Social networks and the global media are buzzing: what’s the plan? Are the Europeans about to decide Ukraine’s fate over the heads of the Ukrainians? And most importantly, why now?
Yesterday and today Ukrainian public opinion is split between two emotions: distrust and hope. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande spent 5 hours last night in discussions with Putin in Moscow. The previous day they spent over 3 hours with President Poroshenko in Kyiv. Apparently the Germans and the French have a peace plan that they are trying to sell to both the Ukrainians and the Russians. Social networks and the global media are buzzing: what’s the plan? Are the Europeans about to decide Ukraine’s fate over the heads of the Ukrainians? And most importantly, why now?
I’m in the hopeful camp, so I want to believe that European leaders are not naïve enough to agree to Putin’s imperialist vision of dividing the world into spheres of influence that neglect the sovereignty of smaller states. Furthermore, I would like to think that Merkel and Hollande are genuinely interested in finding some form of deal that will allow the world to avoid global catastrophe. But many Ukrainians have ample reason to mistrust EU leaders. During the past 11 months (since Russia first invaded Crimea) Germany and France have provided Ukraine with little more than their “grave concern” in the face of outright aggression. Seemingly recognizing the potentially damaging “optics” of her visit to Moscow, before leaving Berlin, Chancellor Merkel made clear that she would not do a deal with Russia that bypasses Ukraine’s leadership. For his part President Hollande said that the two leaders’ peace proposals to Putin would be “based upon the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
The details of the peace plan are not clear. Apparently, the discussions have returned the parties to the effectively dead Minsk agreements. But having been grossly and repeatedly violated by the pro-Russian side since September, at this point these documents are moot. The suddenness of the Franco-German peace initiative seems to have been prompted by a growing consensus among Washington policy-makers as to the need to shift away from restricting military aid to Ukraine to clothing and night vision goggles, towards agreeing to provide anti-tank missiles and other defensive weaponry. In Europe, leaders are obviously worried that such a decision will result in further escalation on the part of Russia, and possibly a widening of the conflict beyond Ukraine. The main message coming out of European media outlets can be formulated in the following rhetorical question: “Why provide weapons to Ukraine, when Ukraine is fighting a war that it cannot win?”
What does it mean for Ukraine to “win” a war against Russia? If victory means returning Ukraine’s borders to their pre-Maidan lines, personally, as a Kyiv resident and Ukrainian tax payer, I’m against this. And I’m not alone in this opinion. Firstly, the Donbas has been completely destroyed, and it will cost billions to reconstruct its infrastructure. It is unrealistic to expect Russia to pay reparations for its aggression, and the rest of Ukraine simply does not have the resources to rebuild the region. Secondly, the entrepreneurial and professional population of Donbas has now left the war-torn region, and they are unlikely to return any time soon. Those who have stayed behind have been subjected to Russia’s all-encompassing propaganda, and as a result, few would welcome a return to Ukrainian rule as liberation. Although Ukraine should not formally agree to give up its territory, realistically, the ‘de facto’ borders of the country will be smaller when peace finally comes.
Achieving some level of peace is precisely why Ukraine needs to be supplied with defensive weapons. Supplying anti-tank missiles will not enable Ukraine to invade Russia, nor even to regain lost territory in the Donbas. The point is to stop further Russian aggression. To stop Putin, Ukraine needs the means to defend itself. We need to stop the daily funerals of Ukrainian soldiers, and the constant flow of maimed heroes whose lives will now continue without limbs, eyes, and with irreversible psychological damage. The goal is not to push the Russians back to their borders, but to ensure that the new effective border can be drawn along the Minsk Agreement line of contact. Since September, this line has moved significantly westward as a result of continued Russian artillery barrages despite the supposed cease fire.
Today, Chancellor Merkel spoke at the Munich Security Summit, and repeated her opposition to providing Ukraine with western weaponry. However, her counterpart Francois Hollande, having returned from Moscow stated outright, if the shuttle diplomacy that the two have launched does not lead to some measure of peace, the alternative is “total war”. Merkel will be travelling to Washington on Monday to meet with President Obama – presumably to personally relay the (non)result of her talks with Putin, but also to ask her American colleague to give her peace initiative a chance. The alternative (if one is to believe the French President) is frightening: World War Three.
This is truly a bad situation. If the West provides weapons, Putin will finally have gained the pretext that he needs to escalate the conflict beyond Ukraine (the Russian President has repeatedly made it clear that he considers his adversary to be the US, not Ukraine). If the West does not provide weapons, Putin will continue to kill Ukrainians, gradually destroying the country, and proving to the world that Budapest Memoranda, and other “agreements” are not worth the paper they are written on. This dilemma is not an easy one to solve.
But with all of this, one question bothers me: “why now?” On the surface, US policy regarding the issue of providing weapons to Ukraine seems to have shifted after the January 24 bombing of Mariupol – the southern Donbas port city on the Azov Sea that was hit by Hrad rockets obviously and unquestionably originating from Russian-held territories to the east. However, similar terrorist attacks have happened before in the Russia-Ukraine conflict: the downing of MH 17 in July, the massacre of civilians in a bus near Volnovakha in January are just two that come to mind.
Could it be that the Americans and Europeans know something is imminent? Has satellite data shown an increase in Russian war preparations? Has credible intelligence been obtained from inside the Kremlin as to Putin’s immediate plans? Last Thursday’s visit by Merkel and Hollande to Kyiv was abrupt. The visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry was planned, but the European leaders arrived practically unannounced. Their visit to Moscow was equally unplanned. Less than one month ago, Chancellor Merkel cancelled her trip to Kazakhstan for a meeting with Putin, saying that she saw no point in the summit because no deal was possible with the Russian leader. This week her strategy suddenly changed – why? The German leader has stated that she has spoken to Putin over 40 times by telephone during the past year; did the Russian President communicate some sort of diabolical intent to her during one of these calls?
According to some sources, Putin-the-psychopathic-authoritarian is getting nervous (and therefore unpredictable) because his country’s economy is getting squeezed by sanctions and falling oil prices. The Crimean underground “InformNapalm” website today published a report claiming that Putin openly threatened Merkel and Hollande with a tactical nuclear strike on Ukraine and possibly Poland and the Baltic states – to be delivered by SS-26 “Iskander” missiles deployed in Kaliningrad and Crimea. If these reports are true, the Russian-Ukrainian war in the Donbas has just become much more than a local conflict.
Last week, two Russian Tu-95 “Bear” bombers, apparently carrying nuclear missiles, interrupted civilian air traffic over the English Channel and were intercepted by RAF Typhoon fighters. This time they just flew by…