An end to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine doesn't necessarily seem closer, though at least it's not farther away.
PARIS — They are called the "Normandy Four," an allusion to the French region where the plans for future peace negotiations between the four parties was first proposed. That was back in 2014, but it's been three years since the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France last met. This week in Paris they finally sat down to discuss a way to end almost six years of armed conflict between Moscow and Kiev in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas.
Those expecting a miracle were disappointed by Tuesday's encounter between Vladimir Putin, Volodymyr Zelensky, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. Still, as one observer noted, it was already good news that the first meeting ever between Putin and Zelensky didn't actually make matters worse. Not surprisingly, the views on the one-day summit from Ukrainian, Russian and French media didn't always align.
Good Cop Putin? View from Ukraine — Livy Bereg, Alexander Demchenko
Despite the general pathos of the speeches of each of the participants, there are no losers and no winners. The most important thing the two presidents agreed on was an agreement to negotiate. After the meeting, even skeptics admitted that Zelensky did not give ground on his positions. The Ukrainian President publicly stated his "red lines' in front of the Russian leader: there will be no "federalization," (accepting Donbas as an independent territory within Ukraine), no trading occupied territories for peace, and no changes in the country's goals of moving closer to the European Union.
The Russian side also held its strategic stance. Ukraine agreed to extend the law on the special status of Donbas for one more year and implement the Steinmeier formula (this is a document based on letters from the former Foreign Ministers of Germany and France for how to resolve the situation in Donbas). Putin also stuck to his current position on the Ukrainian-Russian border in Donbas, which means it is still under Russia-aligned separatists' control.
Yet, what is most confusing is the behavior of the Russian President, who was obviously guided by his KGB officer's instincts. He seemed to be most interested in pleasing and appeasing the Ukrainian President. After all, the massive Russian army could attack Ukraine tomorrow and capture most of it. But Putin is now playing the role of a good cop. He talks about a warming relationship, offers Zelensky a 25-percent discount on Russian gas, and agrees with the outlines of proposals of the Ukrainian President.
But this, in fact, is the greatest danger. Because Good Putin is Unpredictable Putin, and that is even more dangerous than Evil Putin.
The Impossible Ceasfire: View from Russia — Kommersant, Vladimir Soloviev
At the summit in Paris, the leaders of the "Normandy Four" could not agree on a further settlement of the conflict in the Donbas. The Russian and Ukrainian presidents expressed opposing views regarding the consolidation in the constitution of a special status for the two unrecognized republics within Ukraine. Putin said that special status should be enshrined in the Ukrainian Constitution. Zelensky said that Kiev would never agree to amend the constitution of Ukraine this way.
Also, the final document does not mention the separation of forces of the two parties along the front line, without which a complete ceasefire is impossible. This is not the first attempt to silence the weapons. Over the years of the conflict, such calls have been made repeatedly. Indefinite truces have been declared more than once, violations of which inevitably arrived.
Moreover, there was no decision on elections in this territory, and the summit showed that further problems are almost guaranteed to arise. The Ukrainian President emphasized that elections in the Donbas are possible only by Ukrainian laws and international OSCE standards. But the unrecognized republics are unlikely to agree on these terms. An unconditional achievement of the meeting in Paris can be considered the agreement of the parties that Kiev, on the one hand, and the Donbas republics, on the other, should carry out the exchange of prisoners.
Sovereignty Or Security: View from France — Les Echos, Jacques Hubert-Rodier
Hosting the quartet, French President Emmanuel Macron got what he wanted: "a lucid, robust and demanding dialogue with Russia." Still, Russia and Ukraine are far from settling their differences, not only on Donbas and Crimea but also on gas transfer across Ukraine to Western Europe. Putin and Zelensky agreed to extend the ceasefire, begin de-mining along the frontline, as well as the continuation of prisoner exchanges.
But none of this can solve the Ukrainian question. Vladimir Putin, according to a diplomat, even told Zelensky that there were no Russian soldiers in the Ukrainian Donbas. Also, the question of Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 was totally outside the scope of discussions. At least officially.
Zelensky did not get what he wanted: the deployment of the Ukrainian army along the border before local elections are held. But Russia did: as in Georgia in 2008 after the Russian invasion of South Ossetia, Vladimir Putin once again wins a timid dialogue, where the word "sovereignty" is replaced by "security." Because the Ukrainian Donbas — like the two Georgian regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which proclaimed their independence from Tbilisi — will remain one of his assets in Europe, allowing him to spread his influence around the Russian Federation's neighborhood. And beyond.