EU’s Ukraine War Conundrum in 2020 and Franco-Germany’s Failure in Relations with Russia
The current attempts to resolve the Ukraine – Russia conflict based on transactional arrangements seem doomed precisely because of their transactional nature.
The last months of 2019 have seen some supposedly positive developments in Europe’s most important war since the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia (mini-Yugoslavia) over Slobodan Milosevic’s attempted ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, namely, the war in the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian insurgents.
Since it started in 2014, the war in Ukraine has become an epitome of the great power resurgence of Russia under President Vladimir Putin vis-à-vis the West. An effort to regain Moscow’s previous positions while guaranteeing that the Russian capital would not be targeted by “regime change”, or vice versa, which could be construed as rooted in the tumultuous times of the Arab Spring (2011-present), or even to the earlier times of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The supposedly positive current developments in the hot and cold conflict between Ukraine, on the one hand, and the pro-Russian insurgents, on the other, and Russia by extension, have been made possible by the surreal election of actor Volodymyr Zelensky as President of Ukraine in the spring of 2019. In rising to the Ukrainian Presidency in a completely democratic manner, Zelensky realized in real life a role he played on his TV show called “Servant of the People” in which an ordinary person, a school teacher, gets to become President of Ukraine.
The ruling elite in Moscow and Vladimir Putin in particular are known to deem Zelensky a “likeable” person they can work with – although it remains unknown whether that is necessarily a compliment.
Whatever the current situational details, the hot and/or cold conflict between Russia and Ukraine, in which the war in Donbass is just one very prominent aspect, is demonstrative enough of how far Russia has retreated historically considering the past 300 years:
The Russian Federation, the largest successor and most important successor state of the Soviet Union (and the old-time Russian Empire, for that matter) is pitted against the second largest (in population) and second most important Soviet successor state, Ukraine, a country now deemed a prime candidate to become the newest part of the West at least by joining the European Union and possibly even NATO. How did that conflict even come into being?
Let’s rewind a bit. In 2013, Ukraine’s then pro-Russian President Yanukovych backtracked on a promise to sign an association agreement with the EU instead considering integration with Russia in its Eurasian Economic Union (the two options might not have been strictly mutually exclusive but that is now a question of purely historical interest).
(Paradoxically, the EU – Ukraine Association Agreement signed eventually was emblematically rejected by the Dutch voters in a consultative (i.e. non-binding) referendum demonstrating for the millionth time the Western Europeans’ failure to grasp the importance of Eastern Europe.
As I argued in another article, Ukraine is presently the most important country for the EU simply because it is the largest country that realistically holds the potential to join it. Russia and Turkey could be more important since either is larger than Ukraine but the likelihood of their EU accession remains a question for political science fiction writers.)
Yanukovych’s rule of Ukraine was deemed very corrupt – although nobody can say for sure whether Ukraine under Yanukovych was more or less corrupt than Ukraine before or after him – so the backtracking on the EU Association Agreement (itself a very, very modest steps towards the EU) literally added insult to injury for those Ukrainians who were hoping for a better distant future for their country by integrating with the West.
What followed was the violent Euromaidan Revolution in the winter of 2013 – 2014, which forced Yanukovych to flee the country, and which also saw the first time that people actually died in political strife with the EU flag in their hands.
Moscow saw those developments in a very clear-cut fashion: a coup d’etat fully orchestrated by Western intelligence (the CIA, you name it) designed to rob Russia of its influence in Ukraine (think of the old cliché proverb that with Ukraine, Russia is an empire, and that without Ukraine, it isn’t), which might have even tested a model for a regime change coup in Moscow itself, in a neocon-style regime change operation. (Not that those were ever “successful” considering their abysmal consequences in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc.).
Vladimir Putin and the Russian leadership see sincerely convinced that the anti-Yanukovych coup in Ukraine’s Euromaindan revolution was the work of the CIA, and all the talk about democracy, freedom, values, rights, etc., is nothing but manipulation. No expression of the will of the Ukrainian public, no genuine grassroots desire to join the West but another Western conspiracy against Russia hitting it where it really hurts. US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, more famous throughout Europe for her leaked “**** the EU” comment, certainly didn’t help change that perception with her cookie handouts to the Kiev protesters.
Russia’s reaction is well-known – Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized by admirers and critics alike for his tactical but maybe not strategic prowess – sent in troops to seize the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in February – March 2014, marking the first time territory in Europe was taken by military force basically since World War II. (Though that might be ignoring the 2008 War between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia and maybe even the War in Kosovo.)
In the wake of that, the pro-Russian insurgency in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine started, in the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk bordering Russia.
After the hot fighting in 2014 – 2015, which saw the largest-scale conventional ground warfare in Europe since at least the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the war in Donbass “stabilized” as a frozen conflict with hot flashes, so far claiming at least 13,000 lives, according to UN data, with several million displaced persons.
As the West reacted to Putin’s moves with sanctions, the relative freezing of the conflict in Donbass has been credited to talks in the Normandy Four format – including the state leaders of Ukraine and Russia but also of France and Germany as intermediaries. The Normandy Four talks resulted in the two convoluted and controversial Minsk Agreements of 2014 and 2015 which were supposed to provide first for a lasting ceasefire and then for the dismantlement of the separatist entities, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic, in exchange for changing the Ukrainian constitution to give the respective regions a very wide autonomy.
The latter arrangement is very controversial in Ukraine as well as throughout the West because critics deem it a certain way for Moscow to influence Ukraine’s foreign policy and domestic politics by using the Donetsk and Lugansk regions as proxies.
The war in Donbass has been stuck with the semi-implementation of the Minsk Agreements since 2016 (which was when the last Normandy Four summit had taken place), until in the spring of 2019, Ukraine’s former President Petro Poroshenko lost the presidential elections to Zelensky.
To the extent that he even campaigned, Zelensky’s major campaign promise, and a very bold one, has been to end the war in Donbass. To achieve this goal, he seems to have embarked on a course of transactional arrangements with Moscow.
In September 2019, Russia itself (not the pro-Russian separatists in Donbass) and Ukraine exchanged 35 prisoners (of war?) each, with Ukraine getting jailed filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and its 24 sailors captured in the Kerch Strait off Crimea’s coast at the end of 2018, and Russia getting a man deemed a key witness in the downing of the passenger airplane of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 with 300 people on board by the separatists in Donbass who might have mistaken it for an Ukrainian military transport airplane.
Then December 2019 saw the first Normandy Four summit in three years, held in Paris, for the first time with Zelensky and French President Emmanuel Macron, and an ensuing exchange of 200 prisoners (of war?) between Kiev and the self-proclaimed people’s republics in Donbass.
The peaceful and satisfactory (a word that is very hard to define in this context) resolution of the conflict in Donbass remains just as, if not more, important to the European Union as the ending of the wars in Syria and Libya – although the latter two seem far more tangible to the average (Western) Europeans because both of them help cause and are used as a justification for the massive influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa.
The December 2019 Normandy Four summit in Paris has failed to produce any ground-breaking developments on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine but the very fact that it was held, and has been preceded and succeeded by prisoner exchanges as goodwill gestures has been seen as remarkable enough by observers.
Not to mention that it has come against the backdrop of what some insightful commentators consider a grand bargain in the making between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron, under which Russia would abandon its semi-real alliance with China in exchange for rapprochement with the West. Understandably, in such an alleged grand scheme of things, Ukraine would be considered of secondary importance, which probably wouldn’t bode well for the Ukrainians themselves.
At least some of the pro-Western Russian political commentators criticize the West for not having been far smarter over the past couple of decades so as to treat Putin with respect, rather than neglect or even disdain, in which case the Russian leader would have kept any “mutually respectful” arrangements without ever thinking of seizing Crimea, etc. That line of argument points to examples from the early Putin Era such as the Russian transport corridor to Afghanistan for the US and then NATO forces following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 (ultimately canceled in 2015).
The argument continues that instead of courting Putin, the West botched its relations with Russia so badly as to make the Russian rulers concerned of a possible regime change attempt in Moscow. Hence Crimea, the war in Donbass, and everything else.
The problem with this line of thought, though, is first the assumption that a West – Russia relationship of purely transactional nature can be highly durable and sustainable. And, second, the assumption that the West as a whole (not just its governments but also its civil societies and media) would be able to turn a blind eye to anybody wishing to emulate the Western model of development – such as the Euromaidan protesters in Ukraine. The latter especially seems implausible by default, and the fact that Western governments or intelligence may or may not use it does not negate its validity.
Enter Franco-Germany’s failure, even impotence, to achieve any kind of a substantial breakthrough in the relations between the West and Russia – for all of Macron’s pretense and Merkel’s much touted diplomatic skill.
I have already argued that Franco-Germany as a defender of democracy and freedom is the leader that the West, not just the EU, will need badly in the Post-Brexit + Trump Era, and also that Franco-Germany will probably fail to rise to the challenge. Achieving sustainable relations of non-enmity with Russia are perhaps the most important part of that challenge.
Even a grand US-Russia bargain brokered by Macron, overt or backstage, would not count as a success in that regard – unless France and Germany, each of which takes pride in its own independent policy towards Russia, and both of which have been Russia’s preferred partners in the West – manage to communicate and guarantee to Moscow that there is no “regime change” threat, while convincing it that countries such as Ukraine have the right to seek to join the EU, and that is not necessarily a bad thing for Russia itself.
Such an expectation may be not just unrealistic but even impossible, but nonetheless, for all of their claims, France and Germany don’t seem to hold much sway with Russia anyway.
And that’s not even talking of generating any kind of a sense of belonging or shared values that would be a far more durable foundation than purely transactional arrangements.
Russia’s ruling elite around Putin remains genuinely convinced of three things: first, that the post-Cold War order was not in its favor hence upsetting it by seizing Crimea is hardly a bad thing; second, that it is actually reacting to Western provocations and outright encroachments (consider Putin’s argumentation for nixing Russia’s security guarantees to Ukraine under the 1995 Budapest Memorandum in which Kiev agreed to give up the massive Soviet nuclear weapon stockpile: the West was the one to kill the Budapest Memorandum by toppling Ukraine’s legitimate President (Yanukovych), therefore Russia is no longer bound by it); third, that empires are good and it still wants and is capable of procuring one.
Unlike the other major nations in Europe which were utterly destroyed, occupied, or humiliated at least once in their history (except for Britain, hence now Brexit), Russia has not had that kind of historical experience, and most Russians seem to hold imperial grandeur in high regard – a notion completely alien to today’s average German, Dane, Portuguese, Pole, or even French.
So much so that even with prominent critics of Putin’s rule in Russia, such as Alexei Navalny or now the young hope of Russia’s youth protest movement, Egor Zhukov, it remains unclear whether their criticism is based on a desire to emulate the model of the EU countries, or a desire to seek other ways of achieving grandeur for Russia.
Franco-Germany’s failure to define, communicate, and convince Russia’s leadership of a mutual relationship based on more than just transactions as a stronger base for eliminating geopolitical enmity is demonstrated even in the so called Steinmeier Formula, a corollary to the Minsk Agreements proposed by then German Foreign Minister, today’s German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, back in 2016, and formally accepted by both Moscow and Kiev.
Under the Steinmeier Formula holding elections supervised by the OSCE in the rebel-held territories in Donbass would pave the way for granting special status to the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. How would the withdrawal of pro-Russian forces, a pre-condition demanded by current Ukrainian President Zelensky, be achieved for such elections to take place remains unclear. But the more important question is how a special status for the separatist regions would affect Ukraine’s sovereignty. Critics of the Steinmeier Formula, which Ukraine’s previous leadership was probably in no position to reject back in 2016, argue that such a special status would give Moscow a direct lever to mold Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policies to its liking.
Regrettably, the past decade has set the West and Russia on a collision course, regardless of the specific developments, and the mutual failure to create some kind of a shared sense of belonging and shared values has been the most prominent aspect of that.
Because of its specifics, the European Union remains a semi-tangible entity in high international politics, not exactly the type of a coherent heavyweight power that can convince Russia not to resort to certain moves, and Franco-Germany, or now just France and Germany, given the continuing spats between Merkel and Macron, seem just as incapable in that regard.
The current goodwill gestures such as the prisoner exchanges and the holding of the Normandy Summit, the reincarnations of the alleged relative thaw between Moscow and Kiev, seem more the result of Zelensky replacing Poroshenko, than of a Franco-German sway over Russia.
The problem with transactional diplomacy not based on a shared sense of belonging is precisely the absence of this additional layer guarantee for its sustainability. That is why it’s very hard to be optimistic about a sustainable peaceful outcome of the continuing war in Eastern Ukraine. That is, an outcome that would be accepted by both Kiev and Moscow, and by both Russia and the West, as mutually acceptable, instead a sum-zero scenario in which one side somehow prevails in such a way as to leave the other ever more indignant and seeking a “revanche”.
That is not even mentioning a possible further complication of the geopolitical relations between the West and Russia with respect to the fate of Belarus in the Union State of Russia and Belarus – which might see major developments already in 2020.
Many might be tempted to that the war in Ukraine is a conundrum for “servant of the people” Zelensky but that’s not the case. At the start of 2020, it is one of the top three conundrums for the EU and all of Europe as well.