The Normandy format represents the highest-level European forum dedicated to resolving the crisis in Ukraine. Why has the U.S. not been included, and what would happen if it was?
Should the United States join the Normandy format, it would have an overall negative impact on the group’s ability to successfully negotiate a resolution to the crisis. A highly likely implication of U.S. inclusion in the group would be the further escalation of aggressive behavior between Russia and the West as the issue conflates from a European to Transatlantic security issue. U.S. participation would additionally constrain Washington’s policy and may delegitimize its credible threat. Finally, contrasting positions are likely to push the group from an informal negotiation forum to a more formal, declaratory forum for rhetorical posturing, encouraging stakeholders to dig into immovable positions. The negative implications of U.S. participation in this forum override moves to reinvigorate the peace process amid the current format’s failure to secure peace.
The Normandy format has been used as a negotiation forum to resolve the Ukraine crisis since the Ukrainian, French, and Russian presidents and German chancellor met in Normandy in June 2014 to commemorate the Allied invasion of Normandy during WWII.
Since the initial meeting, the “Normandy Quartet” has met in person on three other occasions, most recently in Minsk, Belarus, in February 2015 when the Minsk II ceasefire was signed. Participating states additionally communicate by phone at both the presidential/chancellor and foreign minister levels to discuss developments in the Ukraine crisis, usually when violence has flared up.
Violence over the last two weekends (from August 8-9 and 15-16) increased, prompting allegations from both the government and separatists that the opposing side violated the ceasefire terms of Minsk II. Normandy format talks followed the latest violence, though recent calls by Ukraine for US participation were roundly rejected by Russia as recently as July 2015.
Avoiding Another Red Line
The duration of the Ukraine Crisis may support U.S. involvement in the Normandy format. That the crisis has lasted nearly 18 months since the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the start of separatist violence in eastern Ukraine points to systemic flaws in the negotiating format. According to Ukraine and its Western allies, Russian involvement in Ukraine has empowered the separatists with political legitimacy and escalated the violence by providing arms and personnel.
For Kiev, bringing Washington to the negotiating table increases the stakes for Moscow and may force a change in Kremlin policy. Conversely, Moscow sees U.S. involvement in the group as likely to further escalate the conflict to the wider geopolitical context, a view probably shared by the Obama administration as it seeks to minimize risks and shape the president’s foreign policy legacy.
The current role of the U.S. in the Ukraine Crisis has thus far remained limited to official roles within the NATO framework and bilateral engagement with stakeholders. Further military posturing in the region by the U.S. itself serves as a large counterweight to Russia’s own military positioning. Rhetorically, this has freed the U.S. to navigate the conflict outside the formal framework. The more aggressive stance taken by Washington complements the softer tone used by European allies (e.g. France and Germany) who are able to positively engage with Moscow and Kiev as “honest brokers” and seek a negotiated end to the conflict.
Implications of U.S. Involvement
United States membership in the Normandy format would likely reduce the group’s effectiveness while raising the risk of broader confrontation with Russia. A general desire to confine the conflict to Ukraine and minimize the chance of rapid escalation regionally would best be served by limiting the group’s participants to European states. A number of further implications must also be taken into account:
- European Security to Transatlantic Security. The current format confines the Ukrainian Crisis to Europe. Despite concerns raised by eastern NATO members and U.S. participation in regional military exercises, European states have taken the lead on resolving the Ukraine crisis. An American presence at the negotiating table moves the issue from a European to a Transatlantic context with greater military confrontation between Russia and NATO.
- U.S. Policy Constrained. U.S. participation in the Normandy format would decrease the legitimacy of U.S. positioning on the crisis and force Washington to take a more conciliatory stance. The freedom to openly provide lethal military aid to Ukraine will be delegitimized—moves to arm Ukraine would be met with claims that the U.S. is not genuinely seeking peace, while earnest negotiations would decrease any credible threat to arm Ukraine.
- Kiev Turns Hardline. In the context of a Normandy format including the United States, President Poroshenko is likely to be emboldened to take a more aggressive position vis-à-vis Russia and the separatists in future negotiations.
- Stakeholder Entrenchment. Hostile perceptions will rise with U.S. participation in the group and will encourage stakeholders to adopt strong positions. Any further decrease in substantive dialogue between Moscow and Kiev will then negatively affect working groups in Minsk with separatist representatives. The consequence is more violence and stalled government-separatist negotiations.
- U.S. Preoccupation. Without a significant change in the status of the conflict in Ukraine the current administration is likely to continue to pursue a passively supportive policy of the status quo in Ukraine. Diplomatic and military options are costly for stakeholders, making resolution in the near-term unlikely. For an administration concerned with developments in the Middle East and East Asia, Ukraine is best left to European allies.