Rain and strikes greeted the high-level meeting taking place in the French capital. Widespread social protests monopolized the press to such a degree that on the day of the Normandy Summit, not one of the major French television channels even mentioned what was going on in the Elysée Palace in their evening news editions. The following morning, the printed press was not a whole lot more informative.
“Paris summit renews dialog but no serious political progress.” That was the headline in Le Monde’s report. “Summing up Normandy Summit: No one agreed to anything” was the headline in the HuffPost France edition. “Ukraine-Russia Summit: so-so results,” wrote Libération. Where Ukrainians were blowing on cold water and grabbing their hearts at every new fake coming from Russian media, the French focused on something else entirely.
Macron’s new Russia policy worried all those who were concerned that Ukraine would be forced into capitulation at the Paris summit. Despite paralyzed public transit on Sunday just before the talks, not only Paris Ukrainians and their friends came out to a “No Capitulation!” rally. The president of the World Congress of Ukrainians, Pavlo Grod, came from Canada, Ukrainian activists from Portugal and Belgium addressed the crowd, and even soldiers who had done battle in eastern Ukraine took the podium. “Russia is the enemy. Ukraine is a unitary state. No elections in occupied territory until Russian weapons leave and the borders are under Ukrainian control.” These were the red lines Grod listed in his speech on Carré Saint-Michel.
At the closing press conference, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy noted almost exactly the same markers that Ukraine was not prepared to concede: independent foreign policy; control over the border before any elections in ORDiLO; Crimea and Donbas belong to Ukraine. The only thing he avoided was calling Russia the aggressor, the enemy. Whether that was for diplomatic reasons or for other reasons, only time will tell.
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“On the international stage, Zelenskiy is slowly turning into Poroshenko,” joked a French colleague who was at the talks. “This is good for Kyiv. When it comes to domestic policy, there was a lot you could pick a fight over with Petro, but he was a strong negotiator.”
The presence of Aleksei Miller, head of Gazprom at the Elysée Palace with an entire passel of top Russian officials from the energy sector left no doubts that Moscow was hoping to push through its own version of a new gas contract with Europe this coming year: force Ukraine to reject the court cases it has won and agree to cheese in a mousetrap, that is, cheap gas in return for political concessions.
“Our apartment has gas,” Putin lamely tried to joke in response to journalists. In the same field, fake news from Russian sites was also making the rounds during the talks, but Kyiv held up. “We agreed to we will keep negotiating,” was now Naftogaz Executive Director Yuriy Vitrenko summed it up, closer to midnight. If anything can be called a relative victory at the Paris summit, the laurel wreath should fairly go to the persistence of Ukraine’s gas officials.
“What were the 15 minutes of face-to-face with Putin for?” The Ukrainian Week tried to find out from one of the members of the Ukrainian delegation. After all, we all know that talking to the Kremlin boss without witnesses is very risky. “Ask the French,” was the answer. “I mean that, the French.”
Paris really does have its own game plan for the gas chessboard. From the start of talks about a new gas supply contract with Russia, France has been actively agitating for a contract involving Ukraine as the transit partner for 10 years. A recent interview with Loïk Le Floch-Prigent, the one-time president of Gaz de France, known as Engie today, published on the Entreprendre.fr site was very telling. In it, Prigent pragmatically and unsentimentally explained the French interest in having Russian gas come to the West specifically through Ukraine: it’s not just cheaper than through Nord Stream and from LPG terminals – he claims France could save “billions of euros” – but it’s politically savvy, so that Germany doesn’t get too strong.
The fact that the morning after the meeting of the “Normandy quartet” French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire promised in Moscow to find “legal ways of getting around sanctions” was surely no coincidence. The minister, of course, had arrived for bilateral talks that had been planned well before. But new sanctions against Nord Stream II, provided that they are approved by mid-December, will create enormous problems for French business, which very active operating in Russia’s energy sector. Only three weeks remain until the new gas agreement between Russia and the EU has to be signed. The “Ukrainian way” would make it possible to more comfortably adjust resources and decide on a strategy.
The stall in the gas talks is one of the reasons why the French press was fairly limp in commenting the results of the Normandy summit. Where for Kyiv it was important not to give up any territory, for Moscow it was to promote its little “wishes” about special status for Donbas, amnesty for the militants, and elections in ORDiLO, as well as to force the West to swallow the possible anschlusswith Belarus. For France, there were its own economic interests at stake in the talks: to restore fruitful and profitable commercial ties with Russia. In this context, peace in the Donbas becomes a key element to a comfortable investment climate in all of Eastern Europe.
“Prior to the summit, many skeptics had the impression that it would be a game of three against one, but this did not happen,” says WCU President Pavlo Grod. “Paris and Berlin acted neutrally. The problem remains Russia’s status, which supposedly ‘only has some influence with the separatists.’ In the end, Ukraine did not lose in these talks.”
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We don’t know what Putin said to Zelenskiy behind closed doors, as even photographers were not allowed to peek in and capture the moment. Public information suggests that Ukraine did not do badly at all. Outraged articles in the French press about the GRU base of specialized killers in the French Alps and interference in French elections, as well as Germany’s expulsion of Russian diplomats, show that the West has also drawn some red lines in relations with Putin.
The Libération paper allowed itself some sarcastic remarks addressed to the French leader: “An ‘unusually positive’ summit, a ‘persuasive reboot’ that is as impressive as a wet firecracker, and a ‘declared thaw’ that resembles the next stage of frostbite…” The French have their own beefs with Macron. But for Ukraine it’s actually good that a strong ‘reboot’ did not take place, as it could have only harmed Kyiv’s interests.
The first pancake of talks in the Normandy format was maybe a bit limp, but for Ukraine it was quite edible. Merkel’s words about some “flexibility” around the Minsk accords open new avenues for diplomacy. Meanwhile, reserves of gas, both in Ukraine and in Europe, make it possible not to offer suicidal concessions in negotiations over transit.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj