The Role of Germany and France in the Negotiations of the Donbass Conflict in Eastern Ukraine Published Feb. 24, 2022 By Prof. Anna Batta Wild Blue Yonder -- (This article was based on field research in November 2021. An updated article reflecting the commencement of hostilities will be forthcoming.) In April of 2021, increased Russian force mobilization has caused elevated concern for U.S. European Command as over 100,000 Russian troops gathered in Crimea and along the Ukrainian border in addition to the observed heightened activity of the Russian Black Sea Fleet on the Sea of Azov.1 Russia interpreted the annual NATO exercise, Defender-21, which began in March, as threatening; and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu argued that they must do “everything that is necessary to ensure the security of [their] borders.”2 In November 2021, Russian military movement along the Ukrainian border once again raised concerns of a possibility of renewed tensions.3 Back in December of 2019, newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy approached the Normandy Format talks with optimism. At the time, there were signs of possible headway toward conflict resolution with Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding the Donbass conflict in Eastern Ukraine. After their first meeting, that optimism slowly dissipated and the conflict is increasingly looking to morph into another frozen conflict, all too familiar in Russia’s Near Abroad, such as in Georgia and Moldova. Since the start of the conflict in 2014, various methods have been discussed and tried, such as economic sanctions, mediation, negotiation, civil society engagement at the grassroot level, and changing institutional arrangements, along with a combination of these methods. The European preference has been to focus on mediation as a form of conflict management to avoid direct military involvement. It is important to understand the value of European engagement in European security problems when discussing this conflict because it aligns with the notion of strategic autonomy in Europe. This paper assesses the role of Germany and France in the negotiation process as the two key mediators within the Normandy Format and the Minsk Protocol. In addition, potential roadblocks holding up the talks are also evaluated. Results of interviews conducted with government officials who participated in the talks and experts in Berlin and Paris in the summer of 2021 provide the backbone of the analysis.4 Given their political and economic weight in the European Union, Germany and France have been instrumental in the peace process of the Donbass conflict which has taken over 13,000 lives in Eastern Ukraine since its outbreak between the separatists and the Ukrainian military. While Russia officially denies the presence of Russian military personnel in separatist territories, evidence suggests that Russian troops are actively participating in the conflict alongside the separatists.5 In addition, Russian figures with more political experience supplemented local insurgents.6 By initiating the negotiations, the immediate goal of Germany and France was to calm the conflict and to prevent the worst; and there seems to be a consensus among government officials and experts that this was accomplished. However, one cannot speak of an immediate possibility of conflict resolution at this time and the negotiation process has stalled because both sides lack the interest to move forward toward progress. Overall, there is a power asymmetry in the conflict, and one of the primary roles of Germany and France was to counterbalance this asymmetry during negotiations. In other words, Ukraine needed the help of these two European powers to come to an agreement with Russia, which reemerged as a great power on the world stage. Also, France and Germany have given legitimacy to the peace process and the Minsk I and II agreements which Russia and Ukraine signed. Presently, their more immediate role is to make sure that the topic of conflict management stays on the political agenda, especially with Angela Merkel’s effort of keeping the channels of communication open between Russia and Ukraine. Her recent visits to both Kyiv and Moscow in August 2021 before the election in Germany and before stepping down as Chancellor, attest to following through with this role in the future. From an overarching European security strategic perspective, Germany’s role also fits nicely with France’s role regarding the notion of strategic autonomy of Europe. Europe is increasingly becoming more responsible for its own security rather than relying on the U.S. The Eastern Ukrainian case is one example of moving forward with this objective. In a way, the role of Germany and France is an alternative to the U.S. role in this conflict. At the start of the war, President Obama indicated that he was against supplying heavy weapons to Ukraine. Chancellor Merkel and then Vice President Biden also preferred a non-military option. However, Senator John McCain criticized the approach of appeasement policy toward Russia and would have preferred to send weapons to Ukraine instead. Germany’s role was critical in the peace process early on, especially engaging with Russia. The German view has been that safety is only possible in Eastern Europe with Russia on-board. There is a general understanding in Germany that a working relationship with Russia is necessary because Russia is simply too close and can do a lot of harm. Having said that, at present, the relationship between Russia and Germany is ambivalent and tense. As Head of State, Chancellor Merkel has had more direct talks with President Putin than any other Western leader; many with limited success, which includes the topic of the Ukraine crisis. With her stepping down, there is an anticipation that it is going to be even more difficult to engage with Russia in the future. Germany’s solid position in the European Union at the onset of the conflict as well as Merkel’s close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko enabled that Germany had the trust and respect of both parties, something especially crucial for the role of a key mediator. Such dynamics have enabled Germany to drive the process. Hence, some experts argue that Germany’s role was more critical than France’s in the negotiations. After the annexation of Crimea, none of the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum took direct steps to address Russian wrongdoing.7 Even after events started in the Donbass, Western powers moved slowly and only Germany stepped up and took up a role which it normally has not taken in international conflicts. France has reacted negatively to the Crimea and Donbass incidents as well; and President Francois Hollande used the opportunity of the anniversary of D-Day in Normandy to invite Presidents Putin and Poroshenko for talks which took place on 6 June 2014. This meeting, which was termed the Normandy Format, and was the initiative of the President of France Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, involved the direct participation of the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France. Some experts and officials argue that the U.S. gave Germany the lead to start the negotiations, and France provided the occasion for the high-level talks on the matter. Chancellor Merkel has strongly supported Ukraine’s progress toward becoming a member of the European Union and likely resented that Ukraine not signing the EU Association Agreement served as a catalyst for the Euromaidan in Kyiv. In a way, she felt a moral and political obligation to invest political capital into Ukraine as it was moving forward to becoming more European in terms of its value system. At the same time, Germany saw that defending Ukraine as the weaker partner in the conflict was the right thing to do. It remains to be seen how German foreign policy will develop with the new administration. In both Germany and France, there are different groups with different stances toward the conflict and Russia. On one hand, there is clear support for the Ukrainian government and its move toward the EU. On the other hand, some segments of the political elite do not want to completely ruin the relationship with Russia. Therefore, the overall ambivalence toward Russia will likely stay in German politics even after Merkel departs. As part of her legacy, Merkel feels that Germany should continue to mediate even after she is gone. She reiterated this in August when she visited Kyiv and Moscow. The two visits shone the spotlight onto the conflict once again, despite the fact that the negotiations are currently stagnant. It reminded the parties that the dialogue must be kept and that they have an agreement that both sides are violating. Shifting to France’s role in the negotiations, it needs to be emphasized that France, similarly to Germany does not tolerate Russian violations of international law, and that it communicated clearly to the Russian side that there are limits. In addition, there are no major structural differences between French and German diplomacy, and the two countries do not have dramatically different views of Russia. There might be nuances and different personal ties; however, there are no major differences in the overall view on the approach and intended outcome. In general terms, many perceive France as somewhat more pro-Russian, whereas many view Germany perhaps as more balanced in their respective foreign policy choices. The underlying logic is that France views itself as a superpower, especially because they have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and as such, they see eye-to-eye with Russia. At the same time, the German side is taking small steps and tries to create an ambiance where everyone has the same rights at the table, including Ukraine, a brand new state with less negotiating power than everyone else. At the start of the conflict, the role of France was less clear, and it still is to some extent. Francois Hollande was perceived as a weak president, however, he supported Merkel. The French media presented Hollande as a puppy following in Merkel’s footsteps. Some experts argue that France participated in the talks because it did not want Germany to go alone. Incorporating France into the process prevented a solution that could have been viewed as Germany’s alone, rather than perhaps a European way. France did not appear to be driving the process in the beginning, which has changed considerably with Macron’s presidency; but some analysts go as far as saying that neither Hollande nor Macron have real interest in solving the conflict. This ties in with the notion that France does not have any specific interest in Ukraine, whereas Germany does. As mentioned, the political landscape in France is divided over policy regarding Russia. This is especially visible with respect to the imposition of sanctions. After the European Union and United States imposed economic sanctions on Russia, France has been impacted by Russian retaliatory sanctions that targeted French agricultural and pharmaceutical products. While the sanctions debate was more intense early on, after several years, both sides have become more accustomed to the damaging effects of mutual sanctions on their respective economies. The negotiations regarding the Donbass conflict are at a stand-still today primarily because neither the Russian nor the Ukrainian side seems to be interested in moving forward the process. One of the main roadblocks is that Russia continuously argues that it is not part of the conflict and merely serves as a mediator, denying that the Russian military is helping the separatists. Another aspect stalling the talks is the disagreement related to the sequence of implementation of the various elements of the Minsk agreement.8 Since 2017, Petro Poroshenko wanted to accomplish security first and then conduct elections in the two administrative units of Donetsk and Luhansk. The Russian position, however, would like to see both security and election issues resolved together. In other words, Ukraine would prefer to conduct elections after security is resolved so that Russia cannot manipulate the elections. These and other problems will continue to plague German and French efforts to effectively mediate a solution to the Donbass conflict in the future. Dr. Anna Batta Dr. Anna Batta is an Associate Professor of International Security Studies and the Course Director for the Global Security course in the Department of International Security Studies at Air War College. She is also the Language Program Liaison at Air War College. Dr. Batta’s teaching and research interests include Russian politics and foreign policy, Eastern European politics, and the politics of authoritarian states. She has published in academic journals, such as Ethnopolitics, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, Civil Wars, and Party Politics. Her book, The Russian Minorities in the former Soviet Republics: Secession, Integration, and Homeland, was published in December 2021 with Routledge. Dr. Batta holds a PhD in Political Science in Conflict Studies from the University of North Texas and an Honors BA in Political Science from the University of Texas at Arlington. She grew up in Hungary during the Cold War and attended the National University of Public Service in Budapest. Notes 1 Cyrus Newlin, "Unpacking the Russian Troop Buildup along Ukraine’s Border," Center for Strategic and International Studies, 21 April 2021,https://www.csis.org/. 2 Lauren Giella, "Russia Will Do What Is 'Necessary' to Secure Borders, Despite Troop Pullback: Defense Minister," Newsweek, 28 April 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/. 3 Amy Mackinnon, "U.S. Eyes Russian Military Movement Near Ukraine Border," Foreign Policy, 1 November 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/; Paul Sonne, Robyn Dixon, and David L. Stern, "Russian troop movements near Ukraine border prompt concern in U.S., Europe," The Washington Post, 30 October 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/. 4 People interviewed for this paper wish to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of this conflict. 5 International Crisis Group. 2015. The Ukraine crisis: risks of renewed military conflict after Minsk II., 6, https://www.crisisgroup.org/; Sabine Fisher, "The Donbass Conflict", SWP Research Paper, 2019, https://www.swp-berlin.org/. 6 Anna Matveeva, "No Moscow Stooges: Identity Polarization and Guerilla Movements in Donbass." Southeast European and Black Sea Studies. 16:1 (2016), 36. 7 The Budapest Memorandum was a document signed in 1994 by the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The document made assurances to Ukraine that if it agrees to give up its nuclear weapons, there will be repercussions in case its territorial integrity is threatened. As a result, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons stockpile, the third largest in the world at the time. 8 Sabine Fisher, "The Donbass Conflict", SWP Research Paper, 2019, https://www.swp-berlin.org/.