April 1. Kyiv Post

So now the cat is out of the bag.  We now know a lot more of the truth about what has been happening behind the scenes in the dealings of Ukraine’s “partners” in the Normandy Four quartet – Germany and France, with the aggressor in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Putin’s Russia.


Moreover, details have emerged of a proposed “peace plan” that Berlin and France have recently prepared and placed on the table for discussion in the Normandy Four format.


And what we are discovering is certainly distasteful and worrying. The implications are not good for Ukraine, nor for that matter the unity of Europe, or even the Trans-Atlantic Alliance.


On March 30, the leaders of Germany and France did indeed hold talks with their Russian counterpart.


Initially, all three sides were very cagey about such an odd telecom taking place – though Moscow found it expedient to leak news about its preparation in advance, emphasizing it was not part of the Normandy Four format process addressing the Russo-Ukrainian conflict in eastern Ukraine.


Nevertheless, this issue was discussed by them, albeit among others, without Ukraine’s participation. In acknowledging that such a discussion took place, it is telling that the accounts presented by the three parties differ markedly as to detail and emphasis.


The official Russian version places the emphasis on precisely the Russo-Ukrainian conflict and how to resolve it – that is, insinuating that this was a de facto Normandy Four set up meeting under a different name, but with Ukraine excluded.


Of course, Berlin and Paris have a right to speak directly to whoever they want. But what about courtesy and tact, and the message their unilateral action conveyed? Not only to Kyiv, but also Brussels, Washington, and other capitals of allied states?


There was something strange and not quite correct about the way that they have jointly reached out to Moscow at this stage.  And this transcends the purely Ukrainian dimension.


The leaders of two leading European counties speaking jointly with a third from beyond their circle, and in this case an adversary?  Without making the purpose clear and

ensuring endorsement from their partners, or those in whose interests they claim to be acting through their good offices.


In this case, the leaders of Germany and France are since 2014 not only Europe’s self-appointed and monopolistic “peace-brokers” in the Normandy quartet regarding the Russo-Ukrainian conflict – like Russia, they have preferred to keep other interested or potential mediators, like Washington, London, or Warsaw out of the picture – but also key states in the European Union and NATO.


Yes, Berlin and Paris may claim to have taken a lead as mediators through the Normandy Four format, but just how well was this exclusive arrangement thought out by the-then new French president, Emmanuel Macron, and his German partner, Chancellor Angela Merkel.


What added advantage did they bring by keeping other potential mediators out and in effect playing along with the Kremlin’s blueprint for peace – the so-called Minsk accords of 2014-2015 – to be imposed on a traumatized and desperate Ukraine? And by buying into the Russian line, and insisting ever since along with it, that these “agreements” and the Normandy arrangement are sacrosanct and “the only possible mechanism” for achieving peace.


Perhaps, but peace only on Russia’s terms.


The last Normandy Four Summit held after much delay in Paris in December 2019, and with new presidents in both Paris and Kyiv, offered some ground for cautious optimism.  Especially, when in the presence of President Vladimir Putin, Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed publicly with President Volodymyr Zelensky that some provisions of the Minsk accords warranted review.


But that critical moment seems to have been conveniently forgotten by Berlin, Paris and Moscow.  The only real achievement of the Paris summit was to pave the way for a ceasefire negotiated in July 2020 which held until it was broken by Moscow’s forces earlier this year.


And so, we are back to pretending that the Normandy Four format is still alive and a process.  In fact, now that the details of what Berlin and Paris have come up with almost seven years later as their contribution to ending the impasse and bloodshed, it is clear that we are going around in circles.


A few days ago,  the Russian publication “Kommersant” leaked the “new” German-Russian “peace plan.”  My colleague from our days with Radio Liberty in the early 1990s, Vladimir Socor, still one of the best specialists covering that part of the world, has provided an illuminating preliminary analysis.


Germany and France have effectively re-hashed Russia’s original and persistent terms, proposing that in return for a timeframe, broken down into clusters of activities, involving Moscow’s concessions in the area of security (from ceasefires to the withdrawal of armed forces, obviously not described as Russian), Kyiv should agree to a whole range of debilitating political concessions weakening it as a sovereign state.


The analyst concludes that the “plan” is a “letdown to Ukraine.”  That “the Franco-German proposals have missed the chance of revising the Minsk “agreements.”


In their official statements about the telecom, Berlin and Paris do not mention their “peace plan” and play down the significance of the Ukrainian element during their discussion with Putin.  They appear to want to make it seem that their primary topic of concern was securing cooperation in obtaining the Russian Sputnik V vaccine for Europe to fight the COVID 19 pandemic (an idea not coordinated with Brussels),  and discussing other international issues (e.g., Syria, Libya, and Iran).


To their credit they apparently did raise the issues of the situation in Belarus and the imprisonment of Russian oppositionist Aleksei Navalny.


But the official Russian account makes it appear that the issue of the enduring conflict in eastern Ukraine was the central theme, with President Putin placing all the blame for the latest escalation of tensions on the Ukrainian side, and reiterating Moscow’s standard “peace terms.”  Even now, he is clearly not prepared to budge a centimeter.


Conveniently for him, the Normandy quartet has separated the question of Russia’s occupation of Crimea from its actions in eastern Ukraine.


So, given the latest interaction between Berlin, Paris and Moscow, we are tempted to think that a “Normandy” format is being surreptitiously transformed into a “Moscow” one,  with Ukraine reduced from the role of a subject and equal, to that of an object and, in effect, culprit. The victim effectively transformed into an accomplice, if not the perpetrator of the crimes in question?


Kyiv has sought to put a brave face on things and has responded to these unhelpful German-French moves calmly and tactfully.  Without wanting to alienate Berlin and Paris, or seem ungrateful for their support, especially in joining with others in applying sanctions against Moscow,  the Ukrainian side has been stressing that no decisions can be, nor will be, made about Ukraine without its participation.


It is still not clear who initiated this week’s telecom of the three leaders.  And this also generates suspicion and speculation. Moscow has suggested that it was Berlin’s and Paris’ idea.


There are elections in both France and Germany this year. The leaders of both countries want to look good at home, not let down their electorates economically, and therefore presumably want to retain “business” as usual, to the extent still possible, and mutually beneficial relations with Moscow.

Still, what has occurred is unfortunate as it has occurred at a delicate moment in international affairs. Russia, through its aggression, not only against Ukraine, but through a broad, ambitious, subversive offensive aimed at undermining Western democracy and unity within its camp, has alienated not only Washington and London, but also Brussels and what the latter represents.


US President Joe Biden has stressed that he wants to restore relations with Europe and their alliance in the defense of democracy. And post-Brexit London had adopted a firm stance towards Moscow.


Now is not the time for individual states, regardless of their economic clout and perception of self-importance, to be breaking ranks and attempting to act unilaterally.


Leaving aside the thorny issue of Nord Stream 2 and the strong opposition to it within Europe (even Germany), the US and Ukraine, what arrogance to dispense with the representatives of the European Union in Brussels and speak directly with Moscow on a broad range of issues affecting not only them but also their friends, allies, and partners in other fora and organizations.


We have Brussels – senior officials of the European Council, representing the EU – and Germany and France should not be assuming this role on behalf of others.


After what we have seen in recent days, it is clear that the so-called Normandy process is a sham, if not moribund.  Moscow is doing the real shooting and cannot be allowed to call the shots in diplomacy. Germany and France have shown neither the resoluteness, sensitivity nor resourcefulness that is called for them to have an impact.


Today, after seven years of war between Russia and Ukraine, and Moscow uninterested in peace, a new conflict resolution vehicle involving other actors actually committed to making Russia change its unacceptable behavior is long overdue.