Last week it was Emmanuel Macron and Liz Truss, today it’s the turn of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to visit the court of Vladimir Putin.
Thus far the Russian president has studiously kept his interlocutors at a distance, both metaphorically and physically. The sight of Putin conducting ‘face to face’ negotiations at either end of an enormous table has become something of an internet meme. It may partly be down to his apparently visceral fear of contracting Covid, but it’s also a classic Putin gambit to cast his guests in the role of supplicant. His is not the behaviour of a leader who is at all interested in sincere, meaningful co-operation. Rather, as Anne Applebaum writes here, Putin is entirely unmoved by Western talk of ‘values’ and respecting the rules-based order. His only interest is reinforcing his own power and extracting maximum concessions.
Meanwhile in Ukraine, President Zelensky has declared tomorrow a flag-hoisting ‘Day of National Unity’ – a direct response to the White House suggesting Russia could launch an invasion on Wednesday. It says much about the state of Western media coverage of Ukraine that Zelensky’s remarks yesterday were reported as though he had himself warned of a February 16 invasion, when in fact he was merely relaying those US reports with a certain degree of ironic detachment (he is a comedian by trade, after all).
President Macron’s attempts to play peacekeeper – almost certainly a pre-election gambit to burnish his image as a great statesman – seem to have come to little. Sources in the Ukrainian president’s office reported that Zelensky was unhappy with whatever the French president brought to the (normal-sized) table following his meeting last week with Putin.
Most likely, it was an attempt to persuade Ukraine to comply with the Minsk agreements and hold elections in Donbas, even with Russian guns pointed at voters’ heads. It’s little wonder there’s stalemate in negotiations when Ukraine is effectively being asked to voluntarily cede yet more of its own territory to its permanently belligerent neighbour.
The UK, meanwhile, has been a steadfast ally throughout, but needs to flesh out how it plans to increase the cost to Putin of any invasion. Boris Johnson’s government has spoken about introducing new sanctions on businesses and organisations ‘of economic and strategic significance’ to the Russian government, but we need more detail on just what they will entail.
This week should give us a slightly clearer idea of just what Russia’s endgame is.
While Western countries clear out their embassies and issue stark warnings about a possible invasion, it’s worth saying that there’s a good deal of scepticism in some quarters about the feasibility of an invasion. This article from Russian defence analyst Mikhail Khodarenok, for example, points out the many obstacles to a quick-fire military campaign – not just in terms of troops and materiel, but the willingness of ordinary Ukrainians to resist an invader they hold in complete contempt.
More likely, Putin’s aggressive stance and massing of troops is an attempt to pressure Ukraine and its Western allies into unacceptable concessions.
The same goes for some of the domestic political choreography. This week the Russian Duma is holding hearings on a new law to recognise the occupied territories of the Ukrainian Donbas as independent republics. Deputies have already been urging Putin to send weapons to the self-styled ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ and ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’.
This pseudo-legitimisation is the next step in turning both regions into an active military front. According to Ukrainian defence sources, the Donbas is already a training ground for the Russian military, with artillery, armoured vehicles, snipers and electronic warfare stations. If Russia were to officially recognise the occupied territories, it would underline its determination to pursue an expansionist stance. And after Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk, Belarus could well be next.
It is one of life’s great ironies that Russia currently holds the presidency of the UN Security Council, a body nominally tasked with upholding global peace and security. On February 17 the Council will be hosting a briefing on the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Russian diplomats will undoubtedly claim it is Ukraine that has failed to honour its side of the bargain. But, as ever with the Kremlin, working out what’s really going on will mean reading between the lines.
A few days later, on February 20, the pompously titled ‘Union Resolve’ Russian-Belarussian military exercises will come to an end. That date also marks the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. A fitting date, perhaps, for Putin to play to his domestic gallery by launching a fresh assault on their near neighbours’ territory.
If Western governments think that signing the Minsk agreements is the way out of this impasse, they are falling into Putin’s trap. The Kremlin’s entire strategy has been geared towards making the West push Ukraine into jeopardising its own hard-won sovereignty. In doing so, Russia will be emboldened, not placated. The Minsk deal would effectively hive off chunks of Ukrainian territory into Russian satellites, reinforcing a version of eastern Europe where no independent state has the right to fully choose its own future.
Worse still, numerous intelligence reports suggest the Kremlin plans to capitalise on the political chaos that would inevitably follow any signing of the Minsk agreements by installing a pro-Russian government in Kyiv – something Putin has longed for since the ousting of the cretinous Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. With every sign that Belarus too will be absorbed into a formal union with Russia, the EU could soon find itself bordered by a ‘greater Russia’ even more threatening than the one it currently faces.
For now, the fact Western countries are even considering returning to the initial version of the Minsk agreements shows just how completely they have succumbed to the Kremlin’s false narratives. Those leaders should be in no doubt though, peace on Russia’s terms is not peace, but capitulation.
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