If German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande had a Ukraine peace plan acceptable to Russian President Vladimir Putin, they would have flown to Moscow first, not to Kiev. Talks between the three leaders are taking place as I write, and they might even emerge with some sort of agreement. But I’m pretty sure they won’t end the crisis, because the Europeans have not made up their mind about their role in it. As long as they don’t, the war in Ukraine will grind on.
There are only two ways European Union leaders can influence the course of events. One is to assume the role of neutral mediators in search of a compromise acceptable to the stronger side, Russia, which can then be presented to the weaker side, Ukraine, as an ultimatum. The other option is to stand together with Ukraine in its war on the Russian-backed rebels and, inevitably, on Russia itself. Any third path is irrelevant.
The neutral facilitator approach would mean a round of horse-trading with Putin, which is what Russian propaganda suggests may be taking place. Citing unnamed “Western media reports,” the Russian state media outlet, RT, suggested that Merkel and Hollande’s initiative was based on Putin’s nine-page peace plan from last month that proposes more territory and more autonomy for the pro-Russian rebels.
Under this scenario, the Europeans would propose lifting economic sanctions against Russia and freezing the conflict in eastern Ukraine by effectively letting the rebels keep power within the areas they have seized, with or without the help of an international peacekeeping force to separate the sides. In exchange, Putin would have to give up his earlier demands that Ukraine be converted into a federal state with the eastern regions given veto power over matters such as joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He would also need to drop his insistence that Kiev finance the breakaway regions and his opposition to rump Ukraine’s economic integration into the EU. The outcome would amount to a Georgia-style deal like the one Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, negotiated in 2008 with Putin’s predecessor, Dmitri Medvedev.
Making such a deal would require a painstaking determination of the territory that would serve as Russia’s foothold in Ukraine, and the mutual commitments that both sides would be held to. That’s no easy task, but once the basics were worked out between Putin and the Europeans, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko would be presented with a fait accompli: Either sign the deal or risk losing Europe’s economic support for his country’s moribund economy and its political backing for continued resistance to Putin.
Within this paradigm, the U.S. would be another cynical player, issuing threats of military aid to Ukraine from afar, acting the bad cop to Europe’s good cop.
None of this sounds nice, does it? But it’s a mode of operation that Putin, the consummate cynic, could live with. Hollande might be tempted to join, too.
The problem is that Merkel doesn’t seem inclined to play that way. For Merkel, it’s all about values and principles. Her spokesman Steffen Seibert tweeted on her behalf today: “We are not neutral mediators but we foster peace and the self-determination of peoples.”
Speaking to reporters in Berlin, Merkel added, according to Bloomberg News, that she would “never go behind the back of another country, in this case Ukraine, and start questioning its territorial integrity — that is completely ruled out.”
A tweet from Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Pavlo Klimkin, confirmed this:
If Klimkin is to be believed, Merkel and Hollande had come to Kiev on Thursday to discuss the implementation of last September’s Minsk agreements, which the separatists never really followed and which Ukraine, too, has taken to ignoring. According to Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Ukraine estimates the rebels have seized an extra 1,500 square kilometers of territory since that deal was signed.
There’s little reason to suspect the Europeans have coordinated a good cop-bad cop routine with the United States. Rather, their approaches seem to be at loggerheads: The U.S. doesn’t see any benefit in dealing with Putin. Instead, Washington is focused on finding cost-efficient ways to bolster Ukraine.
So, instead of a workable deal, it seems all the German and French leaders have brought to Moscow is the corpse of the Minsk agreement. With Ukraine teetering on the brink of financial and military collapse, Putin has little interest in flogging that dead horse.
Are Merkel and Hollande, then, taking the other path, that of uncompromising resistance to Putin in Ukraine? No, they aren’t. Both leaders have ruled out providing weapons to Ukraine and reiterated they don’t see a military solution to the conflict. In fact, a military solution is possible — only it would be a scenario that both Europeans and Americans have so far considered unspeakable. Theoretically, NATO troops could be a match for the Russian military, and in an all-out war, Russia wouldn’t be the indisputably stronger side. If the European leaders want to be able to negotiate on Kiev’s uncompromising terms, they need to create a position of strength for Ukraine, which is impossible without direct military intervention.
It is abundantly clear the West isn’t interested in this dangerous path, which could lead to a world war and would definitely result in even greater loss of life. Merkel, Hollande and U.S. President Barack Obama are not even using the threat of that scenario as a negotiating tool.
What, then, are Merkel and Hollande doing in Moscow? The French president has explained it: They are trying to calm their consciences before retiring to the sidelines to watch the war continue unabated. “It’s an initiative we had to take for peace so that we don’t have any regrets,” Hollande said.
This is an unhelpful motivation. Western leaders, and above all European ones, who have an interest in stopping a conflagration on their doorstep, must now decide whether it’s jaw-jaw or war-war, in Churchill’s immortal words. It’s time for them to openly proclaim one of two strategies: appeasement or armed resistance. I am all for the first option, but even the second is better than the current Trotsky-like “no peace, no war” approach. It would at least make sure the battle lines are clearly drawn.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor. He is a Berlin-based writer, author of three novels and two nonfiction books.