Endgame on European chessboard: Why Normandy Four summit is unlikely to ever be held
After serious street protests that arose amid the rejection by the Ukrainian society of the so-called “Steinmeier formula” of Donbas settlement, the likelihood of the Normandy Four summit being held anytime soon has boiled down to a minimum.
Although Ukraine did hope it would take place in November, Russia has already made clear the condition they set for the four leaders to meet – it’s the implementation of the Steinmeier formula in Ukrainian law. In essence, it is about fixing in the Constitution of Ukraine of the special status for the war-torn Donbas, with the official Russian language in place, possibility of free cooperation with Russia, amnesty, local police units formed from militants, etc.
But none of this is seen as acceptable in Ukraine.
Due to large-scale protests in Kyiv, both Volodymyr Zelensky and the Kremlin saw it was impossible to pursue with the formula without a major turmoil in Ukraine.
Following those protests, the Kremlin firmly stuck to their demand that no summit is possible without the formula’s text fully agreed by foreign ministers, which would then be signed by the Normandy Four leaders.
After all, Putin is well aware that he will be facing pressure during the talks and that he will have no new arguments to present. Therefore, he either needs Ukraine to agree in advance to the actual surrender and sign a corresponding document accepting the implementation of the Minsk agreements and the Steinmeier formula into its legislation, or sees no sense in holding the summit. That is, the Kremlin will agree to the talks in the Normandy format only if they are sure that President Zelensky, President Putin, President Macron, and Chancellor Merkel will sign the document required by Russia.
Until Moscow receives the relevant guarantees this, Putin will not be meeting anyone as it’s simply not in his interests. After all, Zelensky has already stated Ukraine has Plan B, which in fact envisages “freezing” the Donbas conflict. Today, this seems to be a most likely scenario, unless, of course, something extraordinary happens in Ukraine’s favor.
However, I personally think that the Normandy Four summit will never take place. Now, there’s a lot of talk about this format of talks and conditions set by the sides, but these discussions will soon start to fade. And then, some other format of negotiations will come to light, replacing today’s reflections. Both the Normandy format and the Steinmeier formula could fall into oblivion, doing this simultaneously given the fact that the two are clearly interconnected. But in other formats, such a summit will become possible as it won’t be tied to the infamous formula.
So, I can conclude that today’s chances of continued negotiations in the Normandy format are minimal.
However – and this is an important point – this doesn’t mean that Ukraine has completely abandoned the Steinmeier formula. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. The key point is that the rejection of the Steinmeier formula must occur in the mind of a single person – President of Ukraine. So far, he has not given up for good on the idea of somehow reaching a deal with Russia and somehow convincing the international community and Russia that peace is better than war. At the same time, in principle, he seems to agree with the Steinmeier formula, while showing no will to implement it in Ukrainian legislation and Constitution. From his perspective, Ukraine could agree to a “special status” of Donbas for a certain period, say five years, or for however long the transition period will last.
That is, Volodymyr Zelensky hasn’t dropped his idea yet, but fortunately, Ukrainian society is helping him to sober up on the issue.
Merkel and Macron’s stance on the Normandy Four summit looks a bit sluggish overall. They keep singing the same old song in their conversations with Putin, but in essence, we’ve already heard all these messages, and nothing new has been said recently. Their position could be explained by the fact that they no longer have arguments as they’ve already used all they had. Everything they could use to exert pressure on both Russia and Ukraine, they have already applied.
Berlin and Paris had some hope for quality of a new Ukrainian president, that he would make steps forward, and the negotiation process would receive momentum for development. But it turned out that such a quality of the new President of Ukraine was offset by the tough stance of Ukrainian civil society. So Europe has nothing to use to put pressure on Ukraine for now. Indeed, how can they exert pressure on the whole society? In this respect, the situation in Ukraine can’t be called too predictable or fully manageable.
Besides, Europe has no arguments to put forward to Russia either.
Only two countries – China and the United States – could present some truly strong arguments. This chessboard can still see effective tools, while the European one is now seeing an actual endgame as no power moves are left at the sides’ disposal. Therefore, the Normandy Four summit shouldn’t really be expected in November (and later, either).
So Kyiv shouldn’t rely on this format of talks if no “black swan” events unfold in Ukraine or elsewhere in the world.
Oleksandr Kochetkov is a Ukrainian political analyst