One week into March, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky called to convene the Normandy Format. The purpose of the Normandy Format, which consists of the heads of states of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine, is to arrange for a peaceful, negotiated end to the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region. The last Normandy Group summit was in 2019 in Paris; the 2020 summit, despite support from Berlin, Kyiv, and Paris, was not held due to Moscow’s opposition. President Zelensky has vowed to pursue the Normandy Format. However, he noted that if no 2021 summit occurs in the next few months, he will speak with the Normandy Format’s members in individual bilateral talks with the aim to discuss a new forum altogether.
The Normandy Format, however, holds no value but to assist the Kremlin’s aim in prolonging the conflict to create maximum instability within Ukraine. Moscow insists that the Minsk Group (itself a derivative of the Normandy Format) should be the main forum for negotiating a peaceful conclusion to the conflict. Russia has in effect three chairs in the Minsk Group given the representation of the unrecognized Donetsk and Luhansk Republics, and there is no direct Western participation other than the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Russian President Putin has long insisted that federalization of Ukraine should be amended into the Ukrainian Constitution to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians. And Russia’s Normandy Format representative Dmitry Kozak has insisted in 2020 to include the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics into the Normandy Format; Berlin and Paris then conceded to his demand to allow the Minsk Group’s moderator to participate in future Normandy meetings.
Within this multilateral grouping, Kyiv is disadvantaged. In France, Ukraine is seen as expendable. French President Macron is willing to sacrifice Ukraine in order to incorporate Russia into a common European security structure to rebuild France’s international clout. And Macron’s rival for the presidency, French ultranationalist Marine le Pen, has close ties to the Kremlin. Germany, in its pursuit of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, has already shrugged off Ukraine. The only country in the Normandy Group interested in Ukraine is Russia, and not in the way Kyiv would like. As it is, the Normandy Group cannot achieve a peaceful, negotiated settlement in Ukraine.
The United States should take advantage of the Normandy Group’s failure to insert itself into the ongoing negotiations. Washington has long been Ukraine’s staunchest defender against Russian aggression, and U.S. President Joseph Biden has reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to a sovereign Ukraine. The Biden Administration should thus encourage the dissolution of the Normandy Format in favor a new multilateral negotiation process that includes the United States. This new grouping should include the United States, Ukraine, Russia, France, Germany, and Turkey; the new forum should also specifically exclude the illegitimate Donetsk and Luhansk republics.
This new forum would benefit Ukraine, the United States, and Europe. With the United States involved in the negotiations, Washington can prevent Moscow from strongarming Kyiv into disadvantageous terms. Additionally, participating in such a multilateral forum, beyond demonstrating firm U.S. commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty, would help the Biden administration restore confidence in the world of a United States committed to its alliances and a rules-based world order.
Bringing Turkey into the discussion would also be beneficial to the region. Relations between Turkey and the West have deteriorated since Turkey’s air force downed a Russian fighter in 2015, and exacerbated by Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system and its naval gas exploration expeditions in Cypriot waters. However, Turkey is an important member of NATO and partner of the West, its value going beyond its control of the Bosporus and Dardanelle Straits. Ankara has successfully balanced Moscow in the South Caucasus, and is contributing to Ukraine’s defense. Involving Turkey in a new forum would not only benefit the negotiations by bringing in a genuinely neutral mediator to the conflict, but also as a step to restoring relations with a strategically important partner. Should Russia reject a new multilateral format as described, then Moscow should be excluded until it agrees to join. Such exclusion would show the Western resolve needed to convince the Kremlin to curtail its aggressive acts and pursue reasonable negotiation. It is time for President Biden to end the failed Normandy format and show to Ukraine and the world that Washington stands with Kyiv.