlement. At the moment – without much specificity.

“We in the United States have been ready for some time to support efforts to promote the Minsk agreements in the Normandy format,”  said  US Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who took part in the talks after Biden and Putin. And French President Emmanuel Macron stressed that Biden’s initiatives are interesting, but they do not replace the Normandy format

Andriy Yermak confirms that the dialogue with the United States on this is ongoing, but the final format is still unknown. ” Its success depends on many circumstances. But the United States has made a clear decision to be an active player in this process,  he said.

Unfortunately, Ukraine has not published a vision of how we see the format of US involvement in the Donbas talks, whether we are in favor of preserving Normandy, or in reformatting it, and so on. But it is important that at least in closed negotiations with the allies, this vision is heard from us. Otherwise, the decision may not be in our favor.

In addition, Ukraine must set clear conditions for Americans to join the talks.

And it is in our interest to make these conditions public.

First, it is time to state clearly that meaningful negotiations begin with determining the terms and conditions of a complete ceasefire in the Donbas, as provided for in paragraph 1 of the Minsk agreements. You don’t even have to breed troops to do this. During the Berlin Crisis of 1961, NATO and Soviet troops faced each other, but no one fired without orders.

If the West no longer hesitates to call Russia a party to the conflict, then one should not pretend that Russia does not control its troops stationed in the ORDLO.

Secondly, international monitoring in Donbas is a must. Therefore, Russia must end the practice of threats and restrictions on the movement of OSCE SMM monitors in the occupied territories. Russia also needs to renew the mandate of a separate OSCE observation mission on the Ukrainian-Russian border, at Gukovo and Donetsk, which it did not extend in September.  

Third, in the event of a resumption of negotiations with Russia, the priority should be the requirement to open the checkpoints in Zolotoi and Shchasti, which are fully prepared by Ukraine, and the permission of the occupation administration to move freely and around the clock through all existing checkpoints.

The Kremlin’s reaction to the checkpoints will show whether it is determined to “return” ORDLO to Ukraine or whether it only strengthens the isolation of the inhabitants of the occupied territories of Donbas controlled by Ukraine.

Fourth, it must be agreed in advance that the teleconference talks that have been taking place since the beginning of the pandemic will not return to Minsk, even if the pandemic subsides. This, after all, is simply dangerous for the citizens of Ukraine who take part in the work of the TCG due to the unpredictability and insidiousness of Lukashenko.

In short, instead of waiting for the results of negotiations between the United States and Russia, Ukraine has a good opportunity to state its vision. Take the opportunity of new negotiations to curb aggression.

Hidden danger

And most importantly. It must be clearly understood that no “sense of trust” in Zelensky’s and Biden’s relations guarantees that Washington is not considering how to “resolve” the conflict through concessions from Ukraine.

Especially since the “red flags” on this issue already exist.

This is, in particular,  information in the American Associated Press after Biden’s conversation with Zelensky that the current US administration intends to “press” Ukraine to grant ORDLO “special status” to implement the Minsk agreement in February 2015 (which, recall, then-President Poroshenko signed under pressure from the situation at the front, in Debaltseve).

So far, there has been no rebuttal or confirmation of AP data from official Washington.

However, we already passed it in 2016. And with the same American diplomats!

Initially, in July 2015, Victoria Nuland, together with the Russians, tried to enforce the elections in the occupied territories without restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty. This, together with attempts to approve constitutional changes on “special status,” ended in clashes and tragedies in front of the building of the Verkhovna Rada on 31 August. And in 2016, Nuland almost blackmailed the leadership of Ukraine by reducing international financial support if there was no agreement on the “special status” of ORDLO. And in general – despite the public image of a person who supports Ukraine and the values ​​of the Maidan – in the narrow circle of negotiators, she has a reputation as a player who understands Ukrainians very poorly (it is enough to mention the calls to “make a deal with Yanukovych”  during the Revolution of Dignity!) 

After Biden’s victory, Nuland returned to the State Department for an even higher position – she is now the Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs.

However, Nuland, Blinken, Sullivan, and the newly appointed head of relations with Ukraine, Karen Donfried (who is visiting Kyiv and Moscow this week  ! ) –should know that after the Euromaidan, the most important decisions in Ukraine are made by Ukrainian citizens.

Attempts to push through unacceptable conditions of peace for society are doomed to failure from the beginning.

Meanwhile, citizens are not ready to support “special status”. More than 53% believe that sanctions, strengthening defense, and troops are bringing peace to Donbas. And here it is worth recalling another red line: only 13% believe that this can be achieved through direct negotiations with the so-called “L/DNR.”

If anyone in Washington hopes for anything else, then such negotiations and their “sponsors” are doomed to failure from the beginning. If the current team on Bankova goes against the will of the citizens of Ukraine, it will not last long at the helm. The only problem is that all these extra moves give Putin a new chance to provoke a new internal crisis to subdue Ukraine.

And the main thing for Bankova now is not to be tempted by the dream of rapprochement with Washington. It is not worth repeating the mistakes of the summer of 2019 when Ukraine’s position almost faltered due to its readiness to “make friends” with Trump’s team.

Instead, we should rely on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which clearly  understands the threats and opportunities of the present moment  and knows what needs to be done to bring closer “the possibility of a fair political and diplomatic settlement in Donbas.”

Until now, the United States has not been very interested in getting involved in the settlement of the conflict. And if they do so today, not for the real prospects of ending the conflict, but for a risky attempt to agree with Putin on the “detente” of the international situation, the format and essence of this agreement may not be favorable to Ukraine.

Authors: Maria Zolkina, Petro Burkovsky, Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation