January 15, 2021

The last summit of the leasers of the Normandy Format participating states (Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France) took place a year ago in Paris. Then a number of agreements were reached – on a ceasefire, the disengagement of weapons in three settlements, the beginning of the mine disarming process, etc. – but history shows that most of them are still not implemented.

The stone of stumbling was the fundamental disagreements between the parties to the conflict in the sequence of the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Kyiv insists that first it is required to turn Donbas into a safe zone (demilitarization of the territory and self-dissolution of quasi-republics), after which local elections can be organized. Moscow, on the other hand, declines transferring control over the Russian-Ukrainian border to Kyiv (de facto, currently it is the border between the Russian Federation and the territories of Ukraine occupied by it) unless the local elections are held in Donbas.

Today, Ukraine expresses interest in holding the next meeting in the Normandy format and is ready to present a roadmap for overcoming the conflict. The Russian Federation declares that, to their mind, there is no point in new meetings of the leaders of the four powers in current situation.

However, over the past time, the international situation, including the attitude towards the conflict in eastern Ukraine itself has changed dramatically, and not for the Kremlin’s benefit. All this time, Moscow continues its attempts to convince PACE, OSCE, EU in general, and Berlin together with Paris in particular that Donbas suffers from internal conflict and it has nothing to do with it. Also, the Kremlin has always insisted that the Russian military is not involved in this conflict. Unless any detachment accidentally got lost during training exercises – this was the explanation given to the presence of soldiers from the 76th Guards Air-Assault Division of the Russian Armed Forces from Pskov in the Donbas.

Previously, European leaders refrained from too harsh statements condemning the Kremlin’s actions, fearing the escalation of the conflict and transition of the Russian Federation to the larger-scale hostilities. For a long time Berlin and Paris did everything to give Moscow the opportunity to get out of the conflict saving the face. Now Berlin and Paris have ceased to behave too diplomatically, accusing Moscow of blatantly disregarding its obligations.

In response, Russian politicians start talking about the complete inefficiency of the Normandy format and promoting the idea of leaving this negotiating platform. Such statements are being made at an unofficial level do far. In public, President V. Putin and Foreign Minister S. Lavrov make a leg in front of A. Merkel and E. Macron, and declare no alternative to the Minsk agreements and the Normandy format.

But, according to experts, the real position of the Kremlin is the statements of its unofficial “voices” (heads of the factions in the Russian parliament, courtier political strategists, high-profile journalists and other influential persons). The latter state that the conflict in the east of Ukraine does not need any mediators and should be resolved through direct negotiations between Kyiv and the leaders of the quasi-republics. Recently, even Vasily Nebenzya, head of the Russian delegation to the UN stated the above.

That is, Russia does not recognize itself as a party to the conflict, tries to present itself as an uninvolved party, but at the same time retains full control over the occupied Donbas – through its military and the administrations of the controllable quasi-republics. In turn, Kyiv insists that the case is the terrorist groups relying on Russian troops rather than the Donbas “militiamen”, and therefore negotiations with them are excluded.

Ukraine’s defiant stand forced Moscow to intensify its efforts to legitimize terrorists from the Donetsk People’s Republic (“DPR”) and Luhansk People’s Republic (“LPR”).

Thus, on December 2, the Russian Federation organized an online event within one of the unofficial formats under the auspices of the UN Security Council. The Arria-formula meeting is a format of discussions in the UN Security Council, which can be initiated by one of the Security Council members. This format does not imply decision-making and is not mandatory for participation, this event is not announced in the UN Daily Journal. Usually this format is used for sharing information on a particular topic. Now Russia, as the initiator, invited representatives of the “DPR” and “LPR” to this meeting.

Moscow’s calculation was based on the fact that few people know about the advisory nature of the “Arria formula”, but the cliché “under the auspices of the UN Security Council” sounds quite impressive. Therefore, the Kremlin expected to spread massively the news about the UN Security Council to have officially recognized the “puppet” governments of the “DPR” and “LPR”, which confirmed the Russian version of hostilities in the Donbas and accused Kyiv of lacking a constructive position.

However, there is no deal for Moscow. Even at the preparatory stage, Berlin and Paris demanded that the event not be broadcast or archived on the UN website (and be available only through the channels of the Russian representative office to the UN on Twitter and YouTube), and also immediately refused to participate in this performance. As a result, the pool of participants in the online meeting was limited only to satellites of Russia, its allies and some third world countries loyal to the Russian Federation.

The US Mission to the UN issued a special statement, noting that the meeting under the “Arria formula” was an attempt of the Russian Federation to present a false story regarding the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The United States fiercely rejected the Russian Federation’s thesis that it acts as a mediator in an internal conflict. This position was supported by all Western countries that are currently members of the UN Security Council – Germany, France, Great Britain, Belgium and Estonia.

Overall, in the short term, Russia should not count on lifting the sanctions imposed on it due to its invasion in Crimea and Donbas. The probability of expanding of the Normandy format with the involvement of the United States and Great Britain is extremely low. But the complete termination of work of this negotiating platform is also unlikely. Whether Moscow will agree to hold a new meeting in the Normandy format or will be lured into deepened confrontation with the West is also unclear.

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