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Talks in France Resume in Bid to Ease Russia-Ukraine Tensions

The four-way talks aren’t expected to yield a breakthrough, but lower-level engagement could lead to more serious negotiations.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Flags mounted on official diplomatic cars are seen in Berlin.
Flags mounted on official diplomatic cars are seen in Berlin.
Flags mounted on official diplomatic cars are seen in Berlin on June 11, 2018, during a Normandy Format meeting of the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia on the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Tobias SCHWARZ/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Russian, Ukrainian, French, and German officials gather for Normandy Format talks in Paris, EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell hosts G5 Sahel ministers, and an investigation into lockdown parties at No. 10 Downing St. is expected to be released.

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Low-Level Russia-Ukraine Talks Resume

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Russian, Ukrainian, French, and German officials gather for Normandy Format talks in Paris, EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell hosts G5 Sahel ministers, and an investigation into lockdown parties at No. 10 Downing St. is expected to be released.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Low-Level Russia-Ukraine Talks Resume

Representatives from France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine meet Wednesday in Paris to resume so-called Normandy Format talks on the future of Ukraine.

With a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine’s borders causing anxiety in Western capitals, it’s a rare chance for Russian and Ukrainian officials to meet face to face. The meeting, coming at a time when Russia has made a clear preference for the United States as its main interlocutor, raises the question: Why now?

The urgency of Russia-Ukraine tensions has clearly influenced the timing, but the talks are best seen as a more focused session. “If you look at Ukraine and the broader European security issues as two nested problems, then this meeting is about the Ukraine part of the problem,” Olga Oliker, the Europe and Central Asia program director at the International Crisis Group, told Foreign Policy.

A conflict between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine is still without resolution, with momentum frozen by the stalled Minsk accords, last signed in 2015 but never implemented. As part of the hastily drafted agreement, in return for peace, the Russian-speaking regions of Donetsk and Luhansk would be granted special status within Ukraine while the Ukrainian government would adopt constitutional changes that would effectively allow the regions to act as a spoiler for any Ukrainian government wishing to drift too far to the West.

On Monday, Ukraine signaled a willingness to negotiate by publicly withdrawing a controversial bill that would have, among other things, banned those fighting alongside pro-Russian forces from holding elected office.

Compared with talks earlier this month, which all reached at least the level of deputy foreign minister, Wednesday’s participants are all lower ranking, mostly advisors. That’s likely to add to accusations from the West that Russia doesn’t take the format seriously, but as Oliker notes, it’s not necessarily a sign that Russia isn’t interested: “At the highest level, you have to have results. There’s a lot of pressure at that level. At a lower level, you can call it a working-level conversation and then see if anything happens.”

“It creates space for this not to go anywhere without it looking like a massive failure,” Oliker added.

Efforts to increase the stature of the talks are expected to continue, with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, set to soon travel to Ukraine to meet with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba with a view to upgrading the talks to their level.

In a wider sense, Wednesday’s meeting is also a sign that France isn’t quite ready to look on while the United States and Russia talk at the top table. As part of his phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron will be urging de-escalation, as well as making the revival of the Normandy Format a priority.


What We’re Following

Sahel summit. EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell hosts a ministerial-level meeting of the G5 Sahel, usually comprising Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, Wednesday in Brussels. The group has already condemned the recent coup in Burkina Faso in a statement delivered by Chad’s leader, Mahamat Déby, who himself owes his power to a military coup. 

Police investigating U.K. lockdown parties An internal investigation into parties at No. 10 Downing St. during the country’s strict lockdown period is expected to be handed to Prime Minister Boris Johnson Wednesday, with the report likely to be published on Thursday at the latest. The release of the investigation is sure to increase pressure on Johnson to resign and comes after London’s Metropolitan Police announced they were also investigating allegations of rule-breaking at the prime minister’s offices.


Keep an Eye On

Iran nuclear negotiations. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said on Tuesday that he would consider returning to the 2015 deal constraining the country’s nuclear activities if the “parties are ready to lift the oppressive sanctions.” Raisi’s words are not groundbreaking but add to positive signals from Iran that it is more willing to negotiate a deal, such as Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s remark on Monday that the country would consider direct talks with the United States.

Ethiopia’s war. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is open to talks with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the chair of an Ethiopian diaspora group told The Associated Press on Tuesday. Mesfin Tegenu, the chair of the American Ethiopian Public Affairs Committee, based his assessment on a five-hour meeting with the Ethiopian leader, adding that new U.S. Horn of Africa envoy David Satterfield “would have ideas” about how to bring talks forward. Abiy has yet to comment publicly over whether he would pursue peace talks with the TPLF.


Odds and Ends

Trawl and Peace. Forget NATO. Russia has a new foe in ISWFPO—the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation. In a more peaceful parallel to Beijing’s fishing boat militia, the group has pledged to disrupt a Russian naval exercise taking place in international waters off the coast of Ireland next month, a move the Russian Embassy has described as “reckless and irresponsible.”

For organizer Paul Murphy, the exercise has the potential to disrupt fish stocks and migratory patterns, an allegation the Russian Embassy has denied.

“Can you imagine if the Russians were applying to go onto the mainland of Ireland to go launching rockets, how far would they get with that?” Murphy told Irish media.

“It’s no different to fishermen. This is our ground. This is our farm. This is where we earn our living.”

Bad blood. New Chilean President-elect Gabriel Boric has attempted to hone his diplomatic chops by wading into a row between musicians Taylor Swift and Damon Albarn over whether the former writes her own music. Boric—a notorious “Swiftie,” or Taylor Swift fan—defended the artist on Twitter, urging her not to take seriously “guys that need to insult or lie to get attention.”

While Boric embraces the Nashville singer-songwriter, getting Chileans to listen to more local artists had been a challenge for his predecessor Michelle Bachelet. A law passed in 2015 mandating at least 20 percent of radio airplay be given over to local musicians has not seen widespread compliance.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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