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Back to the Normandy format – Twice in 10 days?

January 4, 2015

Tomorrow, 5th January, is slated to see a meeting between representatives of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France – this time in Berlin.  The first such meeting aimed at resolving the war in eastern Ukraine was held in Normandy -thus the “Normandy format” becoming the label.

Needless to say, the original Normandy meeting produced nothing by way of tangible results.  The Kremlin is far from giving up its idea of a “sphere of influence” and claims over the destiny of Ukraine, and Ukraine is far from accepting its fate within any Kremlin “sphere of influence”.

Indeed that Ukrainian train has long since left the station, with successive aggressive Kremlin actions simply reinforcing the resolve of the nation to continue on its current course out from under the Kremlin shadow.  It will now be decades, perhaps generations, before anything like a return to normal relations with Russia.  Trust is, after all, easily shattered and yet so very hard to earn.  A cool transactional relationship is the most likely outcome for a very, very long time.

Whilst Ukraine will not be joining the EU or NATO any time soon – if ever – it will certainly not be joining the Eurasian Union or CSTO either.  For the Europeans, the issue of Ukrainian aspirations toward membership of the western clubs – be those aspirations entirely welcome or not amongst the existing membership – the issue of Kremlin aggression is not only about Ukraine.  The whole infrastructure and foundation of European security (and further afield) has been shaken to its core due to the Kremlin unilaterally throwing many major regional and international agreements under a bus.

Europe, on the whole, works by rule of law – not selective rule by law, as works the Kremlin.

Thus any solutions to the Kremlin aggression in Ukraine (which is now overtly creeping into a more belligerent action throughout the Kremlin neighbourhood and beyond) need carefully weigh the appearance of appeasement or reward, verses a solution that is beneficial to Ukraine, the Europeans and very importantly, is seen to uphold and return to the continent, the regionally accepted norms of rule of law that have served Europe fairly well since 1946.

With regard to Crimea, that will undoubtedly mean continued European/US sanctions for many years to come, as President Putin simply cannot return what was illegally stolen whilst being assured of retaining power.  With regard to the Donbas, the situation is less robustly set.  The Kremlin has never once seriously hinted at official recognition of the “People’s Republics”, let alone their annexation.  Quite simply the Donbas offers the Kremlin nothing it doesn’t already have in annexing the territory, but offers some form of leverage over Kyiv by de jure insuring it remains within Ukraine, yet de facto being heavily influenced by Moscow.

Whether this will ultimately take the form of a frozen conflict, economic shenanigans or social manipulation etc – or any combination thereof – remains to be seen in the long term.  The tactics will perhaps become dependent upon the financial costs to the Kremlin and its associated major business interests more than anything else.  Whatever the case, the tactics will not remain static or one dimensional.  The revisionists within the Kremlin are well aware of historically deceitful and workable tactics within the European neighbourhood – as this 1920’s letter by Churchill underlines.

The idea of Novorossiya, was, is, and will remain a dream (or nightmare depending upon your point of view) – as is now being stated by those who attempted to create it.  The actions undertaken in its creation now deemed a “false start”.

Quite how long the “People’s Republics” will last is an open question, dependent almost entirely upon the Kremlin will to keep them afloat militarily, politically and economically – and it is this issue in particular (recognising the Crimean issue is not going to be resolved anytime soon) that the Normandy format will seek prioritise.

Is there any reason to anticipate a major breakthrough in the positions, interests or needs from any of the parties tomorrow in Berlin?  It seems somewhat unlikely based upon what is in the public realm – but whether that which is not in the public realm has changed significantly enough for any dramatic shift, only those behind the curtain will know.

That there is already another Normandy format meeting scheduled to take place in Kazakhstan on 15th January would suggest that there will be no major positional shifts in Berlin tomorrow – but that another meeting is seemingly already scheduled 10 days later, could suggest that something may be floated in Berlin that will not be instantly dismissed by one or more parties present, requiring the consideration and deliberation of all prior to any agreement or rejection in Astana.

The Europeans have to emerge with the rule of law reasserted across the continent, Ukraine with its sovereignty (less what will be a “long grass” Crimean issue) returned, and the right to chose its own destiny unambiguously underscored.

The Kremlin, which is not an aggrieved party to this conflict, but an active sponsor of it, can be presented with a face saving exit from eastern Ukraine if one can be found, in return for some sanctions specifically raised in relation to its actions eastern Ukraine being removed.   After all, those sanctions specifically imposed relating to actions in eastern Ukraine, should the Kremlin exchange its military tactics for others (it’s not about to simply give up on Ukraine), would have done what they were intended to do – change current policy.  Sanctions are not meant to be an arbitrary punishment when all is said and done.

Whether we have reached a time where the positions, interests and needs of those involved have reached a point where shifts are necessary, and thus imminent, does seem somewhat unlikely – but away from the public realm, behind the curtain, things may look very different indeed – for better or for worse.

Nevertheless, that two Normandy format meetings are penciled in within ten days, is an interesting development – though not necessarily hopeful.

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