The French format: On Macron’s shuttle diplomacy between Russia and Ukraine

If Normandy Format talks could be convened, it would be a breakthrough for Russia, Ukraine

Updated - February 10, 2022 12:57 am IST

Published - February 10, 2022 12:02 am IST

French President Emmanuel Macron’s shuttle diplomacy between Russia and Ukraine is one of the most significant interventions in the crisis ever since tensions started soaring in Eastern Europe. Mr. Macron, who has held talks with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kiev, has said that both sides remain committed to the Minsk accords (2014-15), aimed at ending the violence between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists in the east; Mr. Putin assured him that Russia would not escalate the crisis. Put together, these statements offer a path towards calming the Russia-Ukraine tensions. Moscow has issued sweeping demands, including rolling back NATO from Eastern Europe, which the West has rejected. But Russia’s key concerns are the growing NATO-Ukraine cooperation and the increasing western presence in the Black Sea. The U.S. had earlier offered dialogue on mutually reducing military drills in the eastern flank of Europe. And what Mr. Macron is trying to do now, through the Normandy Format talks (including France, Germany, Russia, Ukraine), is for a Moscow-Kiev dialogue based on the Minsk protocol, which, in theory, was accepted by both sides.

The crisis has also laid bare the differences within the western bloc on how to deal with Russia. While the Biden administration has threatened to shut down Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the event of a Russian invasion, the German leadership has been less specific in its response. Germany has barred Estonia, the tiny NATO member that shares a border with Russia, from supplying arms to Ukraine. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who met Mr. Putin in the Kremlin earlier this month, has said Russia’s demands were reasonable. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who visited Ukraine last week, has offered to host a peace summit. And now, Mr. Macron, who says the West “must respect Russia”, has already moved ahead. These varied responses, despite Joe Biden’s assertion of unity, show that Europe has less appetite for conflict with Russia. As a continent that experienced two disastrous World Wars and a Cold War, Europe understandably adopts pragmatic realism. But what needs to be seen is whether France and Germany have the diplomatic muscle to calm Russian nerves without making compromises on the continent’s security. A starting point could be reviving the Minsk process. The accords call for a general amnesty for the rebels, constitutional amendments giving the breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine more autonomy and the handing over of Ukraine’s borders to its army. None of the clauses in the agreement has been implemented. If the Normandy Format talks could be convened and Russia and Ukraine take steps to revive the agreement, it would be a diplomatic breakthrough.

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