The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine met at the Élysée Palace late on Monday for the first time since October 2016, in the hope of restarting the peace process in the stagnant conflict between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
The war has been so vicious, the positions of the Russian and Ukrainian governments so diametrically opposed, that no one expected a major breakthrough on Monday night.
“The holding of this meeting is already a victory in itself,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy told journalists in the run-up to the summit. “But real success will be when diplomacy takes precedence over arms.”
About 13,300 people have been killed since the war started in 2014, when areas around Donetsk and Luhansk, the two main towns in Donbas, declared themselves “people’s republics”.
Another 20,000 people have been wounded, and about 1.5 million people have been displaced internally in Ukraine.
Three-quarters of fatalities occurred before the Minsk accords were concluded in February 2015, the Élysée said. The accords were the result of the “Normandy format” which made France and Germany mediators between Russia and Ukraine.
President Emmanuel Macron and chancellor Angela Merkel each held one-on-one meetings with Russian president Vladimir Putin and Zelenskiy.
Then all four leaders met, after which Putin and Zelenskiy talked alone in person for the first time. Until Monday, the two had only spoken on the telephone, concluding an agreement that led to a first exchange of prisoners on September 7th.
The four were to resume talks on a joint declaration over dinner.
Macron has gone to great lengths to establish what he calls “a new strategic dialogue” with Putin. Russia started the conflict in Donbas, then claimed to be a mere intermediary for the separatists.
Cultivated close relations
Macron has also cultivated close relations with Zelenskiy, the former television comedian who won 73 per cent of the vote in the Ukrainian presidential election last April. Macron received Zelenskiy at the Élysée before he was elected, and Zelenskiy made his first presidential trip abroad to Paris.
Putin is eager to obtain an easing of sanctions imposed by the EU when Russia annexed Crimea, which was part of Ukraine, in 2014. Though Putin is determined to maintain influence in Donbas, on the pretext that its inhabitants are ethnic Russians, he is believed to be willing to compromise there. Crimea is the Russian president’s red line.
Zelenskiy campaigned on promises to end the war and fight corruption. He is a Russian-speaker and is less antagonistic towards Moscow than his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko.
“The main problem is to create sufficient confidence between the parties so that we can advance towards the objective of the [Minsk] accords, which is to re-establish Ukrainian sovereignty,” said an adviser to Macron.
The likely result of Monday night’s summit was more confidence-building measures like those which made the meeting possible. After the prisoner exchange, Zelenskiy rebuilt a footbridge, used by thousands of people daily, across a river between Ukraine and the breakaway regions. Both sides pulled troops back from frontlines in three small zones. The rest of the frontline remains active, however, with rifle and mortar fire nightly.
In October, Zelenskiy agreed to the terms of the Steinmeier formula, drawn up by Germany's current president Frank-Walter Steinmeier when he was foreign minister in 2015. A simplified version of the Minsk accords, the formula calls for free elections in the breakaway territories, under the supervision of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), special status for the territories, decommissioning of weapons, and Ukrainian control of the border with Russia.
However, Zelenskiy rejects one key provision. The Minsk aggreements said Kiev would regain control of borders only after elections. “That is the most delicate question,” Zelenskiy said before the summit. “I do not agree with this sequence of events. We will remain firm on that. It is our country, our land, our people.”
Zelenskiy's popularity was dented by his July 25th telephone conversation with Donald Trump, in which he appeared too weak to stand up to the US president. After he signed up to the Steinmeier formula, there were demonstrations against him in Kiev, led by veterans under the slogan "No surrender".
Regional elections that would create a degree of autonomy for Donbas remain a distant prospect. They might coincide with other Ukrainian regional elections in the autumn of 2020.
“But there is still a lot of ground to be covered,” warns an adviser to Macron. “You have a 500km frontline with 40,000 men on either side, armed to the teeth and who are shooting at each other . . . Even if the ceasefire has lowered the level of violence, there are children getting blown up by landmines, and between five and 15 people killed every month. There are many intermediate stages before we get to elections.”