Normandy Four meets in Berlin: Ukraine benefits as advisors fail to agree

On February 10, advisors to leaders of Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia, a grouping known as the Normandy Four, met in Berlin. The meeting comes as the West continues to explore diplomatic avenues amid growing fears of an escalation by Russia. This past week, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Kyiv and Moscow. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will travel to Kyiv and Moscow early next week. The Normandy format is part of diplomatic efforts to address Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s border. Earlier this year, advisors to the Normandy Quad leaders met in Paris.   

What’s on Ukraine’s agenda at Berlin talks. Ukraine hoped to reinstate the work of the Trilateral Contact Group. Its suggestions included improving verification of the ceasefire in Donbas, reopening of control points on the contact line, and swapping prisoners. 

Ahead of the Berlin meeting, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi said he hopes that a summit of the Normandy Four leaders would follow the talks.

Talks end with no final statement. The advisors to the leaders of the Normandy Four held nine-hour talks that ended with no joint statement, the Ukrainian President’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak said at a news conference. 

“We have not adopted a joint statement today. The talks lasted for almost nine hours. We would like to have a final joint declaration at the next meeting of the Normandy Four, but that’s what we have today,” Yermak is quoted as saying.

He did not give details of the next meeting. The sides recognized the importance of the ceasefire in Donbas, the Head of the President’s Office said.  

Ukraine consistently emphasizes political and diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict, Yermak said. “Ukraine will continue to seek opportunities for talks to advance the peace process,” he added.

Yermak urges security guarantees for Ukraine. Yermak urged security guarantees for Ukraine. 

“We urge all efforts before, not after a possible escalation. Ukraine needs security guarantees today. European security is threatened by a war in the center of Europe. Ukraine needs real and efficient security guarantees. That’s in the interest of all our European partners,” Yermak said.   

Nord Stream 2 is part of energy security, Yermak says. At the news conference, Yermak mentioned Nord Stream 2, the upcoming visit of German Chancellor Scholz to Ukraine, and Scholz’s meeting with U.S. President Biden. “Energy security of Ukraine is part of joint security. Nord Stream 2 is part of energy security. Ukraine needs guarantees. We are confident that our partners will respect the commitments, and Ukraine will get security and economic guarantees,” he said.  

Ukraine unwilling to compromise, Russia’s envoy says. The nine-hour talks ended with no result due to Ukraine’s lack of will to compromise, said Dmitry Kozak, deputy head of the administration of the Russian President.

“Almost nine-hour talks ended with no tangible result, no agreement. (…) We did not bridge the differences. With Germany and France, we have a common understanding of progress in the political section, but Ukraine’s position is adamant.”

“Ukraine refused to include a passage in the draft statement citing the Minsk agreements that it needs to consult with representatives of the defined areas (of Donbas) over the post-conflict status of the territories. That’s the major disagreement that Ukraine rejected,” Kozak said.   

The sides were determined to overcome disagreements in interpretation of the Minsk agreements, and “searched for a compromise in the phrasing” of the final statement, Kozak said. 

“We suggested to put those quotes in quotation marks in the final statement, but Ukraine rejected the offer. That’s why the talks stretched on,” Kozak said.

As the talks ended in a “stalemate”, “it all depends on Kyiv,” he added.

Germany and France refuse to pressure Ukraine, Kozak says. Germany and France showed no determination to “pressure Kyiv,” Kozak said. Instead, they “tried to find a convenient position for Ukraine to carry on with the line it has followed in the past eight years,” he said. 

Russia, Germany, and France will “monitor Ukraine’s actions” in the Normandy format through the Trilateral Contact Group, the Kremlin’s envoy said.

The Kremlin tries to pressure Ukraine for direct talks with the militants it backs in Donbas.

“I urged the Ukrainian side to present their suggestions on the future status of Donbas or react to the proposals by calling an extraordinary meeting of the Contact Group, if they decide to implement the Minsk agreements. The next meeting will be in three weeks. Ukraine took a pause for thought,” Kozak said. 

Why lack of progress is not a bad sign

A lack of progress in the Normandy format shows that Ukraine remains consistent and resolute in its position that implementation of the Minsk Protocol needs to start from the beginning, with the security section. Ukraine rejects Russia’s attempts to start with the political part that includes elections. “For years, the Minsk agreements have been a framework for future settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine,” says Maria Kucherenko, analyst at the Center for Civil Society Studies in a column for Radio Liberty. “That’s the only document that Ukraine and the sides that mediate in the Normandy and Minsk format have to engage Russia in the peace talks. Does that mean that the sides can let Russia twist the document in exchange for its participation in the talks? After years of vain efforts to make Russia comply with the first three articles of Minsk, the answer is obviously ‘no’,” the analyst says.

In the past eight years, a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire was not achieved. Russia-backed militants place materiel outside of designated areas, OSCE has been reporting. Russia’s proxies use weapons banned under the Minsk agreements, Ukraine’s Joint Forces command says in daily reports.  

There are serious obstacles facing the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in monitoring how the first clauses of the Minsk agreements are implemented. 

Russia has issued up to 800,000 passports to residents of the occupied areas. That is a stark change from 2015 when the Minsk Protocol was signed.

Starting preparations for local elections foreseen by the article 4 is not possible as long as the first three sections of the Minsk agreements are not implemented. 

“Pressuring Ukraine to make political concessions is neither a peace settlement, nor a dialogue. That would demonstrate impotence of the West in the face of Russia’s brute force.” 

“Pressure on Ukraine to implement the political section of the Minsk agreements the way Russia wants it, would lead to nothing but a political crisis,” Maria Kucherenko says.