The upcoming summit in Normandy marks the first time that the leaders of Paris, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia are meeting in more than three years.
The four nations first came together in 2014 in what was dubbed the “Normandy Format”, to sign the Minsk Agreement, a plan formed with the aim of ending the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbass region.
The Eastern European country has been ravaged by violence and division for nearly half a decade, after Russia decided to annex the Crimean Peninsula and back pro-Russian separatist forces in the east.
Separatists aiming to secede from Kiev’s pro-Western administration want to declare their own de facto state of Eastern Ukraine in the shape of two “people’s republics”, called Luhansk and Donetsk. Over 13,000 people have been killed in the fight between the Ukrainian Government Forces and Moscow-backed militias, and Russia’s initial denial of direct involvement in Crimea or Ukraine led to international condemnation and sanctions.
Ukraine’s recently elected President, Volodymyr Zelensky, won a landslide victory in April and has changed the posture of the Kiev administration since taking power, showing a willingness to reach out toward Moscow and discuss possible future configurations for Eastern Ukraine. Zelensky’s popularity amongst citizens, however, will very much depend on his resolve to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence in Eastern Ukraine, as well as his ability to provide a sustainable roadmap to resolution.
Macron in the EU and Beyond
French President Emmanuel Macron aims to use the December summit to present his country as a compelling force behind cohesive European foreign policy. The President’s warm overtures towards Putin, in their meeting ahead of the last G7, were a stark contrast to Berlin’s harshly critical posture towards Moscow. Indeed, relations between Macron and outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel appear to be under further strain after the French Premier criticised NATO of undergoing ‘brain death’ in a recent article in the Economist magazine.
Macron is eager to seize the opportunity to spearhead Europe’s foreign policy – a position he found himself in almost by default. No other large European state appears to be in a position to halt France’s momentum, with the UK mired in the chaos of Brexit, Spain’s wrestle with instability after its fourth election in four years, Italy’s seemingly perennial state of pre or post-election uncertainty, and Germany’s ineffectual grand coalition government headed by a Chancellor seeing out her time.
President Zelensky’s election has added the much needed impetus to restart efforts to resolve Ukraine’s conflict, which has serious potential to become an increasing source of volatility in the heart of Eastern Europe. Since taking power, the President has negotiated a ceasefire and prisoner exchange, and has also travelled to checkpoints in the east where civilians can pass between the two territories divided by the Seversky Donets river.
Speaking against a backdrop of Russian flags at the far side of the bridge on November 21st, Zelensky called for a ceasefire that was genuine and serious. “Where there is no shooting, that’s the way I understand it. Also with clear terms and responsibilities. I say responsibilities because so far at many meetings no one has said what will happen if we agree on a ceasefire and the shooting starts again.”
Gesturing to the Russian flags at the far side of the bridge, which had recently been reconstructed, Zelensky said “It all looks nice, it’s just that the wrong flags are hanging there. But it’s ok, the day will come when we will remove them.”
Zelensky’s popularity has somewhat waned since his election, and there is an eagerness to show progress on this particular issue, even as growing storm clouds surround demands for United States President Donald Trump’s impeachment – at the heart of which is a now-infamous phone call between both Presidents.
According to a survey of Eastern Ukraine by the Centre for East European and International Studies, 55 percent of those who participated wish to remain part of Ukraine, but 31 percent say they want a special status within Ukraine. From Moscow’s perspective – despite consistent denials of ongoing involvement – participation in Ukraine’s militarily is harder to justify domestically, where Putin’s previously invulnerable authority has been challenged by significant street protests.
Moscow knows that it has considerable leverage in being able to maintain a low-level conflict that could rumble on indefinitely in Eastern Ukraine. Following overtures from Kiev and Paris, however, the Russians have agreed to meet and restart negotiations – a sign of progress that could help return Ukraine’s issue to the top of the international agenda, and ultimately provide resolution and respite to the civilian population living in an active warzone.
Despite facing significant internal challenges, most notably in the form of the yellow vests protests, Macron’s foreign policy has been a welcome outlet for his strident vision of France’s place in the world. The French President has become heavily involved in EU policy towards Libya, Russia and Iran, and has also helped shape the bloc’s position and responses to the actions of Turkey and the US in Syria, as well as the general direction of NATO and European/US relations.
Being able to provide the drive necessary to resolve the Ukrainian crisis already places Macron in a secure position of leadership, and active conflict on the EU’s borders can only add considerably to his credentials in this arena.