Why the Paris Meeting Didn’t Shake the World

Eeyore, looking at his own reflection and critically analysing what he saw, looked more optimistic than Vladimir Zelensky at the press conference following the Paris meeting in the “Normandy Format”.

The President of Ukraine behaved as if he did not understand how seriously he had conceded (or did not concede) during the negotiations, or whether he had held Ukraine’s position or violated the covenants of the “Party of War”.

Zelensky’s opening remarks looked like a report to the Kiev protestors who had gathered outside his office with “No capitulation!” posters. He carefully listed all “principled” points of the Ukrainian position, formalised under Poroshenko and successfully blocking the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. At the same time, Zelensky constantly stressed that he had brought Ukraine’s position to his negotiation partners. However, from the speeches of Macron, Merkel, and Putin it appeared that they had in mind the pretty boring nonsense of yet another Ukrainian President.

Zelensky was forced to accept the without-alternative Minsk Agreements, and “mother” Merkel, looking at Zelensky like an unreasonable boy, more often and more actively than even the Russian president listed the paragraphs of these Agreements, which Ukraine must comply with.

If to not take into account the fact that Zelensky agreed to play the President of Ukraine completely voluntarily, he could be understood. He does not know why the Ukrainian Nazis pester him if he voices and implements their same program – he does exactly what Petro Poroshenko did. It is unclear to him why France and Germany (seemingly allies of Ukraine) support Vladimir Putin on all counts, and not him. He is afraid to return to Kiev because he really does not understand what the real result of the negotiations that just took place with his participation, but knows exactly that nationalist radicals will still declare him a traitor of Ukraine’s interests.

I don’t know who in Zelensky’s team six months ago, when he was just elected president, came up with the idea of seeking a meeting in the “Normandy Format”. I can assume that this man has little knowledge of international politics and was seriously drugged by Ukrainian propaganda. Zelensky’s entourage and he himself clearly assumed that everyone would be happy to agree to meet Ukraine’s new president (because, as they thought, partners were tired of Poroshenko, not the position of Ukraine). They believed that during the meeting Zelensky would be able to declare the need to reconsider the Minsk Agreements signed by the “corrupt Poroshenko regime” as not being in line with Ukraine’s national interests. They were confident that France and Germany would support them, and Russia would have nowhere to go. Zelensky was thus to begin his reign with an outstanding foreign policy victory.

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Reality turned out to be much more prosaic than the rainbow dreams of failed Talleyrands [Ukrainian “patriots” – ed]. Moscow took the idea of holding a meeting with indifference. The Kremlin said that it was possible to meet, there would be something to talk about, because it was tired of babble. To Kiev’s surprise, Paris and Berlin supported Russia in this matter. Moreover, they prevented Ukraine from quietly winding up the meeting that was declared as necessary. Kiev was forced to make preliminary concessions (exchange of held persons [albeit not all of them], disengagement of troops in three previously agreed zones, and a preliminary agreement on the final document of the meeting).

Already at this stage the Ukrainian opposition actively used the topic of concessions to pressure Zelensky (threatening him with a new Maidan). It became clear that the meeting in the Normandy Format would be used by France, Germany, and Russia to advance their (generally close) positions. Zelensky was supposed to bring problems instead of PR. Rather, Zelensky could use this to solve his domestic political problems and strengthen his power if he understood anything about politics and assessed the situation realistically.

He would understand that Paris, Berlin, and Moscow need to move forward in the implementation of Minsk; that he would be supported if he demonstrated his ability to resolve the issue; that, with this support, he can not only neutralise street radicals, but also significantly reduce the influence of oligarchs on his team; that, finally, the newly elected president, who still has a high approval rating and enjoys the support of Russia, France, and Germany, is very difficult to overthrow, especially since the US is involved in an internecine fight; that the division of American elites and society will last a long time, and Washington cannot seriously intervene in Ukrainian affairs at this stage.

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But Zelensky understood politics at the level of a “95th Quarter” reprise, and this condemned him to a failed summit.

At the same time, Putin, Merkel, and Macron assessed the situation well. They were well aware that, with all of Zelensky’s mediocrity as president, they would not get the best negotiating partner from Ukraine. The next one will be worse. So they tried to blur Zelensky’s failure as much as possible. Many good words were said about the importance of this (meaningless in fact) meeting, and the moment of Zelensky’s recognition of the Minsk Agreements (which he came to cancel) as having no alternative was not emphasised. Most importantly, it was announced that another meeting would take place in four months.

Of course, in order for it to really take place, Zelensky still has to do his homework. But the most important thing happened – the leaders of the three countries agreed that it is possible to have a dialogue with Zelensky. It is a signal to the Ukrainian elites that an attempt to overthrow Zelensky will not be welcomed by Russia or the EU. The new government will have problems with international legitimacy, up to the blocking of its participation in international organisations (from the UN to the Council of Europe).

The three leaders of the Normandy Four gave Zelensky a pass; they issued him something like security clearance. It is only necessary to remember that the cardinal in the Three Musketeers issued My Lady security clearance, except she could not use it. Will Zelensky be able to take advantage of the support he has been given? Not sure. Judging by his unhappy face at the press conference, he didn’t even realise how lucky he was.

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I am afraid that I will not be mistaken if I say that when he returns to Ukraine, Zelensky will again start to search for a common language with nationalist radicals. He will once again prove to them that he is one of them, that he shares their views and values. He will swear that he did not concede a millimetre to Putin in Paris and will wonder why everyone is flogging him again.

Not a politician by education, by experience of previous activity, or finally by vocation, Zelensky looks at the groping political mechanisms around him with the horror of Mowgli, who has found himself no longer in the virgin forest but in the center of a modern metropolis full of mechanical monsters, moving and stopping, swallowing and spitting people according to some obscure savage algorithm. He is afraid to perform any action because he cannot calculate its consequences.

As a result, Zelensky gave himself a passive role, about the same as being a football. During the match the ball is in the spotlight all the time. But no one is worried about its fate. If necessary, it will be replaced at any moment by another ball. Everyone strikes and kicks the ball: it is done by the players of both teams, the ballboys, sometimes the referees, and sometimes even the spectators. And not at all because they don’t love it. It’s just such the job of the ball. And Zelensky didn’t become an independent player and no longer will become one. This is the main outcome of the Paris meeting, which did not shake the world.

Rostislav Ishchenko

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