New Talks Seek Peace In Ukraine, But European Leaders – And Trump – Have Their Own Motives
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As winter’s bitter chill descends on the mud-swamped trenches of Eastern Ukraine, there seems little hope for a thaw in hostilities. Almost six years of grinding war have ravaged the region, as Kiev continues its bloody struggle with separatist forces backed, most agree, by Russia. In 2015, a ceasefire was signed – but the promise of peace did not materialize. Over 13,000 have died in the protracted, punishing campaign that refuses to end.
But on Monday (December 9), a fresh effort at accord will be made. In Paris, newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The talks – overseen by the leaders of France and Germany – mark the uneasy neighbors’ first meeting in years.
A tentative easing of tensions has preceded the push for peace. In April, Zelensky – a former TV personality – took office in sensational style, winning a landslide election victory on the promise of ending the conflict. He has authorized prisoner swaps, negotiated the return of seized Ukrainian ships, and holds regular phone calls with Putin. With momentum behind him – and, it seems, the will of the people – Zelensky might well be quietly confident.
But his diplomatic offerings come dangerously close to over-concession, critics argue. In October, he signed the so-called Steinmeier Formula – a road-map to peace endorsed by Moscow. Separatist territories would hold elections under Ukrainian law, the agreement stipulates, after which Kiev’s jurisdiction over the borderland could be restored.
Zelensky’s assent paved the way for the Paris talks, but Putin’s hand has been bolstered in the process. The Ukrainian’s ‘peace at any price’ mantra gives Moscow leverage in negotiations – and the promise of elections plays to Putin’s plan for regional hegemony. The eastern provinces – known collectively as the Donbass – will elect parties seeking autonomy, he calculates, cornering Kiev into ‘special status’ concessions.
Firmly under the Kremlin’s thumb, a self-governing Donbass could act as Moscow’s “Trojan horse,” says Taras Kuzio of the Atlantic Council, a think tank, undermining Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration ambitions from within. Coupled with the promise of Western sanctions being lifted, Monday’s meeting could prove something of a coup for Putin.
But he and Zelensky won’t be alone at the table. Their host, French President Emmanuel Macron, has made no secret of his desire to tighten Franco-Russian relations. “Brain dead,” is the NATO alliance, Macron said recently – a “truthful” comment welcomed by Putin. With a diplomatic breakthrough on Ukraine, the two could sidestep Europe’s fear of Russian belligerence, pushing ahead with bilateral trade and investment plans.
This would likely ruffle feathers in Berlin, where Macron’s NATO snub soured the air. But Germany’s Angela Merkel has her own reasons to seek settlement with Moscow. The nations’ much heralded Nordstream 2 pipeline is on the cusp of completion. Channelling Russian gas into Europe via the Baltic Sea, the line bypasses Ukraine altogether, depriving Kiev of a critical cash source. With international pressure to scrap the scheme mounting, accord on the Donbass could buy Merkel time to see the project completed.
And then, of course, there is the Donald Trump dimension. One showman to another, Zelensky pushed the president for a White House invite this summer. The optics would have been good: a united US-Ukrainian front on Moscow’s meddling. But the offer never came. “I really hope you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem,” Trump said instead, spelling out what Zelensky least wanted to hear: you’re on your own.
For America’s mercurial leader, Ukraine is just too toxic right now. With impeachment proceedings ramping up in recent days, Trump is once again under scrutiny for his apparent threat to withhold military aid unless Zelensky fulfilled political objectives. Aligning too closely with the Ukrainian leader could play badly back home, where he faces both a probe by Congress and a general election.
It’s little wonder that, last week, Zelensky tempered hopes of a breakthrough in Paris. He’s an inexperienced statesman, but he’ll know, given their various ulterior motives, his Western allies cannot be trusted to be tough on Putin. Zelensky must wrestle with the worry of domestic dissent too – his signature on the Steinmeier Formula prompted street protests, with the public concerned that he’s too ready to concede ground.
For the Ukrainian president, this is the critical conundrum. Hemmed in by anti-Russian sentiment back home – whipped up, it seems, by his predecessor Petro Poroshenko – Zelensky cannot afford to kowtow to Moscow. But he must accept the reality of his situation. He made a promise to end the fighting – fulfilling this requires diplomatic concessions, especially when his biggest backers have their own motives for peace.
It’s an unenviable position for the Ukrainian; but he must prevail. If the narrow window for settlement slips away, a ‘frozen conflict’ – akin to that in Cyprus or Israel – awaits. Just last week, a senior aide to Zelensky revealed plans for a border wall should talks fail. That would be bad news for all involved. An interminable cycle of violence need not endure in Eastern Ukraine. Now is the time to end it.
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