Signs of desperation in West’s latest moves to halt Ukraine crisis
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s Gray Lady, ran a tabloid-style headline on its website Sunday morning: “The Day the World Fell Apart.” The catastrophe in question was the Munich Security Conference, an annual forum that packs dozens of world leaders into a five-star hotel for a weekend of speeches and backroom dealings. The Ukraine conflict, the Frankfurter Allgemeine informed its readers, was threatening to become a “world crisis” splitting East and West.
At the Munich conference a year ago, Petro Poroshenko turned up as a Ukrainian opposition leader protesting on Kiev’s Maidan for closer ties with the European Union. Last weekend, he came as his country’s embattled president, struggling to put down a pro-Russian insurgency while staving off economic collapse. It’s finally dawning on Europeans how much their continent has changed in a year. For Germans, the clashes that erupted in the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, the site of the conference, were a rude awakening to dangers they had long wished away.
On Thursday, a day before the conference, Chancellor Angela Merkel made the surprise announcement that she and French President Francois Hollande would embark on a last-ditch diplomatic effort to bring peace to Ukraine. That Merkel would risk visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow with no guarantee of success showed just how dire things had become. As a high-ranking delegation from the U.S. Congress landed in Munich, the sniping began that Merkel was naive to rule out arms shipments to Ukraine — or to bother negotiating with Putin in the first place.
Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) went on German TV to suggest Germany’s leaders “either don’t know or don’t care about the slaughter that’s taking place in Ukraine.” Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was just as blunt: “You can go to Moscow until you go blue in the face. Stand up to what is clearly a lie and a danger.”
The debate over weapons deliveries to the battered Ukrainian military dominated the conference. While the Republican senators kicked like bulls in a china shop, Obama administration officials opted for diplomacy. “We must attempt an honorable peace, but the Ukrainians have the right to defend themselves,” Vice President Joe Biden said on Saturday. Discussions among allies on the wisdom of arming the Ukrainians are “tactical, not strategic,” Secretary of State John Kerry said the next day. By leaving the question open, the administration may believe it’s giving Merkel extra bargaining power when she returns to the negotiating table with Putin after her consultations with President Barack Obama in the White House on Monday.
“There is no division. There is no split. We are united,” Kerry assured the Munich conference. Everyone agrees that the Ukraine conflict can’t be resolved by force, he said, but the costs will be raised for Russia and its proxies. For an administration that wanted to “pivot” toward Asia, “reset” with Russia and forget about Europe, the fighting in Ukraine is the worst possible outcome. Although the Kremlin portrays the Ukraine conflict as the result of a diabolical U.S. plot — in which McCain’s visit to the Maidan protest in December 2013 is Exhibit A — Western obliviousness is mostly to blame.
The European Union, with Germany at its head, sleepwalked into the Ukraine crisis. Shielded by U.S. military might since the end of World War Two, Western Europeans had come to live under the illusion that their irresistible soft power — democratic values and economic prosperity — is alone strong enough to bring the continent together. In their attempt to finalize an association agreement with Ukraine in 2013, EU leaders jostled with Putin for influence, not realizing that what they regarded as a trade deal, he viewed as brazen geopolitical encroachment. When the pro-EU protest on the Maidan unexpectedly succeeded in chasing Kremlin client Viktor Yanukovych from power last February, Putin watched the West crossing a red line it had chosen not to see. Securing Russia’s Black Sea Fleet on Crimea was the first priority. Wreaking havoc on Kiev’s interim government by fomenting an uprising in eastern Ukraine was the second.
Could anybody have anticipated Russia’s actions a year ago? Radoslaw Sikorski, who was Poland’s foreign minister during the Maidan protest, said that at last year’s Munich conference he had asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov if the Kremlin had territorial ambitions in Ukraine. “He flatly denied it,” Sikorski said. Less than a month later, Yanukovych fled Kiev, and Russian troops were fanning out across Crimea.
Lavrov was also in Munich this year. The usually suave Russian foreign minister was visibly nervous as he delivered his speech, rattling off a standard list of slights and transgressions — almost all of them committed by the Bush administration — and blaming the United States for everything. When Lavrov said that Crimea chose the path of self-determination as foreseen under the United Nations Charter, the audience of VIPs burst into laughter.
The Russian position afforded a glimpse into the alternate reality presented day in and day out by the Kremlin propaganda machine. “There are no Russian troops in Ukraine,” Konstantin Kosachyov, the head of the Russian Duma’s foreign affairs committee, said in English. “There is no evidence — just statements, statements, statements.” According to his version of events, Russia is sitting and watching idly as a civil war unfolds across hundreds of miles of undefended border. “I thank Madame Merkel for a very strong position,” Kosachyov said about her rejection of arms for Ukraine.
Even if the West doesn’t believe that it’s engaged in a proxy war with Russia, the Kremlin reading is that it’s already taking place. In January, Putin called the Ukrainian army “a foreign NATO legion that, of course, isn’t pursuing the national interests of Ukraine.”
One Russian attendee obliquely mentioned the Luhansk rebels’ “air force,” a couple of ancient jets that Ukrainians fear could be used as cover for Russian air strikes. Another conference-goer from Moscow, not exactly a Kremlin apologist, said he wished a tank would run over British journalist Edward Lucas, one of Putin’s most vocal critics at the conference. Igor Yurgens, an architect of former President Dmitry Medvedev’s pro-Western modernization plans, walked the halls of the Hotel Bayerischer Hof with a shell-shocked look on his face.
For the Ukrainians in Munich, the clearest words of European support came from Scandinavian and Baltic leaders. “Hope is not a strategy,” said Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a former Norwegian prime minister. Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves queried Merkel on her resistance to supplying Ukraine with weapons. “My question to Merkel was: What is Plan B? I wasn’t attacking her position,” Ilves said afterward. “There’s such an overwhelming supremacy in the quality of weapons and training of the troops. Basically you have volunteers, even conscripts, fighting against professional soldiers.”
Merkel’s solution, based on her remarks at the conference, is to take the long view; after all, the United States didn’t go to war with the Soviet Union to reunite Germany, she said. “I can’t imagine a situation in which Ukraine is so well-armed that Putin would think he could lose,” she said. Because a war with Russia is unwinnable for Kiev, according to Merkel, it’s better to accept temporary boundaries, save lives and keep the faith for a more just future.
In Munich, the asymmetric nature of the conflict with Russia became clear: As the West, pluralistic and democratic, openly debated the delivery of arms to Ukraine, Russia was continuing its covert aid to the rebels while outwardly denying it. The whole world knows what Western leaders think; nobody can say the same about Putin.
Europe’s last big test was the bloodletting in the Balkans 20 years ago. But the breakup of Yugoslavia, despite all its horror, was a regional conflict confined to regional boundaries. Even if nobody asked the Ukrainians, Ukraine is about Russia’s future relationship with the West. Overnight, it seems, Europe has become a very dangerous place again.