The rhetoric of Normandy

3 August 2019, 11:00

The 75th anniversary of the Normandy landing will be celebrated this year without Vladimir Putin. Moscow mumbled something about being offended in public, but decided not to make a big deal of a snub that was not to its advantage. The French argued lamely that a change in the level of representation at the ceremony, which was to be conducted by the premier, and not the president, as five years earlier. Reaction was somewhat sour because, after all, US President Trump had been invited.

However, the situation did not develop beyond some annoying comments from Dmitry Peskov. Moscow focused its lobbying efforts elsewhere instead: getting sanctions against it cancelled in the Council of Europe, without returning Crimea to Ukraine. Without the French and the Germans, changing the rules of this international organization was improbably, so the Russians decided not to get hung up on the Normandy events. 

The newly elected president of Ukraine was also not invited to France for this ceremony, although in April, during a short visit to Paris by Poroshenko, the likeliness of a Ukrainian presence in Normandy was discussed. The Foreign Ministry told The Ukrainian Week that the French had decided “not to make an exception and treat any of the post-soviet states differently.” Five years earlier, François Hollande used the historic anniversary as an opportunity to try the role of mediator in the armed conflict between Ukraine and Russia, Emmanuel Macron in the same situation chose to do the opposite. Only those countries that had been directly involved in the events of 1944 were invited: the British, the Americans, the Canadians and the Belgians.

“The French tradition, started by François Mitterand, has been to gather a wide circle of leaders of states and governments on major anniversaries: 40, 50, 60, 70 years since the launch of Operation Overlord,” the Presidential press service told The Ukrainian Week. On five-year anniversaries, the ceremony is always more modest.” This is the official version. What goes on behind closed doors?

What is striking is that the Queen of Great Britain, like Macron, also did not invite Putin to Portsmouth, although the English celebrations were larger in scale than the French ones and were announced as a meeting of the leaders of allied countries. Angela Merkel was also present in Britain – but not in France. However, the descendants of the “victorious Red Army” are not anticipated in any event. Why is that?

“Russia has not stepped back from its expansionist plans not only in terms of its nearest neighbors, but basically with the entire world,” suggested a former French diplomat in talking with The Ukrainian Week. “Neither the British nor the French are happy with the obvious interference of trolls in their elections and in the Brexit referendum. At the same time, neither Paris nor London are prepared to invite, say, the presidents of the Baltics, Ukraine, Belarus, or Moldova while bypassing Putin. No one’s prepared to openly aggravate him.”

When Hollande invited then President Petro Poroshenko to the ceremonies in Normandy five years ago, that was read as a repudiation of Russia’s policy of appropriating the victory in WWII as its solo accomplishment, as thought other nations of the USSR neither fought nor died. Varying estimates are that of Ukrainians alone, some 5-7 million died in the war. With both presidents, Poroshenko and Putin, present in Normandy, Hollande had an opportunity to try on the role of peacemaker, following the example of Sarkozy in Georgia.

Thus was the “Normandy” format of talks launched, with the participation of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia. The presence of France and Germany prevented manipulations that would have inevitably emerged if the talks were merely bilateral between Kyiv and Moscow. An attempt to get the Americans and the EU involved, the so-called Geneva format, remained an experiment that Moscow was not happy about. For Ukraine, of course, the presence of the US and EU leadership would have been a big plus. But negotiations without Russia present would make no sense. With Hollande’s light hand, the Normandy format became the compromise that made it possible to bring the aggressor and its victim to the negotiating table in the presence of respected witnesses.

How successful this initiative proved is another matter. Whereas Minsk 1, signed in September 2014 managed to at least slow down the bloodshed, Minsk 2 became little more than the symbol of a hopeless agreement containing commitments neither side was prepared to take on. Still, no better negotiating base has been found so far. In Paris, everybody sighed with relief when Ukraine’s new National Security Council Secretary Oleksandr Danyliuk confirmed that the Normandy Format would continue and that the Ukrainian side would participate as soon as the next meeting was scheduled.

So far, an approximate date has not been mentioned. “As soon as the necessary political conditions are in place,” said Macron. Undoubtedly, Ukraine’s western partners are waiting for the results of the snap Verkhovna Rada election on July 21, and also time to observe what specific steps the new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, takes. Where Hollande treated the Normandy format as his diplomatic brainchild and put a personal effort into making sure meetings and consultations took place, Macron seems either skeptical or even indifferent.

RELATED ARTICLE: The politics of fury

Possibly the French leader, like many other politicians, doesn’t see a clear, realistic path to implementing the Minsk Accords, and doesn’t want his name associated with another diplomatic fiasco. It could also be that with a tight schedule and a slew of domestic French force majeures, he really doesn’t have the time or desire to take up this very unpromising matter in any depth. In the end, Macron’s personal motives are not even that important. What really matters is the facts, starting with the fact that the date of the last meeting of the Normandy four at the highest level – October 2016.

Why is it that, in two and a half years, the Normandy format continued only at the level of consultations at the ministerial level? There are several reasons, the most important being that the open armed conflict has been slowly turning into one of maintaining position. While Hollande was president, the first, hot phase of Russia’s aggression was taking place, while Macron inherited what has basically turned into a frozen conflict. There are no new developments, no dynamic, and therefore no reason to rush. For French foreign policy, the priorities have always been relations with Germany, the development of the EU, relations with the US, and Africa… These constants were not established yesterday and so they won’t just change tomorrow, either. The French press publishes very little about Ukraine as the accents lie elsewhere. 

The second reason is the general international context. Under Hollande, sanctions against Russia were established, while under Macron they are simply continuing. Everyone is used to the sanctions by now, as well as to their reason. Moscow’s lobbyists are plowing the soil to cancel restrictions on Russia’s industrial sector.

The current sanctions are in effect until July 31. In relation to Russia’s expansionism, Macron’s actions are a continuation of the Hollande line. At the personal level, in contrast to Sarkozy, both politicians maintained their distance from Putin. However, neither rejected real politik, either, recognizing the RF as an old, familiar, big, and still influential partner. Macron has no interest in getting together in order to agree on nothing. The chances of a change in the situation in eastern Ukraine that might be attributed to active diplomatic successes are simply not there. And so there’s nothing to spur the French leader to active steps.

RELATED ARTICLE: Where the Hell is Macron?

Thirdly, elections in Ukraine are another reason for the quiet. The country’s German and French partners are far less motivated to resolve Ukrainian problems than Ukrainians themselves. Much depends on the nearest steps of the new head of state. The quality of the negotiations process in the Normandy format now depends, like never before, on how actively and professionally Kyiv carries out its own foreign policies. The temptation to come to agreements about Ukraine without Ukraine has not gone anywhere. Telephone conversations among Merkel, Macron and Putin have already taken place since Zelenskiy’s inauguration. It’s critical for this kind of mechanism not to become the norm.

It would be an exaggeration to see President Macron as a pro-Ukrainian politician. However, he’s also no pro-Russian, in contrast to many other French leaders. For Ukraine’s diplomats, this window of opportunity could shut down completely in three years. The Normandy format, for all its flaws, could well be the most appropriate step leading up to Ukraine’s next successful steps towards the West. All that is needed is political will.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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