As the political situation in Ukraine continues to deteriorate – with the government paralysed as a result of the power struggle between Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk – the Europeans are becoming increasingly desperate.
They are also becoming increasingly frustrated with the Ukrainians whose intransigence is prolonging the crisis.
However the Europeans have no exit strategy and are staring at total failure.
The reason is the growing anger across Europe with the sanctions policy, and a growing sense that the diplomatic window for finding a face saving way to end the sanctions before European leverage completely runs out is closing fast.
The problem the Europeans have is that they have committed themselves to maintaining the sanctions against until the terms of Minsk II are carried out.
When they did this the Europeans however failed to take the basic precaution of linking the lifting of the sanctions not just to Russian adherence to Minsk II but to Ukrainian adherence as well.
Since the provisions of Minsk II actually require most of the action to be taken by the Ukrainians, this failure has not only denied the Europeans leverage over the Ukrainians. It has given the Ukrainians a perverse incentive to renege on their commitments to carry out Minsk II, since that way they can oblige the Europeans to continue the sanctions.
In the meantime opposition to the sanctions policy is growing, both in northern Europe and in southern Europe.
In northern Europe opposition to sanctions is concentrated in small but very powerful constituencies. In southern Europe it is however well nigh universal.
Southern Europe has never been much interested in Ukraine or in the conflict there and does not support or understand the geopolitical play there.
The political culture of southern Europe also makes southern Europeans largely immune to the self-interested moralising that the US and northern Europeans are given to and which has been used to mobilise support for the Maidan movement in Ukraine.
People of neocon views are nowhere near as influential in southern Europe as they are in northern Europe, and southern Europeans do not feel as obsessively hostile to Russia as many northern Europeans do.
Southern Europeans see themselves as having been dragooned into a sanctions policy they fundamentally don’t agree with, and which they consider counterproductive and irrational.
The most powerful southern European leader, Renzi of Italy, is barely bothering to hide his disagreement with the policy, and most other southern European leaders privately agree with him.
Southern Europe does not however by itself have the strength to change a policy agreed on by the most powerful European states – Germany and France.
The policy is however now also being increasingly questioned in Germany and France, in Germany by a large part of the German business community, and in France by the French farmers.
The latter are a powerful political lobby, which no French government can ignore, especially with elections pending.
With a Presidential election pending in France in 2017 the French government has been forced to reassure the farmers that it is “doing all it can” to get the Russian counter sanctions banning EU food exports to Russia lifted.
As the French government however knows that cannot happen unless the EU sanctions are lifted first.
That gives the French government a strong incentive to have the sanctions lifted, which in turn means that it has a strong incentive to achieve a settlement of the Ukrainian conflict.
Even more important than the steadily growing opposition to the sanctions policy is the feeling that the window for European diplomatic influence is closing fast.
It is difficult to know to what extent European leaders are informed about the state of the Russian economy. However even the most complacent amongst them must by now know that it is not going to collapse under the weight of the sanctions, and that Russian policy towards Ukraine is not going to change because of them.
Expectations that the sanctions would provoke Russia’s oligarchs to force Putin out unless he changed course – which is what the German intelligence service the BND apparently told Merkel would happen before the EU imposed the sanctions – have turned out to be completely wrong.
As for the popular revolution in Russia against Putin that some expected, with Putin’s popularity above 80% even the most delusional European leaders can no longer believe it will happen.
It is even possible that the better informed of the European leaders – including possibly German Foreign Minister Steinmeier – know the dreadful truth – that the Russian economy has not only survived the sanctions but that its recession will shortly end.
This points to the paradox of the sanctions. Whilst for the Russians their cost was front loaded and is now diminishing with each month that passes – with their overall effect proving actually beneficial – for the Europeans the hurt is growing – both economically and politically.
For the Europeans an economic recovery – or worse still a boom – in Russia whilst the sanctions are in place would be a humiliating disaster.
It would show that Russia is fundamentally immune to sanctions, exposing the total bankruptcy of the whole sanctions policy.
It would also expose European leaders like Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande to criticism for imposing a sanctions policy that had ended up hurting Europe and their own countries more than Russia.
German businesses and French farmers who had lost business because of the sanctions would be – rightly – furious.
It would also strip away remaining illusions about the Europeans and their power.
In diplomacy maintaining an appearance of power is at least as important as power itself. A state or group of states which lose the appearance of power risk no longer being taken seriously.
What that means in this case is that the Europeans have to be in a position where they can at least pretend that the sanctions still matter to Russia when they are lifted and that the Russians are giving something back in return.
Obviously the Europeans cannot credibly claim this if when they lift the sanctions if Russia is in the midst of a boom .
It is because the Europeans also need to show that the Russians are giving something in return for the sanctions being lifted that they have linked the lifting of the sanctions to Minsk II.
The successful implementation of Minsk II would enable the Europeans to pretend it was brought about through their efforts. They could then lift the sanctions and claim victory.
Since it was the Russians who drafted Minsk II this would have seemed like a low risk strategy. The Russians after all would be expected to want to implement an agreement whose terms they themselves drafted.
What the Europeans overlooked – or never considered – was that it might be their own Ukrainian proteges – not the Russians – who would fail to implement Minsk II. That however is precisely the position the Europeans are now in.
This is not because the Ukrainian government is being held hostage by right wing militias.
It is because Minsk II contradicts the whole ethos and purpose of the Maidan “revolution” whose overriding objective is to create a unitary, monolingual and monocultural Ukraine as distanced from Russia as possible.
I discussed all this in an article Russia Insider published in January 2015 on the eve of the battle of Debaltsevo. Here is what I said there:
“The basic truth about the crisis in Ukraine and why there is a war there – the one that many people especially in the West refuse to acknowledge – is that the faction that seized power in Ukraine through the February 2014 coup is structurally incapable of negotiation or compromise with those it considers its opponents.
…….Briefly, the whole purpose of the February coup was so that the faction in Ukraine that holds power now could achieve the unrestricted dominance of Ukrainian society which is its only way of making true its vision of a unitary, monolingual, monocultural Ukraine that is forever distanced from Russia.
Given the diversity of Ukrainian society, it cannot compromise with its opponents since were it to do so that would jeopardise the entire project that is the reason for its existence and the justification for its hold on power.
That is why it acted in February to eliminate from Ukrainian political life the faction that had held power in Ukraine before and why it remains committed to eliminating its opponents in the Donbass now.”
All this remains as true now as it was then.
It will continue to be true whichever Maidan leader holds power in Ukraine. It doesn’t matter whether that leader is Poroshenko, Tymosheko, Yatsenyuk, Kolomoisky, Tyagnibok, Paruby, Lyashko, Klitschko, Yarosh or someone else. No Ukrainian politician who owes allegiance to Maidan is capable of the sort of compromise that Minsk II requires, and it is a fundamental error to think that because Ukraine’s Maidan politicians engage in constant factional infighting with each other that some of them are more “moderate” on these questions than others.
Up to now the Europeans have closed their eyes to this reality. It is now hitting them square in the face.
This is why – confronted by total Ukrainian intransigence but wanting an end to the conflict before their leverage and credibility vanishes – German Foreign Minister Steinmeier and French Foreign Minister Ayrault are said to travel to Kiev “completement exacerbés.”
The Europeans have landed themselves in the same trap in which Yanukovych found himself during the Maidan protests.
Like the Europeans Yanukovych tried to cut deals with the Maidan leaders as if they were reasonable people.
What Yanukovych discovered whenever he thought he had sealed a deal was that the Maidan leaders simply reneged on it, pocketing his concessions, continuing their protests, and coming back with more demands.
Ukraine’s Maidan leaders have behaved in exactly the same throughout the Ukrainian conflict.
In April 2014 they agreed to constitutional changes granting more autonomy to Ukraine’s regions.
They reneged on that agreement and over the course of the next few months they sought to crush opposition in Ukraine’s eastern regions by force.
Following their defeat in August 2014 they agreed to grant special status to the Donbass, with negotiations to follow to achieve a political settlement (Minsk I).
They failed to honour these commitments and in January 2015 they attacked the Donbass again.
In February 2015 – after they had been defeated once more – they again agreed to grant special status to the Donbass. They also agreed to negotiate directly with the Donbass leaders, to agree the terms of elections in the Donbass with them, and to agree with them changes to Ukraine’s constitution, which were to be followed by fresh elections held before the end of December 2015. (Minsk II).
They again failed to honour these commitments. In August 2015 they tried to attack Donbass again only to be warned off doing so by the Europeans.
In October 2015 at the summit in Paris they renewed their promise to carry out the provisions of Minsk II, this time in accordance with a new timetable drawn up by the French, which would have resulted in the Donbass being granted special status and holding elections this March.
They have again failed to carry out any one of these commitments. It is now March and not one of the commitments they made in October has been honoured. Instead reports from the Donbass speak of renewed fighting.
It is not surprising therefore if Steinmeier and Ayraut are “completement exacerbés.”
Confronted by Ukrainian intransigence, the Europeans have tried to achieve what they can pretend is “progress” by asking the Russians to water down the terms of Minsk II so as to at least allow elections to be held in the Donbass on Ukrainian terms in the first half of this year.
Juncker’s recent comment that Ukraine would not join NATO or the EU for 20-25 years (which in practice means never) should be seen in that context.
It was intended as a sop to the Russians, making public what had already been agreed privately in February 2015 in Moscow and Minsk, in order to get the Russians to soften their stance on Minsk II.
The Russians however are having none of it. As their public statements make clear on the subject of Minsk II they are implacable. They have rejected all attempts to water down Minsk II. They insist Ukraine carry out its terms to the letter.
It is impossible to avoid the feeling that through their blind support for the Maidan movement the Europeans have manoeuvred themselves into a trap.
An escalation of support for Ukraine is becoming politically impossible especially given Ukraine’s intransigence and its growing political crisis.
Retreat – which would involve finally taking a strong public stand against Kiev by demanding that it implement Minsk II in full with a threat of sanctions if it fails to do so – is however politically extremely difficult, and is probably impossible whilst Merkel remains Germany’s Chancellor given how much political capital she has invested in Ukraine.
The alternative however is total humiliation when whatever appearance of leverage still left is lost, which is the prospect that is now staring the Europeans in the face.
It is probably now only a question of months before economic recovery in Russia exposes the Europeans’ sanctions policy – and with it their whole Ukrainian policy – as a bluff which has been called.
That this is starting to be understood in Western capitals has been confirmed in the most unlikely of places – in the comments of US President Obama – the ultimate author of the sanctions policy – in the recent interviews he has given to The Atlantic magazine. Here is what he said:
“Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there.
“The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-Nato country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do,” he said.
I asked Obama whether his position on Ukraine was realistic or fatalistic.
“It’s realistic,” he said. “But this is an example of where we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for.””
In other words Ukraine matters to the Russians but doesn’t to the West, and it is the Russians who hold there the high cards (“escalatory dominance”).
That is what Russia Insider has been saying all along.
It has taken two years, a civil war, thousands of deaths, an economic collapse, a government crisis, a now inevitable default, and the coming failure of the sanctions policy for Western leaders to start to see it.
That is far too late to avoid the humiliation which all too evidently is now coming.