Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks in Kiev last week that the United States is considering providing weapons to the embattled Ukraine government of President Petro Poroshenko threatens to ignite a political crisis in Europe that could have profound implications for the U.S.
Not since the end of World War II have the European powers, led by Berlin and Paris, faced such a naked choice of loyalty. Will Europe remain obedient to Washington under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization umbrella of conventional and nuclear forces? Or will Europe decide to go its own way, negotiating its economic and security interests with Russia and its allies independently of the U.S.?
In late January and early February, major combat in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region set off a diplomatic whirl in Washington, Berlin, Paris and Kiev, chiefly because the Russian-backed rebel forces were showing swift success in outmaneuvering Kiev’s forces around the Donetsk Airport and at the city of Debaltseve.
In sum, the rebels are well led and well-supplied, with high morale and plenty of Russian aid, including Russian officers offering their services as volunteers. What’s more, the rebels are in a good position to launch an offensive into the late winter and spring to establish a hardened front line that will crack Ukraine in pieces.
In hasty response, Kerry arrived in Kiev on Feb. 5 to bolster Kiev’s sagging fortunes on the battlefield by hinting that Washington will soon make a decision to arm Kiev. To underline the possible turn toward a wider war, he declared that Washington “cannot close our eyes to Russian tanks crossing the border.”
Within hours, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande arrived in Kiev to confer with the bellicose Poroshenko, who is desperate for U.S. arms to hold on to his frail authority. Merkel and Hollande were reportedly peeved at Kerry’s war drumming but left Kiev without a statement.
The next day, Merkel and Hollande demonstrated their displeasure with Kerry by suddenly traveling to Moscow to confer with Russian President Vladimir Putin. She underlined Berlin’s opposition to Kerry’s remarks when she said at the the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 7, “I am firmly convinced this conflict cannot be solved with military means.”
The diplomatic maneuvers continued into Monday, with Merkel in Washington to confer with President Barack Obama and restate Europe’s adamant rejection of the arming of Kiev. According to my sources, she communicated the gravity of the moment to Obama and was disappointed and discouraged both by the president’s level of information and by his instinct to turn the crisis into a political game.
Moscow is wary of plans for more Maidan-type revolts in former Soviet states.
Putin is scheduled to join Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko in Minsk, Belarus, on Wednesday to discuss a settlement to the civil war. The U.S. is not a party to the Minsk discussions and is not invited to join. Obama did telephone Putin on Tuesday to restate that the "costs for Russia will rise" if Russia's "aggressive actions" continue in Ukraine.
In preparation for Minsk, the Kremlin has issued sharp conditions for the talks to go forward, such as an immediate cease-fire by the Kiev forces. Reports from Ukraine confirm that the Azov Battalion, the extreme right-wing all-volunteer national guard unit, launched a fresh offensive on Tuesday near the port city of Mariupol. The attack suggests an attempt to provoke the Kremlin into breaking off the crisis negotiations planned for Minsk.
The new new world order
Yet I am told none of this commuting between capitals and continents, none of the fever of posturing and provocations will alter the big picture for what Europe will choose this year, regardless of the swift or ugly outcome of the Ukraine crisis.
Europe is choosing to go its own way and partner with the Eurasian powers of Moscow and Beijing rather than remain beholden to a clumsy and increasingly peripheral American power. Europe and especially the German leadership all believe in British geographer Halford John Mackinder’s vision of a Common Eurasian Home. Under this view, the postwar period of 1945 to 1989 is an aberration. Now the Europeans aim to reunite with the rest of the Eurasian supercontinent and establish the balance of powers that was wrecked by the two world wars and the United States’ rise to dominance.
Moscow sees Washington as an interloper and provocateur in Eurasian affairs. Since the end of the Soviet Union, Moscow has routinely accused Washington of creating phony crises in the Russian near abroad — the now independent former Soviet republics. In the Balkans during President Bill Clinton’s administration, in Ukraine and Georgia during the President George W. Bush’s administration and in the Maidan revolt during the Obama administration, Moscow has seen Washington’s provocative hand to foment disorder. Why? In the Russian telling, Washington seeks to prove to the gun-shy Europeans that they still need NATO’s embrace.
“There absolutely, definitely is an attempt to deter our development by various means,” Putin said on Feb. 7. “Russia will never be satisfied with this kind of world order.”
The Kremlin has presented Merkel and Hollande with a practical and obvious compromise to settle the Ukrainian civil war. Crimea would remain Russian, while the Donbass would remain in Ukraine but enjoy some autonomy from Kiev. The debts owed by Kiev could be solved in time with cooperation from the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and Russia, and the sanctions against Russia would be lifted immediately.
The Kremlin has been candid about the alternative scenario of Washington’s going ahead with arming Kiev: Ukraine’s civil war would be over in short order, in Moscow’s favor. As it is, Moscow is wary of plans for more Maidan-type revolts in former Soviet states, such as Belarus and Central Asian republics such as Uzbekistan. Putin aims to avoid further turmoil by concluding the Ukrainian civil war promptly.
Merkel, Hollande and other Europeans remain shy of Washington’s posturing. However, in the coming conflict between Washington and Moscow, either this winter over the Donbass or in future over the Russian near abroad, the Europeans have already decided they can find peace and prosperity only on their own, without Washington’s help, by negotiating with their martial and prickly Russian neighbors in their Common Eurasian Home.