Top leaders in France and Germany are making it clear that they are still determined to stick to the Minsk Agreements regardless of the fragile nature of these agreements and escalation in Donbas.

From left: French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko leave a news conference during a meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Monday, Aug. 24, 2015. Photo: AP

On August 29, telephone negotiations were held between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French and German counterparts François Hollande and Angela Merkel. The leaders discussed issues concerning the conflict in Donbas and the fate of the Normandy Format.

At the earlier Berlin meeting between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Hollande and Merkel, suggestions were made to alter the Normandy Format. However, the leaders of Russia, France, and Germany confirmed their intention to preserve and maintain the Normandy Format.

The telephone negotiations between Putin, Merkel and Hollande can be seen as a response to the meeting in Berlin on August 24, a meeting that involved the French president, the German chancellor and the Ukrainian president.

This Berlin meeting was notable for at least two reasons.

Firstly, on the eve of the meeting, the Ukrainian military stepped up attacks on Donetsk and Gorlovka. This gave rise to numerous articles suggesting that Angela Merkel and François Hollande tried to dissuade Petro Poroshenko from starting a new military campaign.

For a different take read: "How the Berlin meeting could change our thinking about the Ukraine crisis"

Secondly, the meeting in Berlin took place without the participation of the president of Russia. All last year, the Normandy Four has acted as the main platform for regulating the conflict in Donbas. Now, it looks like the “Berlin Trio” is being added or at least a “three plus one” format.

The main intrigue of the summit was, perhaps, the Berlin Trio’s surprisingly soft position for the negotiations. Moscow has not made any loud statements about any threat of the Normandy Format collapsing and has made no threats concerning the consequences of such a step.

On the contrary, Russia has officially welcomed the Berlin meeting. It seems that the Kremlin is not against Germany and France taking over the role of mediator in resolving the Ukrainian conflict, at least, not at this stage. The question is whether the German diplomats cope with the objectivity assigned to the role of being chief mediator.

New negotiating format

Having said that German diplomats are to play the role of intermediary, there needs to be some elaboration of what this means. There were different nuances in Merkel’s and Hollande’s speeches. The German chancellor announced that the series of agreements comprising the Minsk 2 Agreements must remain as the basis for regulating the Ukrainian conflict. The French president observed that it was important to retain a window for dialogue with Russia.

Between French and German diplomacy, it appears, there is a new division of roles: Berlin has stepped up as a guarantor for the Minsk accords while Paris is attempting to take on the role of negotiator with Russia.

There are objective reasons for such a specialization of roles. In Ukraine, the prestige of German diplomacy remains high, given that Germany supported the Eastern Partnership program to the very end and was an initiator of anti-Russian sanctions in the EU.

In Russia, on the contrary, over the past year anti-German sentiment has grown. The policy of sanctions implemented by Angela Merkel’s cabinet was interpreted in Moscow as a betrayal by a traditional partner. (And in the Russian mentality, a traitor is worse than an enemy).

Paris, on the other hand, after Hollande’s visit to Moscow on December 6, 2014, has demonstrated preparedness to compromise with Russia. This feeling has strengthened since the recent visit of French parliamentarians to Crimea.

Furthermore, Merkel’s cabinet has confirmed its status as a key European partner for the U.S. Specialist circles still discuss the possibility of bringing Washington into the Normandy Format. In practice, this option has long ago lost any meaning. American diplomacy has effectively delegated part of its authority to Germany, which is implementing American initiatives.

In the last year, Berlin has managed to save Ukraine from defeat, “freeze” the conflict in the middle of Donbas and provide financial support for the government of Arseny Yatsenyuk. Merkel’s cabinet has also maintained EU unity on the issue of extending anti-Russian sanctions. All of these tasks fit the strategic direction of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration.

Berlin, incidentally, has instruments for influencing Poroshenko’s administration. Breaking the Minsk 2 agreement is somewhat harder for Kiev than Minsk 1: after all, Germany is Kiev’s guarantor. A new military campaign in Donbas will be a clear failure in German diplomacy. For this reason, the Ukrainian government aims to use provocations so that a failure of the Minsk 2 accord looks like the militias are to blame. Otherwise, a change in Berlin’s relations could cause financial and political difficulties for Poroshenko’s administration.

Berlin’s success

The updated negotiating format helps Germany to partly redeem itself for the negative results of 2010, when Britain took on a larger role. Then, after the dissolution of the Western European Union, France and Britain signed the Lancaster House Agreements on a privileged military and political partnership.

Talk began in the European Union about the formation of a Franco-British tandem, which has been successfully tested during the Libyan war and the Syrian crisis. The British and French bloc has dramatically weakened Germany’s resources, effectively isolating Berlin from solving key problems in the EU's military policy.

The Normandy Format has enabled Merkel’s cabinet to partially change the situation. Paris is again cooperating with Berlin, and not with London. British diplomacy was extremely active during the Crimean crisis in spring 2014, essentially isolating it from resolving key European problems. Britain’s return to European politics, which looked like a fait accompli in 2011-12, stopped. Germany consolidated EU unity in regards to the Ukrainian conflict and in this way took away Britain’s traditional role as a key U.S. partner in Europe.

The renewal of their traditional partnership with France will make it easier for Germany to implement its own interests in the European Union. Since the end of 2011, the cabinet of British Prime Minister David Cameron has taken up a position against the German directorship of the EU, but without the support of France, it will be much harder for Britain to torpedo German initiatives.

Eastern European countries that have traditionally closely cooperated with British diplomacy have also oriented themselves on Berlin. Not Britain, but Germany has taken on the role as leader of a common European front to work with the United States. This is increasing the isolation of the British rebellion in the European Union.

Berlin’s difficulties

However, the role of the “key mediator” comes with great risks for German diplomacy. It is essentially becoming hostage to Kiev’s preparedness to abide by the Minsk 2 Accord. The renewal of military operations will mean that Germany’s efforts as peacemaker have failed. Kiev is more likely to listen to Washington’s recommendations than Berlin’s. Moscow is more likely to cooperate with the Élysée Palace than with Merkel’s cabinet. The initiative to regulate the conflict might be transferred to French diplomats. (Which automatically strengthens the position of all opponents of Germany’s EU policies).

Another problem is the growing conflict with Russia. The Americans are supporting Merkel just so long as she continues to increase conflict with Russia. Anglo-Saxon countries traditionally fear a rapprochement between Russia and Germany. The Eastern Partnership program and the subsequent conflict in Ukraine have led to a break in the model of the special relationship that developed between Moscow and Berlin in the mid-1990s. Further expansion of the tensions could turn Germany into a key anti-Russian country within the EU, which will lead Moscow to seek an alternative to German politics.

It’s not just politics. The partnership with Russia has allowed Germany to become a leading energy power in the EU, removing Britain from that role. Disagreements over the transit of Russian gas through Ukraine enhance the conflict between Germany and Gazprom. This reduces the EU’s and Russia’s energy resources. But at the same time, it reduces Germany’s resources and soon Moscow will start looking for alternatives to the Ukrainian route.

The Berlin Format creates a difficult challenge for Merkel’s government: develop a compromise which is acceptable to all parties, or at the very least, an option to freeze the conflict in the Donbas. A failure on this front will mean that Germany has failed in its mission. In that case, Berlin will face the unpleasant alternative of either distancing itself from the Poroshenko’s government or conclusively becoming the leader of anti-Russian policy in the EU. Both options are disagreeable to Berlin.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.