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Wednesday, Dec 16, 2020
Friday, Apr 9, 2021 (updated)
A year after the last summit of the "Normandy Four" at the French capital, the issue of resolving the conflict in Donbas went front and center again. Politicians, diplomats and journalists spoke about it. President Volodymyr Zelensky also made an address, accusing Russia of continuing the war and emphasizing that Ukraine is doing everything possible to end the war and restore its territorial integrity.

A year ago, the Ukrainian president was more cautious with his assessments. I'm not talking about the time of election campaign, when both the future president and his supporters said that the war continued because President Petro Poroshenko was interested in it, because power is enriched by war. Even the fact that after 2016 there were no more meetings in the Normandy format, it was not Vladimir Putin who was accused, but Petro Poroshenko.

That is why, not even the idea of resuming meetings of the Norman format, but the idea of a personal meeting with Vladimir Putin became during the initial period of Vladimir Zelensky's presidency of Ukraine almost a political religion. And since the bilateral meeting meant the destruction of the mechanism of the Normandy format, it was decided to fight for its restoration. Especially since the new Ukrainian president had an influential ally here. No, not Vladimir Putin. And the President of France, Emanuel Macron. It was then that the French leader decided that there were conditions under which the Russian president could agree to de-escalate the conflict with Ukraine's new leader. And the peacekeeping laurels, of course, will go to the organizer of this meeting ‒ the President of France. This was precisely the time when Macron tried to resume dialogue between Russia and the West. In particular, he met with the Russian president on the eve of the summit of the group of seven from which Putin was expelled after the attack on Ukraine ‒ and attempts by US President Donald Trump to return the Russian counterpart to the common negotiating table did not lead to anything concrete. But Putin and Macron met in France, and Macron acted as a parliamentarian of the Western world. So the Norman summit was invested in this scheme of further settlement.

But in practice the meeting turned out to be a complete disappointment. It was disappointed for Zelensky. After all, no miracle happened during his personal meeting with Putin. The Russian president turned out to be exactly the same in Paris as he was in Berlin during his last meeting with Poroshenko. That is, a person who is not interested in compromises and gives continuous ultimatums. And if the interlocutor does not agree to these ultimatums, he immediately loses interest in him and waits only for a change of government, for the new head of the country with whom he can communicate. And, by the way, this approach does not only apply to Ukraine specially.

This meeting was a disappointment for Putin as well. It is no secret that the Russian president was waiting for Zelensky's surrender in Paris. Were there any grounds for this? Not at all. But Ukrainian negotiators, who were aware of their task of securing a personal meeting between Zelensky and Putin at all costs, were, to put it mildly, cautious during previous talks with their Russian counterparts. And the very atmosphere of these previous talks convinced the Kremlin that during a personal meeting it would be enough to put just a little pressure on the new inexperienced Ukrainian president ‒ and he will break down completely.

This meeting was also a disappointment for Macron, as it showed him the illusory hopes of Putin's readiness to resolve relations with the West and the conflict in Ukraine. And it was from this time that contacts between Moscow and Paris practically began to fade.

Well, I do not know whether such a meeting was a disappointment for Ms. Merkel, who during years of negotiations has already realized Putin's intentions, but the Federal Chancellor wasted her time.

A year after Paris, no one hopes for a speedy settlement of the Donbas conflict. Moreover, the Kremlin makes it clear that such a settlement will not take place during Volodymyr Zelensky's tenure as President of Ukraine. Nobody talks about the dates of the next summit of the "Normandy Four", there are not even joint telephone talks. And this despite the fact that Paris agreed to hold the next meeting in Berlin in just a few months. This turned out to be another illusion.

A real and important achievement of this year was the reduction of the intensity of hostilities in the Donbas ‒ which Volodymyr Zelensky constantly reminds when talking about the conflict. Undoubtedly, this is an achievement. After all, the military suffers fewer casualties, the civilian population suffers less on the line of demarcation between the free territory of Ukraine and the occupied areas. But at the same time, it is a very uncertain truce. Arguably, there could be different truces. There are truces, which are ensured by the presence on the line of demarcation between the warring parties of peacekeeping forces. However, Russia has consistently torpedoed any initiatives by Ukraine in this regard. There are truces, which are ensured by the real withdrawal of troops from the line of demarcation, so that shelling becomes technically impossible. And the truce in Donbas is ensured only by the good will of the parties. No one will be able to stop the Kremlin from firing again when Vladimir Putin so wishes. 
Thus, the truce becomes another probable instrument of pressure on the Ukrainian leadership.

At the beginning of Volodymyr Zelensky's rule, an important achievement of the new president was the unblocking of the process of exchanging prisoners and hostages. And although Kyiv has been criticized for its approach to the process, when Putin received literally anyone he wanted from Ukraine, people were actually released and many prominent Kremlin hostages were released. Let's remember at least about Oleg Sentsov. But now Moscow has realized how important the process of releasing people is for Zelensky ‒ and blocked this process.

The negotiation process in the Tripartite Contact Group is also effectively blocked. After the fiasco of the summit in Paris, Russia decided to transfer the process of negotiations on Donbas to the TCG. And at the negotiating platform in Minsk to intensify their ideas on direct consultations of the Ukrainian leadership with the puppet government of the so-called "people's republics". The new curator of Ukraine in Kremlin, Dmytro Kozak, has put a lot of effort into this action. Let us recall at least the attempt to create an advisory council in which representatives of Ukraine and Russian puppets would meet on an equal footing. Or Russia's demand to conduct a joint inspection of the Ukrainian army with mercenaries without the participation of the Russian military. And this is only part of the Kremlin's provocative initiatives, but nothing has been realized. Now the Kremlin has lost interest in this negotiation mechanism. And then what next?

And now the Kremlin will increasingly push the talks to a standstill to deprive Volodymyr Zelensky of the support of the pro-Russian part of his electorate and make this electorate necessary for the main pro-Russian force in Ukraine, Viktor Medvedchuk's party. And after the next parliamentary and maybe presidential elections in Ukraine, when Moscow will assess the new distribution of political forces in the enemy state, then they will decide what to do ‒ return to the Normandy format, to the Minsk talks or to a much more intense war than now. In the meantime, we will talk about the impasse and commemorate the anniversary of the last meeting of leaders.
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