Sunday’s massive march in Paris against extremism showed Europe’s resolve against savage threats in its streets. At the same time, it also hinted at the lack of resolution to the most immediate threat to European peace, the Ukrainian crisis. The conflict has become a three-way struggle among the fragile European Union, the aggressive White House and the immovable Kremlin.
While French President François Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko were linked arm in arm with other world leaders (but not President Barack Obama, who failed to appear), there were fresh reports of combat from Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region between the aggressively deployed and U.S.-supported Kiev National Guard units and the Kremlin-supported Novorossiya rebels.
On Jan. 15 and 16, Hollande, Merkel and Poroshenko are tentatively scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Astana, Kazakhstan, to find a new solution to the 10-month-old civil war. The meeting is not yet confirmed, since Merkel — the Hamlet of Europe, as jokes have it — now hesitates to attend without guarantees that Poroshenko and Putin can arrive at an understanding. Hollande’s office has voiced similar concerns.
Merkel’s and Hollande’s hesitation, even in the face of new casualties in the Donbass, suggests that the Minsk Protocol of Sept. 5, 2014, has failed.
The war is going badly for both sides, especially for beggarly Kiev. Last week, Kiev’s debts breached conditions set for a $3 billion loan by Moscow, and there is indication that Moscow is demanding immediate repayment by Kiev or by the loan guarantor, the European Union. In addition, Ukraine’s credit rating was recently lowered because of its delayed payments to the International Monetary Fund and deteriorating foreign currency reserves. Ukraine appears increasingly likely to default on its debts.
The renewed fighting underlines the incoherence of Kiev’s military aggression in face of marketplace doubts about its financial viability.
Minimalism versus maximalism
Led by a reluctant Hollande and an impatient Merkel, the EU is gloomy and uncertain about the next steps. Generally, the Europeans want a minimalist resolution: Poroshenko would accept a loose federation across Ukraine, grant the Donbass a large measure of autonomy and then end the conflict. The Europeans want Kiev to accept a peacekeeping force that would shield Novorossiya from rogue Kiev National Guard units. The Europeans further want Poroshenko to accept that Crimea is now a Russian possession. When all this is in place, the Europeans say they will be ready to help Kiev pays its debts, starting with the money owed the Kremlin, and provide funds for reconstruction. Hollande’s long-standing reluctance to reach a resolution has recently been overcome by the influential financiers who have sizable assets in Ukraine.
The obstacle to stability in Europe is a Washington that is not arm in arm with its allies.
Poroshenko has not yet accepted the Europeans’ generosity because Barack Obama’s administration continues to advise Poroshenko that it will support Kiev in its strikingly unequal fight with Moscow.
The White House wants a maximalist resolution. Obama follows the starkly anti-Russian doctrine advocated by former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who derides Russia as “thuggish” and compares Putin to Hitleresque fascists.
"We will continue to stand up to Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine," Obama said in an op-ed he co-wrote with British Prime Minister David Cameron for the Times of London. "If we allow such fundamental breaches of international law to go unchecked, we will all suffer from the instability that would follow."
Obama’s Ukraine policy is bolstered by strong votes and voices in Congress favoring aid to Kiev, plus a Republican majority in the Senate that is firm in its commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty. The president wants Poroshenko to maintain the frontline units against the Donbass rebels. The White House also wants the harsh sanctions against the Kremlin retained until Russia withdraws its support for the rebels and returns Crimea to Kiev.
The Kremlin’s countervailing position can be described as unrelenting. Moscow looks favorably on the European minimalism and yet is aware that the Europeans are constrained in their soft line by Washington’s high-profile bellicosity.
Other European leaders, among them Czech Republic President Milos Zeman, doubt the sanctions regime. Arguing that Kiev does not want a peaceful resolution, Zeman recently condemned a torchlight neo-Nazi march in Kiev.
Other European states, such as Poland and the Baltic nations, fully support the sanctions as well as the buildup of NATO readiness along the Russian frontier. Most immediately, Poland seeks a NATO military response to Russia’s activity in the Baltics. NATO continues to deploy the U.S. military along the Russian border, and the Russians announce equally provocative military deployments along the frontiers of Poland, the Baltic countries and Crimea.
The Kremlin’s opinion of Washington’s maximalist position is that it is unrealistic and, on occasion, moronic. The Kremlin argues that the Obama administration does not understand Russia’s policies anywhere and would rather interfere and intervene in domestic squabbles than negotiate. The Kremlin complains that Russia’s vital interests in Ukraine, the Middle East and Central Asia are being challenged or ignored. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has raised these problems with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly, to no avail. Putin has tried to raise the same concerns directly with Obama and has also been rebuffed.
As a result, the Kremlin will follow its own lead in Ukraine by ceaselessly supporting Novorossiya, securing the critical Crimea and cultivating the EU minimalist road to end the conflict peacefully. Here at the beginning of the year, the obstacle to stability in Europe is a Washington that is not arm in arm with its allies.