Prospects of the Normandy Format as a key mechanism of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict regulation

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For already seven years, the Ukrainian issue has been one of the cornerstones in the aggravation of relations between the West and Russia. The conflict situation in the Eastern European region, unprecedented from the times when the USSR collapsed, has been marked with different dynamics during seven years of a war and may soon remain without platforms for negotiations. Although they are not enough efficient, but one should consider that the Minsk and Normandy formats are of political importance conditionally restraining the rapid escalation in eastern Ukraine. From Russia’s point of view, the Minsk and Normandy formats of negotiations were diplomatic environments where the Kremlin tried to put pressure on Ukraine and impose its geopolitical interests not only on Kyiv, but also on Paris and Berlin. However, consistent and firm support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by Germany and France have urged Russia to find ways out of the diplomatic imbroglio. It seems that by slamming the door in front of his colleagues, Putin will try to achieve his goals in other ways.

By their very nature, the Minsk and Normandy formats are stillborn, as the demands the Kremlin has been advancing are unacceptable to Ukraine by definition. The thing is their implementation is a direct threat to statehood that Kyiv will not allow. Periodically reduced tensions, decreased artillery attacks and partially resolved humanitarian issues are only sporadic results. By the look of things, the unresolvedness of this conflict on a parity basis, if such a wording may be tolerated, stems from the point that Moscow will not be satisfied with Ukraine out of its control. Therefore, the Kremlin seeks to keep Ukraine close to itself through the so-called LDPR, given that Russia’s influence on the decision-making process in Kyiv is bottlenecked like never before.

Difficult not to notice that such a narrative is clearly traced in demands that Russia has been directing to Ukraine through these formats. The official position of the Kremlin is that there is an “internal conflict” in Ukraine, and the occupied separate districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions are Ukrainian territory that should be reintegrated into Ukraine. In addition to this, Russia demands the reintegration through amendments to the Constitution on the basis of broad autonomy for LDPR. To all appearances, Russia seeks to impose on a unitary state a form of government that meets Moscow’s interests – federalization. By the way, this is how Lavrov has recently misspoken. Moreover, Moscow has been actively claiming the inclusion of the so-called Steinmeier formula into the Ukrainian Constitution. This includes an amnesty for the militants, holding elections to occupied regions without first disarming the local separatists, restoring Ukraine’s control over the border after the elections, and consolidating the special status of self-government over these territories. It is obvious that in such conditions Russia will have a tool to influence state decision-making processes, and Ukraine will become a puppet of the Kremlin, as it was before 2013.

The instrumentalization of the LDPR as a Trojan horse is confirmed by a careful review of Russia’s actions in the Donbas in the political, economic, cultural, ideological, and informational aspects. For example, Russia not only politically supports the LDPR, but also tries to shape their subjectivity by encouraging Ukraine to engage in a direct dialogue with them. The narrative that the Ukrainian authority should have the direct communication with the LDPR is key to legitimization of these entities and removing Russia`s position from the status of the party to the conflict to a neutral mediator. However, any attempt by the Kremlin to deplete its role as a participant in the conflict has not been successful during these seven years. Apparently, attempts to tie the uncontrolled Ukrainian territories with Russia in the political sphere is being performed through rapid passportization of the population there. According to Ukrainian authorities, more than 600,000 Russian passports have been issued to Ukrainian citizens. And there is no another option to construe it as a gross violation of the Minsk agreements and de facto devaluing their political component. With the passportization, the Kremlin cements its presence in the Donbas and, at any given time, can use it as a casus belli for an armed invasion to distract the Ukrainian authority from a decision that is unfavorable to the Kremlin.

The Kremlin forges ties between Donbass and Russia in an economical sphere as well. On November 15, Putin issued a decree according to which the movement of goods from the LDPR can be carried out on the same terms as goods of Russian origin, and the Ukrainian enterprises, appropriated after the occupation of these regions, will be able to participate in state tender procedures in Russia. This decision is a proof of the contiguous violation of the Minsk agreements by Russia due to paragraph 8 of the Minsk agreements in which full restoration of socio-economic ties between Ukraine and occupied territories anticipated. However, with this decree, the Kremlin integrates so-called ORDLO into the Russian economic space, destroying any preconditions for implementation of paragraph 8. It is noteworthy that the text of the decree does not mention the naming “Luhansk People Republic” or “Donetsk People Republic”. By this, Russia has been attempting to covertly legalize these pseudo-state entities, but not recognizing them in direct. Evidently, this has been doing, again, to preserve preconditions for returning occupied territories to Ukraine.

It also seems obvious that the Kremlin is cleaning up its Ukrainian identity by banning Ukrainian language and literature, state symbols, and instilling a pro-Russian interpretation of history through injections of ideologues and mythologists from the times of the Russian Empire and the USSR. In other words, Russia is building a piece of the “the Russian world” that should be part of Ukraine and countervail the right wing that emerged in Ukrainian society and politics after the annexation of Crimea and the external separation of Donbass.

What comes to an information absorption, the Kremlin is doing the same thing in LDPR as within its own country, namely spreading propaganda and misinformation. Long before 2014, Russian-controlled territories began to turn into information ghettos. At the moment, Russian propaganda is flourishing in LDPR, active demonization of Ukraine is going on and the usual exploitation of the antithesis “Ukrainian officials – fascism, Russian ones – anti-fascism”, by analogy with the period in World War II after 1941, has been actively operated. In recent months, there has been an increase in rhetoric among Russian officials. It seems that Russian propaganda has fallen on military rails, which strangely coincides with the augmentation of a 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine’s borders and obstructionism in the Normandy and Minsk formats.

In view of the above, the conclusion is that the Kremlin is openly cunning when it accuses official Kyiv of malicious non-compliance with the Minsk agreements. Russian diplomacy, led by Putin, has failed to convince its French and German counterparts of its neutrality in the war in eastern Ukraine. And the Kremlin’s actions against Donbass indicate a systematic failure to fulfill its obligations to Minsk, so any attempt by Kyiv to politically and diplomatically regain territory is doomed. Russia’s profanation of Minsk is further supported by the fact that Moscow has refused to extend the mandate of the OSCE observation mission at the Russian checkpoints “Gukovo” and “Donetsk” on the border with Ukraine after September 30. Moreover, in mid-October, it physically blocked staff members of the OSCE mission through DPR proxies. This is further evidence that Russia is slowly moving away from international formats for resolving the conflict.

A similar situation one could observe in Russia’s position in the Normandy format. The reason for the disruption of the meeting of the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia, which was to take place in November this year, was the Kremlin’s position. Being aware beforehand that no one could accept that, the Kremlin has put forward obviously unacceptable preconditions for the parties to meet and has proposed a draft final statement with such phrasing as “internal conflict”, “decisions coordination with the authorities of LDPR” etc. Mainly, Moscow blames Ukraine for the failure, because the latter, according to Putin and Lavrov, has not fulfilled liabilities according to the Minsk agreements. Lavrov has also explicitly stated that Russia will consider the meeting as expedient, only if Kyiv fulfills previous agreements. It is quite obvious that the Kremlin is aware of the impossibility of such concessions from Ukrainian part; therefore, it sees the futility in promotion of its own interests within the the Normandy Quartet. The Kremlin emphasized this with an eloquent gesture when it published the diplomatic correspondence of Russian, German and French ministers on the Russian Foreign Ministry website. In the international community, such action is considered as blatant violation of diplomatic protocol and confirmation of Russia`s disinterest in this format as well.

To conclude,  Russia is trying to move out of the international formats established to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Despite direct statements that ORDLO is Ukrainian territory, Russia is doing everything to cement its influence there. The West’s consolidated position on the Ukrainian issue in international platforms makes it impossible for Russia to impose its interests through them. This diplomatic impasse encourages the Kremlin to seek other ways, and one such a way could result in flaming the World War III.

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