Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Perils of Talks on Russia's War in Ukraine

By Nataliya Bugayova with George Barros

Key Takeaway: The West is drifting toward empowering Vladimir Putin as he continues the illegal Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Putin’s priority in the December 9 Normandy Four talks with Ukraine, France, and Germany is not peace in Ukraine. Putin is positioning Russia to regain control of Ukraine’s decision-making, legitimize a revanchist foreign policy, and remove international constraints on his ambitions. Putin seeks to secure a renewed, exploitative gas deal with Ukraine and the legitimization of Russia’s proxies from the upcoming meeting. The West must ensure that Russia does not pressure Ukraine into compromising its sovereignty by conceding on either Donbas, where Russia is waging war, or Ukrainian energy independence. Putin’s success in Ukraine would not only put the future of Europe at risk – it would also empower Putin to accelerate his global campaigns.

The Kremlin’s Pre-Normandy Meeting Campaign

Russia has waged war on Ukraine since 2014. Russia, in concert with its proxies, continues its illegal occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and of territory in Ukraine’s Donbas region. The leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany are expected to meet in Paris on November 9 regarding the conflict in Ukraine. Representatives from this group – the Normandy Four – have met on a number of occasions since 2014 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.[1] The talks stalled after the Normandy Four last met in 2016 as Russian-controlled forces continued to violate the ceasefire and the Kremlin continued to demand the legitimization of its proxies.[2]

Russian President Vladimir Putin has exploited Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky’s peace aspirations. Zelensky, in office since May 2019, made an election promise to Ukrainian voters: to achieve peace in Ukraine. Zelensky has called for talks with Putin since he won election in April 2019.[3] Putin responded to Zelensky’s overtures with a list of demands. The Kremlin pushed for Ukraine to accept the so-called “Steinmeier Formula.”[4] The proposal would grant Russian-occupied regions “self-governance” after they hold local elections. Zelensky also agreed to withdraw troops in three locations in Ukraine. Zelensky agreed to meet both demands despite major domestic backlash.[5]

Photo: Volodymyr Zelensky visits the frontlines in Eastern Ukraine, October 2019 (President of Ukraine).

Putin has made no meaningful concessions, continued to build pressure, and kept Ukraine on the defensive over the past six months. Kremlin-controlled forced have continued to launch daily attacks, killing two Ukrainian servicemen as recently as December 1.[6] Russia has expanded control over its proxies, indicating that Putin has no intention to cede influence.[7] The Kremlin-controlled, self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) proposed extending its borders to the entire Donetsk region – more than half of which is controlled by Ukraine – in late November.[8] The Kremlin dismissed the idea of dissolving the DNR and the neighboring “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR). It took this position despite the premise of the Steinmeier Formula: that elections should be conducted under Ukrainian law, implying Ukrainian control over the territories (which are within Ukraine’s borders).[9] Russian-controlled forces delayed the disengagement in at least one of three locations by violating the ceasefire and restricted the movement of international observers.[10] Putin launched a disinformation campaign accusing Ukraine of stalling the peace process, and publicly questioned Zelensky’s ability to control his forces.[11] Putin tried to pressure Zelensky to disengage Ukrainian troops along the entire conflict line that lies entirely inside Ukraine’s borders.[12] The Kremlin has a history of applying pressure in advance of major talks. Russia launched some of its deadliest attacks against Ukrainian forces in 2014 and 2015 to compel former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to accept unfavorable Minsk I and Minsk II peace deals.

Putin also conducted outreach to key European leaders, attempting to exploit their desire to end the conflict in Ukraine. An end to the conflict – whether or not it delivers a credible peace – would provide an excuse for Germany and France to lift sanctions and reestablish economic ties with Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron, the host of the Normandy Four talks, has called for reengaging Russia and stated in November that Russia is not a threat to NATO.[13] German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Putin agreed during a call in November that Ukraine’s Donbas region should receive a “special status” – Putin’s central demand.[14]

The Kremlin continues to hold Ukraine in suspense ahead of the talks. The Kremlin’s representatives have urged attendees “not to set high expectations” for the talks, continued to obfuscate the agenda, and said that a planned one-on-one meeting between Putin and Zelensky might be “informal.”[15]

Ukraine is thus coming to the negotiating table weakened and with its sovereignty at risk.

The Stakes in Paris

Legitimization of Russian Intervention

A major risk for Ukraine and the West is the legitimization of Russia’s violation of sovereignty through military force and the resulting consequences. This risk will be realized if Russia pressures Ukraine to hold elections in Donbas or to grant special status to the region without Ukraine regaining full military and political control over its territory.

Putin has said that the special status issue will be central in the Normandy Four meeting.[16] The temporary Ukrainian law that provides Donbas with a limited autonomy expires on December 31, 2019.[17] Putin wants Ukraine to extend this law and eventually enshrine a much broader autonomy for Donbas in the Ukrainian Constitution. Putin also wants Ukraine to hold elections in the occupied territories that Russia can manipulate to retain control over its proxies. The Kremlin will insist that Ukraine satisfies political preconditions – elections – before Ukraine regains control over its border. This way the Kremlin can maintain control over its proxies in signature “hybrid warfare” fashion – by masking the proxies as local police, for example. Zelensky suggested on December 6 an idea to create a municipal guard in Donbas that would include representatives of Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the “non-combatant” elements of the LNR and DNR structures.[18] This concept is exactly the type of hybrid vehicle that the Kremlin would seek to hijack and exploit.

Any legitimization of Russian-controlled regions would irreversibly undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty. Putin would gain a permanent lever of influence over Ukraine’s policies. Russia might also attempt to use the precedent of Donbas as a model to push over time for the federalization of other regions in Ukraine. Major concessions to Russia will also fuel tension between Ukraine’s civil society and Zelensky. This tension could trigger an internal conflict in the most dangerous scenario, which would benefit the Kremlin. Ukraine would also lose leverage with Russia and the West if it voluntarily legitimizes Russian intervention.

Acceptance of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine would also legitimize Putin’s broader foreign policy vision. Russia would have established the principle that it can invade another country, manipulate the political environment, and force the country to submit to its power – all while claiming to support “peace” and presenting itself as a neutral arbiter. This will open an opportunity for Putin to legitimize its other illegal formations (e.g., in Georgia’s Abkhazia). It will create an international precedent that other countries can emulate.

Finally, submission to Russia’s hostility will empower Putin. Ukraine is a major dampener on Putin’s ambitions. Putin’s Ukraine campaign consumes a large number of the limited, high-quality assets Russia has for such interventions; drains Putin’s own bandwidth; and expends additional resources. Success in Ukraine will free up Putin’s resources and enable him to press his advantage elsewhere, from expanding Russia’s military footprint to undermining NATO to regaining suzerainty over the territories of the former Soviet Union.

Energy Dependence

Another core risk to Ukraine’s sovereignty is renewed Ukrainian dependence on Russian energy, which will likely become a topic of discussion in Paris. The Kremlin suggested at the last minute that Putin and Zelensky might discuss an existing Russia-Ukraine gas deal, which expires on January 1, at the Normandy Four talks.[19] Russia recently cleared the final procedural obstacle to the construction of its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. [20] The pipeline’s construction has been delayed, and Putin has claimed that Russia will continue using gas transit through Ukraine, but its eventual development would enable Russia to bypass the Ukrainian transit system.[21] The Nord Stream 2 project both weakens Ukraine’s position in the long term and strengthens Russia’s leverage over Europe.

Putin is trying to dilute Ukraine’s leverage by bundling the issues of energy and “peace” talks. Ukraine currently has a strong negotiating position despite the Nord Stream 2 pipeline advances. Ukraine has worked diligently to reduce its dependency on Russian gas and has gained room to maneuver.[22] Russia stands to lose revenue from gas sales and influence from the non-renewal of the contract. Russia, for example, also depends on Ukraine to deliver on its energy deals in Moldova, where Putin has a major ongoing effort to regain influence.[23] Russia also wants Ukraine to drop international arbitration claims against Russian gas giant Gazprom. Gazprom owes Ukraine $3 billion.[24] Ukraine’s additional outstanding claims against Gazprom total about $22 billion.[25]

Putin might present Zelensky with an empty concession on Donbas to secure a new energy deal on Russia’s terms.[26] The Kremlin is aware of the domestic pushback to Zelensky’s efforts to reach a deal with Russia (Ukrainian civil society members and military veterans are already preparing a major rally post-Normandy Four talks if Zelensky concedes to Putin).[27] Russia would then use a new energy deal as a major vehicle to rebuild its influence in Ukraine over time. ISW forecasted that Russia would attempt to regain its influence through economic vehicles during Zelensky’s presidency.[28]

What Can the West Do?

The West – including Normandy Four group members Germany and France – must ensure that Russia does not pressure Ukraine into compromising its sovereignty at the talks. Putin has been setting favorable conditions for these talks, but he has a number of vulnerabilities. The West has an opportunity to counter the Kremlin’s aggression and support Ukraine’s sovereignty in a number of ways:
  • Empower Ukraine to Dismiss Bad Deals. The West should provide Ukraine political cover to walk away from a deal that would surrender its sovereignty without being labeled as a “spoiler of peace” – false framing that the Kremlin continues to employ.
  • Reinforce Red Lines. The West should reinforce Zelensky’s original demand to reestablish the Ukrainian government’s full control of its borders before implementing political steps, such as elections.[29] The West should bolster Ukraine’s position that it is not possible to enshrine a “special status” for Donbas in Ukraine’s Constitution – and support Kyiv in defending the principle that Russian interference in Ukraine’s sovereign affairs, including the contents of its constitution, is unacceptable. The West should also help prevent the Kremlin from exploiting Ukraine’s ongoing decentralization reforms to mask Russia’s efforts to federalize Ukraine.
  • Deny Legitimacy. Western leaders should call out the Kremlin for what it is: a belligerent and not a mediator in the Ukrainian conflict. Putin does care about the perception of his legitimacy and invests resources in cultivating this perception. Being viewed as a legitimate actor is key to Putin’s core objective: to position Russia as a great power. The West should deny Russia international legitimacy until it changes its malign behavior. Conversely, the West should amplify the reality that Ukraine is legitimately defending its borders and its sovereignty against unprovoked and illegal Russian aggression.
  • Preserve Ukraine’s Leverage. Putin is bundling discussions regarding energy supplies with the Normandy Four talks to weaken Ukraine’s negotiating position. The West should deny this linkage and instead preserve Ukraine’s strong negotiation hand. The West should not push Ukraine to extend the existing law (expiring December 31) that provides limited special status to the DNR and LNR entities. The Kremlin’s proxies derive legitimacy for their regional autonomy in part from this law. The law’s expiration provides Kyiv a degree of leverage.
  • Leverage Sanctions. The West should not underestimate the value of sanctions against Russia, the importance of which Putin is intentionally downplaying. Sanctions, while they have not changed Putin’s intent, have dampened Russian aggression and raised the costs required for Putin to keep his inner circle and Russia’s population content. Putin is investing resources in a campaign to lift sanctions imposed following Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. The West should hold firmly its position that it will maintain and even strengthen these sanctions until Russia changes its behavior.
  • Demand Concessions. The West should insist that the complete and verifiable dissolution of all Russian-controlled armed forces and political entities, including the DNR and LNR, precedes any discussion of the “special status” issue. The West should help Ukraine push back on additional Russian demands to withdraw Ukrainian troops. Zelensky has established an unambiguous intent to move towards peace. The West should demand real concessions from Russia as a precondition to any further steps from Ukraine.

[1]Minsk II Protocol was signed at the Normandy Format meeting in February 2015. The Minsk II Protocol contains a package of measures aimed at de-escalating conflict levels in Donbas. The Minsk II Protocol includes several security and political provisions. These include establishing a ceasefire, mutual withdrawal of heavy weapons, reestablishment of Ukrainian government’s control over Ukraine’s border, amnesty for Donbas militants from criminal prosecution, and a special status in Ukrainian law granting regional autonomy for the DNR and LNR. The Minsk II Protocol has several Kremlin-preferable preconditions. The main aspect the Kremlin exploits is the Minsk II Protocol’s lack of an implementation plan. The Kremlin demands that the political preconditions, such as elections and permanent special status, are satisfied first. Such a course of action would legitimize its proxies and undermine Ukrainian sovereignty.
[2] The Normandy Four last met in Berlin in October, 2016. After that meeting, Kremlin-controlled forces continued to violate regularly a ceasefire in Donbas and refused to negotiate in good faith with former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Poroshenko and Putin’s fundamental disagreement was over the sequencing for implementing the Minsk II Protocol’s provisions. Putin argues the political provisions (Donbas special status and local elections) should be implemented first. This would legitimize the Kremlin’s proxies in Ukraine and undermine Ukrainian sovereignty. Poroshenko pushed back and demanded that the security provisions (a sustained ceasefire, the full withdrawal of Russian military assets, and the Ukrainian Government’s reestablishment of control over Ukraine’s border) be implemented first.
[3] “Zelensky’s first steps as president in case he wins election runoff – media,” UNIAN, April 10, 2019, https(:)//
[4] Zelensky agreed to the so-called “Steinmeier Formula” on October 1 that risks holding elections in Donbas on Russian terms. Thousands of Ukrainians have since been protesting in Kyiv against what they view is a capitulation to Russia. The formula – at least in its current form – provides no mechanism for the verified withdrawal of Russian forces from Donbas during the elections. The presence of Russian troops precludes a legitimate vote. The Kremlin claimed that it does not have control over the DNR and LNR on October 7 in response to a question about the Kremlin’s willingness to guarantee the disengagement of its proxies. This feint indicates the Kremlin’s unwillingness to guarantee disengagement of its forces. The Kremlin might create a veneer of compliance using its signature hybrid tactics. For example, it may order some of its proxies to temporarily stand down or leave the territory, but the majority of the Russia-controlled forces will likely stay. This plan also ignores Russia’s control of the information space in Donbas that would influence any vote. Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Putin Advances in Ukraine and its Neighboring States,” The Institute for the Study of War, October 15, 2019.
[5] “Thousands in Kyiv Protest President's Plan for Local Elections in Eastern Ukraine,” Voice of America, October 6, 2019,
[6] [“Details about the Deaths of SBU Spetsnaz in Donbas Emerge,”] Lenta, December 5, 2019, https://lenta(.)ua/vyyasnilis-obstoyatelstva-gibeli-na-donbasse-ukrainskih-spetsnazovtsev-iz-sbu-alfa-30723/.
[7] Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Putin Advances in Ukraine and Its Neighboring States,” The Institute for the Study of War, October 15,2019,;[“Fighters from 'DNR' and 'LNR' Created a New Cross Border Concern,”] Lenta, August 8, 2019, https://lenta((.))ua/boeviki-iz-dnr-i-lnr-sozdali-novyy-transgranichnyy-kontsern-20873/; [“‘DNR’ and ‘LNR’ Combined the Railways in the Concern ‘Railways of Donbass,”] Antikor, August 19, 2019, https://antikor(.), [“The Russian Federation is Preparing Occupied Donbas’ Banking System for Integration – InformNapalm,”] Gordon, August 21, 2019, https://gordonua(.)com/news/war/rf-gotovit-bankovskuyu-sistemu-okkupirovannogo-donbassa-k-integracii-informnapalm-1210939.html.
[8] [“Pushilin Commented on the Passage of the DNR Law on Borders,”] RIA Novosti, November 29, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20191129/1561764355.html.
[9] [“Pushkov Commented on Kyiv’s Demand to Dissolve the DNR and LNR,”] RIA Novosti, October 16, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20191016/1559836500.html; [“Putin Spoke about the Steinmeier Formula,”] RIA Novosti, November 14, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20191114/1560957297.html.
[10] “OSCE Daily Report 259/2019,” Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, November 1, 2019, https((:))//
[11] [“Putin: Zelensky Can Not Provide Withdrawal of Forces and Weapons from Donbas Because of Nationalists,”] TASS, October 11, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/politika/6988942.
[12] [“Putin Called for the Withdrawal of Troops Along the Entire Front Line in Donbas as Soon as Possible,”] Ukraina, November 15, 2019, https://ukraina(.)ru/news/20191115/1025679793.html.
[13] Mike Brest, “Macron says Russia is no longer NATO's enemy,” Washington Examiner, November 29, 2019,
[14] [“They Want a Special Status for Donbass: What Putin and Merkel Agreed on has Become Known,”] Obozrevatel, November 15, 2019, https://www.obozrevatel(.)com/abroad/putin-pogovoril-s-merkel-pro-donbass-novosti-mira-segodnya.htm.
[15] [“Putin Gave a Negative Outlook on the Normandy Meeting,”] Zik, November 30, 2019, https://zik(.)ua/ru/news/2019/11/30/u_putina_dali_negativnyy_prognoz_otnositelno_normandskoy_vstrechi_947507.
[16] [“’There is Nothing to Talk About’ Without the Law on Donbas Special Status, at the "Normandy Four" – Putin,”] Ukraina, November 15, 2019, https://ukraina(.)ru/news/20191115/1025680515.html.
[17] If the special status is not renewed by Ukrainian Parliament (the Rada) on December 31, 2019, the existing special status law is nullified via the sunset clause. Ukraine first adopted a law providing special status to the occupied areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in October in 2014. The law granted the DNR and LNR limited regional autonomy, self-determination in cultural and linguistic policies, a guarantee of amnesty for Russian proxies from criminal prosecution that the Kremlin demanded in the Minsk II Protocol. The Kremlin frames these political concessions as the necessary minimum requirements to resume diplomatic contact with Ukraine on the war in Donbas. The law on special status had a three-year sunset clause. The Rada passed a law on October 4, 2018, to extend Donbas special status’ sunset clause to December 31, 2019.
[18] [“Zelensky Proposed Creating of a ‘Municipal Guard’ in Donbas. The Kremlin Reacted,”] NV UA, December 6, 2019, https://nv(.)ua/ukraine/politics/zelenskiy-hochet-sozdat-municipalnuyu-strazhu-na-donbasse-reakciya-rossii-novosti-ukrainy-50057788.html.
[19] [“Putin Plans to Discuss a Gas Contract with Zelensky in Paris – Peskov,”] 112 Ukraine, November 11, 2019, https://112(.)ua/politika/putin-planiruet-v-parizhe-obsudit-s-zelenskim-gazovyy-kontrakt-peskov-516753.html.
[20] Stine Jacobsen, Vladimir Soldatkiv, “Nord Stream 2 clears major hurdle as Denmark OKs gas pipeline,” Reuters, October 30, 2019, “Russia won’t stop gas transit through Ukraine when Nord Stream 2 becomes operational – Putin,” RT, December 6, 2019, https://www.rt(.)com/business/475192-russia-nord-stream2-ukraine/.
[21] “Russia won’t stop gas transit through Ukraine when Nord Stream 2 becomes operational – Putin,” RT, December 6, 2019, https://www.rt(.)com/business/475192-russia-nord-stream2-ukraine/.
[22] Andriy Kobolyev, CEO of Ukraine’s state-owned gas operator Naftogaz, praised Ukraine’s energy independence from Russia on November 26. Kobolyev noted that Ukraine went from being "more than 90 percent" dependent on Russian gas in 2013 to not importing any Russian natural gas since 2015. Ukraine’s domestic gas production satisfies approximately two-thirds of Ukraine’s gas demand, with the remainder imported from over 65 companies from 18 different European suppliers. “Naftogaz CEO Touts Ukraine’s First Receipt Of U.S. Liquefied Gas,” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, November 27, 2019,; [“Ukrainians Will be Offered the Insurance on the Gas Prices: What Does it Mean,”] Hvylya, November 22, 2019, https://hvylya(.)net/news/digest/ukraincam-predlozhat-strahovuju-cenu-na-gaz-chto-jeto-znachit.html.
[23] Russia needs Ukraine’s gas transit system to supply Moldova. Russia promised a significant gas discount to the new government in Moldova. Starting on January 1, 2020, Moldova will receive Russian gas at $173 per thousand cubic meters compared to the current price of $235. This is a 26% price reduction and will impact Gazprom’s income. Russian gas exports to Moldova depend on transit through Ukraine’s gas transit system. Russia’s logistical methods for gas export to Moldova are limited without Ukrainian transit. Ukraine offered Moldova’s state gas operator Ukrainian gas if Gazprom’s gas transit contract is not renewed. Nataliya Bugayova with Mason Clark and Andre Biere, “Russia in Review: the Kremlin Reverses Setbacks in Moldova,” The Institute for the Study of War, December 6, 2019,
[24] “Ukraine’s Naftogaz Pledges to Press on with Russia’s Gas Talks,” Reuters, November 25, 2019,
[25] Russia and Ukraine’s state-owned gas operators, Gazprom and Naftogaz, have been in deadlocked negotiations since September 2019. Ukrainian officials have signaled the Ukrainian Government is prepared for the potential end of gas transit with Russia. Ukraine stopped importing Russian gas for domestic consumption in 2015. Gazprom and Naftogaz have not been able to agree to renew their contract because Gazprom demands Ukraine must drop all its claims in international arbitration. Naftogaz previously said it would only drop its pending claims against Gazprom (which currently total $22 billion) if Gazprom presents incentives equivalent to the same value, such as those that could result from a lucrative long-term gas transit deal. Ukraine is not willing to nullify the $3 billion in damages Gazprom already owes Ukraine. Ukrainian officials argue that backing away from its claims makes is “not economically feasible,” as it means forgoing the $3 billion in awards already granted to Ukraine. “Naftogaz to Push Forward with Gazprom Legal Claims Despite Transit Warning,” S&P Global, November 13, 2019,
[26] The Kremlin demands Ukraine nullify the $3 billion in damages Gazprom already owes Ukraine over breeches in contracts and the pending $22 billion in pending international arbitration. The Kremlin also maintains Ukraine’s Antimonopoly Committee must annul its fine on Gazprom for alleged abuse of its dominant position and Naftogaz must withdraw its application to the European Commission to initiate an investigation against Gazprom for foul play. Stuart Elliott, “Gazprom makes official proposal to Ukraine's Naftogaz for 1-year gas transit deal,” S&P Global, November 18, 2019, https://www.spglobal(.)com/platts/en/market-insights/latest-news/natural-gas/111819-gazprom-makes-official-proposal-to-ukraines-naftogaz-for-1-year-gas-transit-deal.
[27] [“Tents and Sandwiches at Bankova: What for Maidan against Capitulation is being Prepared Against Zelensky,”] Depo.Ua, December 6, 2019, https://www.depo(.)ua/ukr/life/v-ochikuvanni-zradi-na-normandskiy-zustrichi-yak-v-kievi-gotuyutsya-do-tretogo-maydanu-201912061075415.
[28] Nataliya Bugayova, “Ukraine's New President: The Stakes for Ukraine and the West,” Institute for the Study of War, April 22, 2019,
[29] Oleksyi Vinogradov, Tetyana Yakubovych, [“The border should be ours,”] Radio Liberty, October 2, 2019,