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Dangerous Normandy: who and how put pressure on Yermak during the meeting in Paris

The Normandy meeting, which took place in Paris on January 26, after a long break, took an unexpectedly long time.

Advisers to the leaders of the four states – Andriy Yermak, Dmitry Kozak, Emmanuel Bon, and Jens Plotner – spent more than eight hours behind closed doors. However, the talks did not bring any tangible results despite the duration. And, frankly, this did not come as a surprise.

The parties allegedly supported the idea of ​​returning to the so-called ceasefire, but their statement in this regard did not contain any specifics, details, and commitments from the Russian side, which shows that it is purely declarative.

This is not surprising, as Russia is increasingly insisting that Ukraine should enter into direct negotiations with the so-called “republics”.

And in order to achieve this goal, it refuses even from the promises of influence on the militants that it made in all previous years.

In fact, the only agreement following the meeting in Paris was the promise of the four advisers to meet again in two weeks.

But for what exactly? What do the participants plan to do during these two weeks? Let’s find out what happened behind the scenes of the Paris talks and whether their results are positive for Ukraine.

And most importantly: what to do to avoid being betrayed, including by our partners.

“Normandy” under the new rules

The current meeting of advisers was being prepared and held in an extremely difficult international environment, which, however, did not cross the red line. Thus, after fruitless meetings in Geneva, Russia and the United States are still negotiating, but at the same time are preparing for different scenarios of Ukrainian-Russian aggravation.

The stakes in these negotiations are extremely high. At stake are NATO enlargement, key issues of collective security, and Russia’s desire to redistribute spheres of influence in Europe.

Against this background, “Normandy” and “Minsk” are in secondary roles, and the Normandy track is forced to reflect both the logic and dynamics of the Geneva talks between Russia and the United States or the conditional collective West. There will be no basis for Moscow’s agreement with the West at the highest level – there will be no progress in Normandy. Conversely, if the United States and Western European countries find points of contact with Russia, it could also lead to proposals for Ukraine to agree to certain political concessions to Russia on Donbas within the Normandy format.

For the sake of general comprehensive international detente, so to speak. And it is not a fact that these proposals will contain only a positive for Ukraine.

Because of this, the current intensification of “Normandy” is qualitatively different from the dynamics and logic of this format in previous years. But the Ukrainian side, which is trying its best to catch up with the Russian-American security talks, does not seem to have taken these features into account.

Moreover, Kyiv demonstrates that it does not say a categorical “no” to concessions.

This is evidenced by the incidents that took place during the preparations for the Paris meeting.

In order for this meeting to take place in principle, Russia demanded that Ukraine withdraw from parliament a bill on a transitional period for the temporarily occupied territories, which was done immediately by the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers. Bankova’s attempts to deny this were neither sincere nor convincing.

The reason for this demand of the Russian Federation is very simple: the bill clearly states that there should be deoccupation of uncontrolled territories and automatic disbandment of any occupying authorities. This further negates the possibility of “direct dialogue” or coexistence between Ukrainian and self-proclaimed authorities.

And for Moscow, this is critical.

This was Ukraine’s defeat even before the meeting – because Kyiv not only complied with Russia’s request but also proved that it was ready to change the legislative process under Russian influence, despite the fact that there was no chance to get any concessions from Russia in return.

On the eve of the meeting, the situation was further fueled by a planned leak of information at a briefing for Western journalists at the Elysee Palace – that the meeting is supposed to agree on the order and start direct talks between Ukraine and the militants.

And after an eight-hour meeting, Dmytro Kozak confirmed that this was a key contentious issue and issued, in fact, an ultimatum:  without Kyiv’s consent to direct talks with the so-called “L / DNR,” there will be no movement.

In Paris, the Ukrainian team did not give such consent; moreover, Andriy Yermak, after the meeting, publicly announced that Ukraine refuses to even discuss such a possibility.

Thus, there was no “betrayal” at the councilors’ meeting. But what preceded it is seriously worrying.

One can only speculate as to what prompted the French team to announce this demand (and, in fact, indirectly support it) and whether France joined the pressure on Kyiv on this issue during the negotiations.

However, it is obvious that Normandy is bringing quite dangerous changes for Ukraine.

After the change of power in Germany and the departure of the negotiating team of Merkel, which dominated the “four” all previous years, France is trying to take the initiative and put forward public proposals that were not agreed in advance with Ukraine.

And this is even more worrying, given that the Normandy Canal came to life only against the background of much larger negotiations between Russia and Western countries.

No results: is it a plus or a minus for Ukraine?

Therefore, the parties did not reach any agreements.

The key mutual claim remains the same: it is a different reading of the Minsk agreements, in particular in terms of direct dialogue. At present, this is an absolute and unequivocal demand of Russia – even more than before.

Russia demands this in some form. For example, for Ukraine to consider the draft law on the so-called “special status” promoted by the L/DNR representatives in the Minsk TCG. It was also not possible to agree on this, but the parties decided to “negotiate further.”

And against the background of Russia’s blackmail of the West, this “zero” agreement is beneficial to the Kremlin.

One can be sure that the very fact of the Paris meeting of advisers, its formal (without any commitment) support for the “silence regime” and, Russia on its part will “sell” the agreement on a new meeting in Berlin to the West as a de-escalation, a transition to constructive.

It is a reasonable bet: to hold an empty “meeting of advisers” and even make concessions from Ukraine for its organization is strategically more profitable for Russia than to make concessions in its demands to the United States and NATO, and even more so to withdraw troops from the western borders. In fact, Moscow did nothing but was given the right to assert its “good intentions” in talks with Washington.

But at the same time, if Russia’s motivation is clear, and it wins in any case, Ukraine’s extremely high interest in holding the Norman meeting in such conditions is not fully understood.

Is there a chance for a real agreement with Russia without its ultimatums for direct dialogue with the militants? No. Is it in our interest that Russia will be “selling” air to the West instead of real de-escalation on the borders, i.e., its participation in the Norman discussions? Again, no.

Can the current situation in the “Normandy Four,” in particular the position of Germany and France, be considered unequivocally favorable for Kyiv? Unfortunately, no either.

As mentioned above, the “3 + 1” formula, according to which France and Germany were on Ukraine’s side, cracked.

The new government in Berlin has not yet reached a clear position in the negotiations but seeks to maintain a partnership with Russia. At the same time, Kyiv’s relations with Berlin are sometimes on the verge of scandal because of Nord Stream 2 and arms supplies.

On the other hand, France does not look encouraging for Ukraine as a potential leader of the Norman mediation, given the approach of the presidential election and Macron’s traditional attempts to get closer to Russia.

All this, together with Russia’s multilateral pressure on Western powers, significantly reduces their resilience in supporting Kyiv, and Ukraine’s resilience to resisting such ultimatums is not limitless.

Given these circumstances, the current result of “Normandy,” when there are no breakthrough results, but instead there is a clear and public statement of non-acceptance of the basic requirements of Russia, can be considered as the safest outcome of the meeting for our state.

However, it will not be possible to play this game for so long.

What’s next?

The Russian side sees the next two weeks as a time for  Ukraine to consider Russia’s key demand – that is, agreeing to move to direct dialogue in one form or another.

The Ukrainian side, which has once again abandoned this idea now, should not just wait for the next meeting but actively prepare for it.

We must be aware that another failure in two weeks can have disproportionate consequences. Wouldn’t Russia use this as another excuse to accuse Ukraine of undermining the very idea of ​​negotiating? And won’t the voice of a couple of other influential states appear, which will push Kyiv to fulfill Russia’s demands in one form or another?

Both of these consequences are quite possible today, even at the same time.

Therefore, Kyiv must act in advance.

The Ukrainian side during these two weeks should, first of all, actively voice a categorical “no” to our partners regarding any direct contacts with the “republics,” explaining that the necessary level of dialogue is provided by the Minsk TCG, where so-called “ORDLO representatives” have the status invited by the Russian delegation and deprived of the subjectivity that Russia is so actively trying to “push”.

Going beyond these limits is categorically unacceptable not only for official Kyiv but, first of all, for Ukrainian society, which is confirmed by numerous polls. And this is the most effective argument in proving this to Western partners.

Secondly, it may be worth reconsidering the priorities of our diplomatic activity. Yes, if we want to be present at the negotiating table between the big players, then jumping there because of the intensification of “Normandy” is clearly not the best solution.

Right now, given all the specifics of the current large-scale security talks between Russia and the West, the restoration of “Normandy” not only has no advantages but also brings a number of problems, especially for Ukraine.

As paradoxical as it may sound for the Ukrainian authorities, which in recent years have made so much effort to revive the Normandy track.

Maria Zolkina, analyst at the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, for European Pravda