“Normandy format” negotiations: analysis of key political developments

 On December 6, the Presidential Office held a closed meeting of Presidential Assistant Andrii Yermak with key Ukrainian experts, where the main scenarios and options for the negotiation menu of Zelenskyi in Paris were elaborated. Subsequently, the expert developments became the basis for the NSDC decision dated December 7. In addition, Zelenskyi received very serious expert training, analytical and psychological support on the eve of the Normandy meeting. The President’s Office has attracted all possible resources to prepare for the negotiations with Volodymyr Putin in Paris. On the same day, the deputy head of the Presidenti’s Office Kyrylo Tymoshenko agreed with Rinat Akhmetov’s holding about participation of Zelenskyi in Savik Shuster’s political talk show “Svoboda Slova”(«Freedom of Speech”). However, Zelenskyi’s main requirement for participation in the broadcast was the absence of Petro Poroshenko and other destructive speakers.

Then the list of members of the Ukrainian delegation to Paris was officially approved. The delegation included President Volodymyr Zelenskyi, Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko, Head of the President’s Office Andrii Bohdan, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, SSU head Ivan Bakanov, Chief of the General Staff of the AFU Yurii Khomchak, Assistants to the President Andrii Yermak, Serhii Shefir and Kyrylo Tymoshenko. Energy and Environment Minister Oleksii Orzhel and Executive Director of NJSC “Naftogaz” Yurii Vitrenko are responsible for conducting gas negotiations with the Russians. Interestingly, Arsen Avakov was the last person included in the delegation. According to information spread in political circles, Avakov was included in the negotiations in order to prevent radical forces controlled by him from starting protests at the Maidan and the President’s Office. Oddly enough, the bulk of radicals from “Azov” and the “National Corps” refrained from active protests against Zelenskyi and enforcement of the Minsk agreements on conditions of Russia. Although more than a month ago, nationalists from the “National Corps” were the main driving force behind the “Stop Surrender” protests.

On December 7, President Zelenskyi held a meeting of the National Security and Defence Council, which adopted three decisions. The NSDC considered scenarios behind the results of the Paris negotiations. The approved scenario provided for the reintegration of the SADLR according to the so-called “Zelenskyi Formula”. Other scenarios provided for options for either military exacerbation or freezing of the conflict. A plan of action to deepen territorial defence in Donbas was approved for the case of a breakdown in negotiations with the Russians. It especially concerned zones where the deployment of forces and means took place. Andrii Yermak and Volodymyr Zelenskyi called it in media the “Wall” Plan. First Deputy Secretary of the NSDC Mikhailo Koval was appointed responsible for defence. The NSDC approved a plan of measures to counter cybercrime, strengthen Ukraine’s information space, and amended the sanctions list of Ukrainian individuals who helped the Russians organize referendums and capture state institutions in 2014. In addition, the official composition of the Ukrainian delegation to Paris was approved.

Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s main negotiating position in Paris may be characterized as “let’s meet somewhere in the middle and find a compromise together”. The success of future negotiations depends on several factors. First is whether the Russian President feels destructive/constructive in respect of negotiations. Second is whether the German and French partners are interested in lifting/maintaining sanctions against the Kremlin. Finally, the solution of the gas issue depends on the political negotiations in Paris, since these things are interrelated.

The key points of the so-called “Zelenskyi Formula”:

  • No later than March 2020, prisoners of war shall be exchanged using the “all for all” formula. The exchange shall be straightforward based on the political dialogue between Kyiv, Luhansk and Donetsk.
  • Amnesty applies to anyone who did not hold a weapon in conflict with Ukraine.
  • The law on the special status of SADLR will be enshrined in the Constitution of Ukraine in the New Year. Due to the lack of time, the old law on special order of local self-government in SADLR (approved under Petro Poroshenko) will be prolonged.
  • The creation of a Coordination Council consisting of IDPs, residents of the controlled Donbas and SADLR will be initiated to draft the Constitutional amendments.
  • The Law on Special Status will enter into force after the elections under the Ukrainian legislation with the participation of registered Ukrainian parties only.
  • The OSCE should monitor local elections. The Central Election Commission shall organize elections, conduct registration, grant permits, form local election commissions, etc.
  • Electoral legislation may be further refined and approved under the new Electoral Code in February 2020.
  • The local elections are proposed to be held in October 2020 together with the all-Ukrainian local elections. There is a possibility of holding Parliamentary elections in vacant majoritarian constituencies in the SADLR.
  • Illegal armed forces and mercenaries must be disarmed, military equipment – exported to Russia.
  • Local order control should be exercised by joint units (Ukrainian police, national guards and SADLR representatives. The OSCE police mission is also possible).
  • Before the local elections, control over the uncontrolled Russian-Ukrainian border should be exercised jointly by international organizations and Ukrainian official security agencies, including the Border Guard, the Security Service, customs, police, and with the participation of local SADLR representatives.
  • Full Ukrainian border control shall take place on the second day after the elections. After the elections, the border will be controlled by the Ukrainian army entering the SADLR.
  • Donetsk and Luhansk will retain the status of regional centres, but merge with the controlled territories in stages.
  • Private property and businesses will be returned to previous owners. The parties to the conflict shall initiate the attraction of international funds and credits for the reconstruction of Donbas.
  • The transition period for SADLR and their full integration into the legal, political, cultural and humanitarian space would be 5 years. During this period, a broad reform of decentralization and community-building are to take place in the SADLR.


In this light, it is important to note the political statement of the International Monetary Fund, which approved the next financial assistance for the Ukrainian government for a period of 3 years amounting to USD 5.5 billion. The final decision is yet to be approved by the IMF Board of Directors. However, in order to receive this financial assistance, the Ukrainian authorities must fulfil their political commitments on reforms and other state decisions (non-return of banks and financial compensation to former owners, fight against corruption and so on). The political statement by the IMF on the next financial tranche substantially strengthened domestic political positions of Volodymyr Zelenskyi before his opponents and gave him confidence on the eve of his trip to Paris.

On December 8, after lunch, the “Red Lines” political protests were launched in Kyiv by nationalists and radicals, as well as political forces of Petro Poroshenko, Sviatoslav Vakarchuk and Yuliia Tymoshenko. According to the Police, about 4,000 supporters came to the Maidan. Organizers said there were about 10,000 people on the Maidan. Realistically, there were less than 6-7 thousand. Much fewer people than expected came to the protest in the afternoon. According to available information, Yuliia Tymoshenko could not bring people to Kyiv from the regions, because Petro Poroshenko failed to fulfil his financial obligations as usual (Poroshenko promised Tymoshenko to provide financial support for “Batkivshchyna” party asset). The party asset of the “Holos” party was absent at all. It is worth acknowledging that Vakarchuk has no party structure at all, even in the capital. The largest number of supporters was mobilized by Petro Poroshenko and Oleh Tiahnybok from the “Svoboda” Party. However, many people simply did not want to go to political protest because they supported neither Poroshenko nor the current elites. Much significant activity took place in the evening under the walls of the President’s Office, where tents and a stage were installed, kitchens and heating points were organized. In the evening Bankova Street faced the large number of civic activists and students, as well as veterans. However, there were hardly any party activists. In the evening about 1.5 thousand activists came to Bankova.

The political elites also split in their estimates. Arsenii Yatseniuk and Yuliia Tymoshenko took political neutrality and watched the process of preparation for negotiations. Volodymyr Hroisman and Oleh Liashko have expressed support for President Zelenskyi’s actions in his negotiations with President Putin. Zelenskyi was also politically supported by pro-Russian forces standing in favour of resolving the Donbas conflict on the basis of broad federalization of Ukraine.


Summary of the “Norman Four” meeting (N4):

– Actions of Zelenskyi in Paris received a very high degree of approval and support on Ukrainian social networks. Even opponents and the opposition to Zelenskyi noted his strong speech and the upholding of national interests. Many are inclined to believe that Ukraine came out victorious in these negotiations.

– Zelenskyi achieved his main negotiating goal – exchange of prisoners of war in Donbas on the New Year. This was his personal plan for the negotiations in Paris. As for the political component, it all depends on the Russians and separatists in Donbas – whether they will be able to maintain peace.

– On the whole, the Norman negotiation format and work on the implementation of the frozen Minsk agreements were unfrozen and restarted. The Rubicon to this detente cycle will be crossed in March-April 2020 – when the N4 parties gather for a second meeting.

– The new general final statement has been agreed upon. Now its provisions are to be implemented in the Minsk Tripartite Contact Group, at the level of advisers and foreign ministers, in the bilateral format or in Ukrainian legislation. Most likely, the “discrepancies” of the provisions of the Minsk agreements will continue.

– Over the 3 years since the last N4 meeting, the positions of Ukraine (despite the elections) and the Russian Federation have not changed. The level of trust is low despite the “warming” – the likelihood of strategic compromises is extremely low – there will be no full-fledged peace in Donbas in the near future. Zelenskyi clearly outlined his position on elections and the border, which did not please the Russian side.

– The new leadership of Ukraine confirmed the validity of the Minsk agreements, the need for their “full” implementation in the absence of the ability (willingness) to do so; the leadership could not reach revision thereof; it took the “burden” and the role of the team of Poroshenko. Many observers wrote that Zelenskyi risked transforming from the President of peace into the President of war.

– There are the following key tactical agreements: a complete ceasefire obligation, exchange of prisoners (in the format Ukraine-“LDPR”), an attempt to deploy forces in 3 new areas, establishment of new checkpoints on the demarcation line, expansion of the OSCE mission to the “24/7” format, implementation of the “Steinmeier formula” in Ukrainian legislation.

– There is no common position (progress) of the parties on the main issue of a peaceful settlement – what comes first, “election or border”. However, everyone agreed on the “Steinmeier formula”.

– The absence of a deep and detailed discussion on many points (for example, transitional legislation, election law, etc.) brings the situation back to a period comparable to September 2014 – between the first and second Minsk agreements.

– Bilateral issues between Ukraine and the Russian Federation have not been resolved – energy, trade, lawsuits.

– Despite a month of preparation, the overall progress is minimal and insufficient. It once again depends on the further quality of the work of ministers and advisers in behind-the-scenes format