KYIV — A new round of key talks aimed at de-escalating the Ukraine crisis is set to take place in Berlin on Thursday.
The talks will follow the so-called Normandy Format, the name of the long-running negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, mediated by France and Germany, and are aimed at ending the conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east.
The talks have been largely deadlocked since 2015, but Thursday’s meeting is being closely watched for signs that a flurry of diplomatic activity this week, spear-headed by French President Emmanuel Macron, might point toward a broader de-escalation of the growing crisis.
Macron visited Kyiv Tuesday to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy following marathon talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow that resulted in a glimmer of hope that Putin may be open to taking Western offers of diplomacy to end the crisis.
Macron has said Putin assured him there would be no escalation around Ukraine, and French officials have since said they believe the visit has achieved a “pause” that allows de-escalation and gives more time for negotiations.
With Russia continuing to move troops close to Ukraine, where it has already massed over 100,000, the hope expressed by Macron and Zelenskyy is that Thursday’s talks can widen that diplomatic path and help bring down tensions. In Kyiv, both leaders spoke optimistically about Thursday’s talks, saying they expected progress.
The talks will be held between Ukraine’s lead negotiator, Zelenskyy’s top aide Andriy Yermak, and Dmitry Kozak, a deputy chief of staff to Putin. No breakthrough or even substantial progress is expected, but Western countries and Ukraine are pushing to reinvigorate the format to try to get Russia to engage or at least keep diplomacy going for now. Macron has said the talks should provide a “clarification” of what’s possible.
Macron has said making progress in the Ukraine talks should be combined with the launching of a separate dialogue with Russia on European security to address Kremlin concerns about NATO. It is still not clear if Macron’s initiative means the Kremlin is ready to take a diplomatic exit. But it’s hoped some positive steps at the talks could reduce the risk of military escalation.
“Unless Russia is serious about de-escalation, I think buying time is all we can hope for,” a former adviser to Zelenskyy told ABC News.
Russia’s buildup has already reinvigorated the talks — a round held in Paris two weeks ago was the first in two years and ended with the sides recommitting to a much-violated ceasefire.
The Normandy talks are intended to negotiate the fulfillment of the so-called Minsk agreement, a peace deal that ended large-scale fighting in 2015, but which has been effectively stillborn since. The deal envisages Ukraine regaining control over the eastern separatist Donbas regions in return for granting them broad autonomy in its constitution.
The talks have been deadlocked because Russia and Ukraine disagree over the order the agreement should be fulfilled. Russia demands that Ukraine first change its constitution to give the Russian-occupied regions special autonomous status and hold elections in them before it regains any control there. Ukraine says the separatists must disarm and Russian forces there leave before any elections to decide the regions’ statuses can be held.
Russia has pushed for Ukraine to reintegrate the separatist regions because it would give it a lever in Ukraine’s government, and a de facto veto on Ukraine joining NATO or the European Union. For that reason, accepting the Minsk agreement on Russia’s terms has become politically impossible for any Ukrainian government, which would face huge backlash at home.
Most experts believe Russia is massing troops near Ukraine in part to try to force Kyiv into moving toward Moscow’s interpretation of the Minsk agreement.
But Ukraine’s government has feared that in the face of the Russian military threat, Western countries might force it to make concessions.
In Ukraine, there was media speculation Wednesday that Macron may have pressured Zelenskyy to make concessions in Thursday’s talks, in particular to begin direct negotiations with the Russian-controlled separatists, the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (DNR and LNR).
If true, that would be politically explosive in Ukraine and would mean Macron had pushed Zelenskyy into a major concession.
But Ukraine’s foreign minister on Wednesday bluntly denied it would ever hold direct negotiations with the separatists.
The minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said France understands Ukraine’s “red lines and do not demand to implement things that are not acceptable to Ukraine.”
Kyiv refuses to negotiate with the separatist because it sees them as puppet governments controlled by Russia. Talking to the rebels directly would accord them recognition and also legitimize the Kremlin’s false claim that the conflict in Ukraine is a civil war, in which Russia is not involved.
Macron’s office also denied it had pressured Ukraine. French officials said Thursday’s talks would focus on how Ukraine can move toward introducing a draft law granting special status for the separatist areas and get comments on it from the separatists as an exception set out by the Minsk agreements.
“We are basically preparing to be able to put on the table all the practical options which will ultimately have to receive the approval not only of the Ukrainians, but of the Russians,” the officials said.
Oleksiy Semeniy, a former adviser to Ukraine’s national security council and currently director of the Institute for Global Transformations in Kyiv, told ABC News on Wednesday he did not believe it was politically possible for Zelenskyy to start direct negotiations with the separatists.
He said an important sign of success would be if it was announced following the talks that a leaders summit, involving Zelenskyy and Putin, would take place.