The crisis over the Russian troop build-up around Ukraine, and Russian demands for an end to Nato enlargement, will loom large over their conversation.
The Élysée considers Wednesday’s talks to have been a success because they “sent a signal of detente or de-escalation . . . tested the willingness of the Russians to negotiate” and were “the sign of a Russian re-engagement”, said an Élysée source.
The same source described the 8½-hour session as difficult. “It was a long conversation with highs and lows, with moments of tension.”
The most intractable blocking point has been the status of separatists from the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas. They are admitted as observers to the Tri-lateral Contact Group, comprising Russia, Ukraine and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and participate in four working groups.
Russia maintains the conflict in Donbas is a civil war among Ukrainians. It wants the separatists and Ukrainian government to negotiate directly. Recognition of the separatists is a red line for Kyiv.
The Normandy format began at D-Day celebrations in 2014, as an attempt to stop the fighting in Donbas. It led to the Minsk accords, which were never fully implemented.
The joint statement on Wednesday night was the first positive development in the Normandy format since the December 2019 summit in Paris. It achieved two things: a statement of commitment to the July 2020 ceasefire in Donbas; and an agreement to reconvene in Berlin in two weeks.
These results are a glimmer of hope in an otherwise sombre situation. The Kremlin said on Thursday that the US’s written response to its demands, sent on Wednesday, did not offer “much cause for optimism”. A separatist leader in Donetsk, part of Donbas, asked Moscow for more weapons. And France dispatched its defence minister to Romania to discuss the deployment of French troops there.
Yet the French continue to maintain that, in the words of Winston Churchill, “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”.
By relaunching the Normandy process, France has in a sense taken on the small end of the Ukraine crisis. “Our goal . . . was to send a signal that negotiation is possible in a limited area that is precisely defined by the Minsk accords,” said the Élysée source. “The US and Europe are keeping each other fully informed of their actions,” he added. “All that is perfectly compatible and goes together.”
Donbas is the volatile region that could spark a wider conflict. At the Élysée, Russia and Ukraine committed to strengthening the frayed ceasefire. “There are dead and wounded almost every day along the contact line,” said the adviser to Macron. “It’s a 400km line between Donbas and government forces. We are seeking to lower the number of incidents . . . to stop sniper fire, which usually targets Ukrainian soldiers . . . It is very, very important that there be no troop movements on either side.”
The situation in Donbas has deteriorated since the 2019 Paris summit. Dmitri Kozak, a former judge and high-ranking Kremlin official who has been close to Putin since their youth in St Petersburg, is the Russian representative to the Normandy talks. He continues to demand participant status for the Donbas separatists and accuses France and Germany of siding with the government in Kyiv.
Ukraine wants a Normandy group summit, which would be the fourth since 2015. Russia is reluctant. Macron may broach the subject with Putin on Friday morning. “If it is possible to obtain a Russian commitment to a summit, that would be great,” said a Macron adviser.
Since Kozak joined the talks two years ago, Moscow has virtually stopped the clock on the Normandy format. France and Germany were shunned, and higher stakes were raised with Washington. “You say we prefer dealing with Joe Biden, ” the former Russian ambassador to Paris, Alexandre Orlov, told Radio Classique. “We see that he’s the one who decides.”
Yet Dmitri Kozak came to Paris with instructions to negotiate on Wednesday, and the French consider that progress.
Macron is determined that the Western divisions that arose over the 2003 invasion of Iraq not be repeated. Europe and the US are presenting a united front at the moment.
But the idea that there is some truth in Russian fears of Nato expansion is spreading. A June 2021 policy paper by the British analyst Anatol Lieven entitled A Negotiated Solution to the Donbas conflict and the Crimean Dispute is much talked about in Paris.
So is an opinion piece published by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on January 22nd. Douthat advocates “permanently tabling” Nato expansion, “with Ukraine subject to inevitable Russian pressure but neither invaded nor annexed”.