By Evgeny Pudovkin.
During the last twelve months, the Ukraine crisis has been largely absent from the front pages. The topic has reemerged now after Kurt Volker, the US envoy to Ukraine, opened the door for shipping lethal defensive weapons to Kiev.
Speaking to the Financial Times, Volker let it be known that American administration is “seriously considering” arming the Ukrainian army to fight the pro-Russian rebels. He also appeared to echo remarks made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who laid the blame for failure to implement the 2015 Minsk accords exclusively at the Kremlin’s door.
Where does Volker’s intervention leave American policy towards Ukraine?
Strategically, things remain largely the same. Like the previous administration, Donald Trump’s team is not willing to unify the Ukraine crisis and conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa into one track. Thus, Washington continues to link removal of sanctions on Russia explicitly with restoring Ukrainian territorial integrity.
As Fiona Hill, the National Security Council’s senior director for European and Russian affairs, wrote last October: “There is no “grand bargain” to be had with Russia in which the future of Ukraine is traded for other strategic goals in the Middle East. The conflict has to be dealt with on its own terms, in the context of its own complexities”.
What changed, however, is the intensity with which Washington is ready to pressure Russians to demonstrate compliance with the Minsk accords. Where Barack Obama vacillated, Trump’ team, it seems, is willing to push further.
The ball is now in Europe’s court. Should it go along with the US and back shipping lethal weapons to Ukraine? Or would it be more prudent to moderate the Trump’s administration instincts, urging it to hold its horses?
It depends on what Europe wants. If the EU leaders think any dialogue with Moscow is useless, and the time is nigh for more drastic measures, then, by all means, they should toe the Volker’s line. But make no mistake: neither new economic sanctions nor sending weapons to Ukraine can persuade the Kremlin to compromise.
Should the US and her allies act upon Volker’s threats, it will turn the Ukraine crisis into a full-fledged proxy war. Putin won’t blink. According to Levada Center, an independent pollster, 70% of Russians say they will stick by the government’s current foreign policy even despite new
economic punishments. Hard pressure will only unite population behind their leader, while giving more air to the Kremlin’s hardliners.
It doesn’t seem like Europe is prepared for this scenario. What we hear from its leaders are the same old tunes. Jean-Claude Junker, the European Commission president, spoke of the necessity to improve ties with Moscow. Chancellor Angela Merkel, too, shared the sentiment. French president Emmanuel Macron also argued for a pragmatic approach to cooperation with Russia.
But how much progress can talks achieve?
A complete solution to the crisis is not on the cards. The Minsk accords won’t be implemented anytime soon – not in the next few months, not even in the next few years. For one, The Kremlin cannot abandon attempts to influence rebel-held territories (as stipulated by clauses 9 and 10 of the accords) unless it has guarantees from the West on both Ukrainian neutrality and on special status for its eastern regions. Already as far back as 2008, Putin said he would only let Ukraine join NATO without Crimea and its Eastern territories.
Kiev, in its turn, will struggle to assign a special constitutional status to the rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk (clause 11). Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko doesn’t have parliamentary majority to deliver on this pledge.
The only viable option for the EU, it appears, is keeping the conflict frozen for the observable future, with only partial implementation of the Minsk accords. Namely, both the rebels and government in Kiev should maintain ceasefire. Granted it holds, Kiev can continue with carrying out domestic reforms it badly needs. Western sanctions should remain in place as a testament of disagreement with Moscow, while continuing NATO presence in Eastern Europe would help assuage concerns over Russian expansion.
True, that still leaves Moscow an option to stoke up tensions in its neighbour’s territory at any moment. But the Kremlin’s real aim doesn’t consist of destabilising Kiev at any cost. Rather, it sees eastern Ukraine as a reliable buffer from what it (wrongly) regards as Western and NATO’s attempts to encircle Russia. Putin should do right by observing rebels do not escalate the situation.
‘Freezing’ the conflict is a poor solution. But it is better than war.