France, Germany and Russia renew Ukrainian peace talks. But on whose terms?

The path to this summit has not been an easy one.
From left, French President Emmanuel Macron, Russia's President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel prior to a meeting during the G20 summit on July 8, 2017.
From left, French President Emmanuel Macron, Russia's President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel prior to a meeting during the G20 summit on July 8, 2017.Mikhail Klimentyev / AP file
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By David A. Andelman, Executive director of The RedLines Project

PARIS — At least 13,000 soldiers and civilians have lost their lives in the five years since Russia first seized Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin has since embarked on a bloody campaign to reclaim a larger slice of eastern Ukraine that he very much wants back under his control.

Now on Monday, the presidents of Ukraine and Russia plan are assembling with the leaders of France and Germany in a renewed effort to bring peace to the volatile region. But on whose terms?

Much has changed in the three years since the last time these four parties sat down together.

Much has changed in the three years since the last time these four parties sat down together under what has become known as the Normandy Format. Putin wants to get rid of sanctions, while seeking a way to retain some control over at least part of Ukraine. Ukraine wants its people to stop dying. The French and Germans want to bring peace to a nearby corner of Europe.

Since then, Ukraine’s tilt to the West has only accelerated — visa-free travel to the European Union, a stronger military based on American and European weaponry. Meanwhile, Ukraine has acquired a new, young, vigorous president whose campaign hinged on bringing an end to the bloody conflict — on Ukraine’s terms. And Europe itself is acquiring new leadership, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel a lame-duck placeholder and French President Emmanuel Macron eager to fill her shoes.

The path to this summit has not been an easy one, though. France is accustomed to playing peacemaker in Europe. In 2008, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy flew to Georgia to set terms for a peace that brought an end to the invasion of that nation by Russia. His successor, François Hollande, leaped into the fray in Ukraine, joining with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to generate the Minsk II Protocol in February 2015 — which turned into a series of vague and largely unenforceable undertakings that led to four more years of bloody conflict.

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Now, nearly five years later, does this meeting promise much more? On the one hand, Merkel is now very much a lame-duck chancellor, her once virtually unchallenged ability to stand up to Putin weakened by her need to accommodate members of her ruling coalition and challenges from Germany’s hard-right political movement. Zelenskiy’s hand has also been weakened by Trump and what in Kyiv is being called Ukrainegate.

On the other hand, Putin is increasingly in need of some path toward easing the sanctions that continue hurt the Russian economy. He has been making some concrete progress in this direction. In June, Russia was welcomed back into the membership of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, from which it had been ejected following the seizure of Crimea.

Of central importance to Ukraine this week may be something Putin just can’t bring himself to accept — restoring to Kyiv control of the nation’s entire frontier with Russia and all border territories, withdrawal of all foreign (meaning Russian) military forces and mercenaries together with their equipment and total disarmament of all groups except Ukrainian government forces.

Besides Putin, there’s another big problem. Most of the people in that border region don’t really want to be Ukrainians.

Besides Putin, there’s another big problem. Most of the people in that border region don’t really want to be Ukrainians. Kyiv’s most respected newspaper Dzerkalo Tyzhnya, commissioned a survey of the Donbas that showed an overwhelming majority want to be absorbed by Russia and blame Ukraine, not Russia, for the conflict. Most remain hostile to the European Union and all it represents.

Which is not at all what Ukraine wants. It wants ever-closer ties to the European Union, perhaps leading to full membership in the European Union, even NATO; a prospect that would be utterly anathema to Putin. Putin sees all of Ukraine as an integral part of Russia itself, going back a thousand years. After it split off following the fracturing of the Soviet Union, Putin yearned to have it restored. Three of the four leaders in Paris on Monday are inclined to not let that happen.

Two months ago, Zelenskiy announced a plan that would have included local elections in the Donbas, but only after Russian forces had withdrawn. The goal would be a “special self-governing status,” which has never been really defined. Even that prospect brought angry crowds into Kyiv’s streets, an indication of the enormity of Zelenskiy’s dilemma. And Russia may want even more. In November, Soviet foreign minister Sergei Lavrov demanded amnesty for all who had taken up arms in Donbas against Ukraine.

And there is be even more on the table on for Monday. Near the top of the agenda will be natural gas, of which Russia is the principal supplier to Western Europe, particularly Germany, with Ukraine a key transit point. But here, Ukraine has its back against the wall since two new pipelines skirting Ukraine are under construction. At the same time, Russia has been busy diversifying its customer base, notably with China.

In the wake of the increasing frostiness between Trump and Macron, the French president has embarked on what is being called a “Russia reset.”

At the same time, much has changed in the West, even beyond issues involving Trump and Ukrainegate. In the wake of the increasing frostiness between Trump and Macron, the French president has embarked on what is being called a “Russia reset.” In August, Macron invited Putin for a relaxing weekend at his summer retreat on the French Riviera. He’s even agreed to Trump’s request that G-7 leaders invite Putin to their meeting at Camp David in 2020.

So, what happens if all this collapses on Monday? There has been a suggestion to expand the mediation panel to include Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. But this is likely a recipe for even greater failure, injecting more leaders with their own priorities.

A more likely outcome is that Putin will seek to demonstrate some flexibility, while giving up little that is essential to his calculations. “Putin is a master at playing the long game,” R. Spencer Oliver, who served for 23 years as secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s parliamentary assembly, told me in a telephone interview from his home in Denmark. Oliver has dealt with Putin and his Russian aides for much of that time. “If they can get some relief from the sanctions without giving up anything else, they would take it,” he said. “But they are very patient. They will wait and wait and wait.”

Putin’s calculation would be typical — figuring that in the long run the vast pro-Russian sentiments of the Donbas will prevail. Hopefully the remaining leaders of the free world have other plans.