Dec 9, 2019

Russia has strong hand to play at Paris meeting on eastern Ukraine

Ukrainians gather outside the Presidential Office building in Kiev ahead of the Normandy Four summit in Paris. Photo: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A group of European leaders meeting in Paris on Monday aims to revive progress on terms for peace in eastern Ukraine, an effort that has largely stalled since the second Minsk agreement was signed in February 2015.

Why it matters: It’s the first such meeting in more than three years among France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia — the so-called Normandy Four. Russian President Vladimir Putin enters the talks with his greatest leverage yet, which does not bode well for Ukraine.

Between the lines: International developments have converged to strengthen Russia's hand.

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his team are new to the diplomatic game and likely ill-equipped to confront the experienced Russian delegation — particularly Putin, who prepares thoroughly for high-level meetings and knows his French and German counterparts well. Back home, Zelensky faces falling approval ratings and protests against a feared "capitulation" to Russia on the Donbas.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron is pursuing his Russia "reset." He has vetoed further enlargement of the EU to the Balkans (an unhelpful signal for Ukraine’s accession aspirations), undermined NATO solidarity with comments about the alliance's "brain death" and announced that Russia is not a threat to Europe.
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel has held firm on maintaining EU sanctions against Russia, but her weaker political standing at home has left her more vulnerable to pro-Russian voices in her government. One proposal on the table is a plan outlined in 2016 by Germany's current president and former foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, which remains widely unpopular in Ukraine because of its favorable disposition to Russia.
  • The U.S. had played an informal but important role in earlier negotiations, especially in bolstering French and German support for Ukraine. But its commitment appears shakier in light of the impeachment proceedings, which have scrutinized White House delays in security assistance and prompted Ambassador Kurt Volker's resignation as envoy to Ukraine.

What to watch: Ukraine is not set up for a positive outcome.

  • At worst, some "grand deal" between Russia and the Europeans codifies Ukraine’s "grey zone" status and forces Kiev to hold elections on “special status” in the occupied Donbas regions, where autonomy would allow Russia to continue destabilizing Ukraine's government.
  • Ukraine's best bet, though still a terrible deal, may be a perpetuation of the status quo dating to Russia's 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine: a simmering conflict that costs Ukrainian lives but doesn’t enshrine permanent Russian control of the region.

Alina Polyakova is director of the project on global democracy and emerging technology and a fellow in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.

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