Inside Story

Current affairs and culture from Australia and beyond

Peace in our time

Superficially, the Minsk Two agreement promises much. But, asks John Besemeres, can its European signatories counter Vladimir Putin’s long-run campaign to widen Russia’s sphere of influence?

John Besemeres 23 March 2015 5442 words

No alternative? German chancellor Angela Merkel and (on her left) European Council president Donald Tusk.


The “Minsk Two” agreement, signed in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, on 12 February was welcomed in Western media as a promising step towards a more stable peace in eastern Ukraine. But the fine print of the ceasefire deal has some disturbing elements, and the observance of the ceasefire by Russia’s proxy forces has been very patchy. The agreement was signed not only by the representatives of Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, but also by the leaders of the parts of Donetsk and Luhansk seized by the “separatists” with decisive Russian instigation, support and participation. Thus Minsk Two does much to legitimate the credentials of the proxy leaderships installed and propped up by Moscow. Strangely, too, the actual ceasefire was scheduled to take effect only three days later, which gave the proxy forces time to further their assault on the Debaltseve salient, with its strategic railway hub connecting Donetsk and Luhansk cities. That assault continued till Kiev was compelled to order its forces to withdraw from Debaltseve with severe losses of life and materiel.

Having achieved that key objective, the proxies did indeed become more compliant and some diminution of the fighting ensued. But on 6 March the Ukrainian envoy told the United Nations that Ukraine had registered 750 attacks by the “separatists” since 12 February, killing 64 Ukrainian soldiers and wounding 341 people. The West has now largely accepted the Debaltseve fait accompli despite the obvious and serious violation of Minsk Two. Nor does it seem over-concerned by other violations – near the large and strategic southern city of Mariupol, for example – or the continuing terrorist bombings in Kharkov and Odessa. And while Minsk Two was supposedly intended to confirm and reinforce the ceasefire provisions of the armistice agreements of 5 and 19 September last year (Minsk One), the German and French leaders accepted the territorial gains the pro-Russian side had made by serial violations of that ceasefire in the intervening months, and presumably felt they had to persuade the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko that this was the best deal they could get for him.

The agreement itself uses lots of soothing words like Ukrainian sovereignty and “in accordance with Ukrainian law.” But tucked away in the text and an accompanying declaration are some significant concessions to both the proxies and their Russian sponsors. To mention a few:

• A blanket amnesty has been extended to all the pro-Russian forces, and by implication to the often-thuggish local regimes they’ve set up in Donetsk and Luhansk. The amnesty seems to extend even to those who shot down MH17.

• Ukraine is required to reach agreement with the “representatives” of Russia’s proxies in eastern Ukraine (legitimating them as negotiating partners for Kiev’s elected government) on constitutional changes that would decentralise government. This is thus a condition of its regaining access to that part of its eastern border now controlled, in tandem, by the proxy forces and the Russian army.

• The proxies are given the freedom to form cross-border cooperative arrangements with Russian authorities.

• The proxy “authorities” will be involved in all policing, judicial and other legal appointments within their “people’s republics,” an apparent legitimation of their clear intention to consolidate the police state regimes they already have in place.

• Kiev is required to undertake “full resumption of socio-economic ties, including social transfers such as pension payments” and “timely payments of all utility bills… within the legal framework of Ukraine.” The point at issue here is that Russia’s actions have resulted in huge damage, for which Ukraine is now expected to pay, while Moscow pockets the geopolitical advantages. Kiev had suspended a range of transfer payments, basically because it was broke. But it also took the not unreasonable position that as Russia had now introduced sixteen “humanitarian convoys,” of whose contents no one but Moscow and its proxies have any knowledge, it should accept responsibility for supporting the living expenses of the local residents whose lives and livelihoods it had severely disrupted or worse.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and French president François Hollande – who initiated the negotiations with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, apparently on Ukraine’s behalf, as “the last chance to end the fighting in Ukraine” – also persuaded Poroshenko to sign an accompanying political declaration that seems to call on Ukraine to make additional concessions to Russia. This document aligns Poroshenko with the Merkelist doctrine that “there is no alternative to an exclusively peaceful settlement” to the Ukraine situation, despite the fact that for a year, Moscow has been imposing military solutions on a daily basis. The declaration also states that “the Normandy Format” of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine should be responsible for oversight of this latest “ceasefire,” thus providing for the continued non-participation of the United States, Britain and Poland (neighbour to both Russia and Ukraine and prominent earlier in EU deliberations on Ukraine).

Trade war morphs to hybrid war

Perhaps most worryingly from Kiev’s point of view, the declaration says that the group endorses trilateral EU–Ukraine–Russia talks to achieve “practical solutions to concerns raised by Russia” in relation to the free trade agreement Ukraine signed with the European Union last June. The Maidan was sparked by Yanukovych’s retreat, after years of laborious negotiations, from signing essentially the same agreement. The post-Maidan government was hoping that its signature on the package (comprising an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement) would at last launch it on a process of EU-supported reform and integration with Europe.

In response to further Russian pressure and threats, the European Union had already postponed implementation of the agreement for twelve months. Now, it seems, Russia can use that period to seek to veto any parts of the DCFTA that it doesn’t like – and Moscow has made clear it would like to rewrite large slabs. Independent observers have analysed the Russian objections and find them largely specious. What Russia really doesn’t like about the Association Agreement, and the free trade deal embedded in it, is that Ukraine signed it at all, rather than joining Putin’s Eurasian Union.

Why would Kiev have agreed to such an unbalanced pair of documents? The answer, basically, is because it had no choice. It could see that it would not receive much military support from its Western friends, despite again having been defeated on the battlefield by a further injection of high-tech weaponry and skilled manpower from Moscow. And its economy, blighted by decades of mismanagement, especially in the Yanukovych years, was and continues to be on the brink of collapse. It is also acutely conscious that fighting “separatists” entrenched in residential areas in the Donbass can only deepen the alienation of Ukrainian citizens literally caught in the crossfire. But not to return fire with their inaccurate and obsolescent weapons would concede the terrain to Russia. This has been one of Kiev’s worst dilemmas from the outset.

Even without Russian trade wars and military aggression, the new government had much to do to repair and reform the economy. But the disruption and destruction in eastern Ukraine – a rust belt area that is also the location of much of Ukraine’s industrial and export capacity – have all but tipped the economy over the edge. Ukraine’s economy has normally relied on its foreign trade for 50 per cent of its GDP, and that trade collapsed abruptly in the second half of the 2014 – by 32 per cent in December alone. This was almost entirely due to the war in the Donbass and Russia’s punitive trade restrictions. The IMF has assessed that Ukraine’s GDP had declined by 6.9 per cent in 2014, and expected a further decline of 5.5 per cent in 2015. But the Kyiv government’s own prognosis for 2015 had worsened from minus 5.5 per cent (as assessed at the end of 2014) to minus 11.9 per cent by March of this year, with inflation expected to be somewhere between 27 per cent and 43 per cent. And those trends could worsen further.

Russia’s economy has also been sliding badly in response to the fall in the oil price, the consequential slump in the rouble, and Western sanctions. Estimates of Russia’s likely GDP decline in 2015 usually range between minus 3 and minus 5 per cent. But despite Putin’s irresponsible stewardship, Russia’s financial reserves are – though falling fast – still among the highest in the world, at $356 billion, whereas before Ukraine received the first tranche of its recent $17.5 billion IMF bailout, its reserves had slumped to some $6 billion, scarcely enough to cover one month of imports. And, in February, Ukraine’s economic freefall had become markedly more precipitate and damaging than Russia’s.

Whatever financial respite Kyiv had been hoping for, Minsk Two didn’t provide immediate relief. Russia’s stock market went up at the news of the agreement; Ukraine’s fell further. Despite the announcement of the IMF package having been timed to coincide with (and seemingly conditional on Kiev’s acceptance of) the conclusion of Minsk Two, the Ukrainian hryvnia collapsed spectacularly, causing panic in the population. Desperate measures by the National Bank of Ukraine, a flurry of economic reform legislation and the arrival of the first IMF tranche recouped the position somewhat in early March, but the hryvnia has only been shakily stabilised at twenty-three to the US dollar, roughly one third of its value a year ago. The extreme fragility of the Ukrainian economy was exposed, and with it its vulnerability to further Russian geopolitical vandalism.

All of this means that Kiev’s prospects for financial stabilisation, foreign investment and continued disbursement of IMF funds all depend on whether Russia chooses to refrain from further military or economic attacks on Ukraine. A gas war, a wider-ranging trade boycott, or major further military offensives against eastern Ukraine would possibly be enough to push the national economy over the cliff, despite what has been achieved. Even with the IMF bail-out secured and without any further Russian coercion, there would be serious doubts as to whether Kiev will be able to secure enough financial support to stave off default and disaster. Western support outside the IMF framework has been modest, and the Ukrainian government has been forced to try plugging an imminent $15 billion funding gap by seeking a “haircut” and extensions from the creditors in question. That includes $3 billion owed to Russia and due for repayment next December. Under its terms, Russia has the right to call the loan in early and has repeatedly threatened to do so. It may choose its moment to good effect.

Back to Yalta

Moscow clearly has further plans for strengthening its position in Ukraine; and its proxies have launched numerous attacks in the region of the southern port city of Mariupol, for instance, as well as conducting destabilising terrorist bombing operations in Kharkov and Odessa. With Minsk Two’s legitimisation of its pseudo-statelets of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, it has already achieved its minimal objective of establishing a frozen conflict in East Ukraine. (And it should always be remembered that frozen conflicts can quickly be unfrozen or otherwise transformed at times of Russia’s choosing. Moscow has recently been converting its protectorates of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia into virtually annexed territories.) Its ultimate objective is a compliant government in Kiev, but just for the moment, itself troubled by serious economic decline, the Kremlin may content itself with a client statelet in eastern Ukraine. This it can use to veto any European integration by Kiev while it continues working to undermine the very fragile EU consensus on sanctions.

It was reported earlier this month that despite the successful proxy advances in Debaltseve and Donetsk Airport, the European Union would not impose any further sanctions at this point because they might upset the delicate Minsk Two ceasefire. Though the EU Summit on 18 March was a little more robust on Russiathan expected, that prediction was confirmed. For his part, to strengthen the chances of Minsk Two succeeding, Barack Obama has cancelled an innocuous US training program for the Ukrainian military.

Moscow has learnt from such reactions that ceasefires can often be abused quite seriously without further penalties. Different views are evident within the broader Russian leadership elite about how far and how fast Russia can and should go in Ukraine, and some of those views are quite radical. So any sudden opening of another front in Ukraine – for example an all-out attack on Mariupol to establish a land corridor to the Crimea – should not surprise us. Putin thinks that with current Western leaderships in place, he need not fear pushback that would cost Russian lives. He does worry that Russian military losses would affect his popularity, and partly for that reason has gone to absurd lengths to pretend that Russia is not involved militarily in East Ukraine. But he probably calculates that if the divided Obama administration again seemed to be tilting towards arming Ukraine, an emphatic threat of marked further escalation, followed by the offer of talks on a Minsk Three, would be enough to see off the threat.

Putin’s broader plans clearly include a restoration of a sphere of influence over most of the territory of the former Soviet Union. But he seems to want to go beyond that, if he can, to restore a sphere of influence within Europe as well, including in NATO and EU member states. What he probably wants most after some more Minsk Ones and Twos would be the creation of a new European security architecture modelled on the Yalta settlement of February 1945, where Roosevelt and Churchill conceded to Stalin control over much of Central and Eastern Europe). Russian media and some senior officials have been warmly praising Yalta recently.

By February 1945, Stalin had a dominant military grip on most of what he was claiming in central-eastern Europe, and there was not very much that the Anglo allies, despite their formidable military, could do to wrest it from him or prevent him from communising it. Despite his huge military build-up in progress this decade, Putin is unlikely ever to cast the shadow that Stalin’s conventional forces once did over the Eurasian continent. But the Western alliance he is facing is also relatively much less formidable. Though boasting a larger number of members than the Western alliance of the cold war era, the Europeans are disunited, lack adequate security leadership, and are disinclined to pay much for their own defence. In many cases, they would be very happy to return to business as usual with Moscow, as long as it restricts itself to bullying and grabbing land from other countries and not from them.

Chancellor Merkel, Europe’s most energetic and capable leader, works the EU system very well, and has achievements also in the security domain. She has succeeded in keeping sanctions in place despite the objections of the more pro-Russian EU members and the at times egregiously Russophile sentiments prevalent among influential elites within her own country, including two of her predecessor chancellors. Even though Germans generally are starting to lose their enthusiasm for the Putin regime, the foreign country they often seem most worried about is the United States. Der Spiegel recently ran a major article about the extreme anxiety and hostility evoked in the German foreign and defence policy elite by NATO’s European Commander, General Philip Breedlove, for his supposedly provocative bellicosity towards Russia. The article seems to suggest that official Germany sees Breedlove as a bigger threat to peace than Putin.

While Merkel has spent many difficult hours trying to persuade Putin to modify his behaviour, she’s had very little success so far. She tirelessly repeats her favourite mantra about Ukraine – that there can be no military solutions to this crisis – while her principal interlocutor, Putin, continues to freely deploy military solutions in Ukraine, including right under her nose last month before the ink on Minsk Two was dry.

Merkel’s second-in-command in the Minsk negotiations, President Hollande, appeared not to be playing a major role. And perhaps that was just as well. Hollande has occasionally been forceful on African and Middle Eastern issues and commands one of the two strongest armed forces in Europe. But on Ukraine, to put it charitably, he has been wobbly. He was, for example, the first Western leader to visit Putin in the Kremlin after the annexation of Crimea. France often seems very hopeful that sanctions can be rolled back, and that it can at last sell its Mistral amphibious attack vessels to the Russians, despite the fears of Russia’s neighbours bordering the Baltic and Black Seas. On 13 February, immediately after signing Minsk Two, Hollande told journalists that while it was not yet time to do so, he hoped that France would be able to deliver the Mistrals to Russia.

Perhaps as significant as who was involved on the Western side at Minsk are the absentees ensured by the Normandy Format, a constraint that Putin clearly relishes. With President Obama having apparently outsourced the management of Western security interests in Ukraine to Chancellor Merkel and the European Union, the United States has been consistently missing from Ukrainian negotiations over the last year.

A second noteworthy absentee has been Britain, the other major military power in Europe. The Cameron government began by seeking its own reset with Russia, and has sharply lowered Britain’s defence budget. But latterly it has become more forceful in response to Russia’s aggressive policies, instigating a public enquiry into the Litvinienko case, identifying Russia as its key security threat, and talking of providing defensive weapons and training to Ukraine. Britain might have been able to strengthen the EU response to Russia’s growing belligerence, but with domestic euroscepticism growing in strength and Cameron not doing a great deal to contain it, along with the distraction of the Scottish independence movement, London’s influence in EU counsels has greatly diminished.

Likewise, Poland and former PM Donald Tusk have seemed to play a less prominent role in the EU response to Russia’s activities in Ukraine than used to be the case, despite Poland’s close knowledge of the Russian target, its size and common borders with Russia and Ukraine, and Tusk’s having recently ascended to the role of president of the European Council.

Since the fading of his reset policy, Obama has been publicly contemptuous of Putin at times. But he seems to wish to cling to whatever remains of the policy to pursue supposedly shared multilateral objectives, like curbing Iran, North Korea and Islamic State as well as pursuing the fata morgana of nuclear disarmament. Whether Russia has a strong and disinterested commitment to all or even any of these objectives may seem questionable, especially nuclear disarmament, but for Obama they all appear to have precedence over Ukraine, the Budapest Memorandum or the security of the European side of the Trans-Atlantic alliance. To its credit, the Obama administration has taken a strong and leading role on sanctions, seeking to keep pressure on the European Union to match it step for step. But it should be remembered that for the United States, a single country with a single decision-making process (however complex) and limited trade with Russia, sanctions are a much easier option than for the Europeans.

Though he recently approved a $75 million package of non-lethal aid for Ukraine, Obama has not shown much appetite for supporting Kiev’s armed forces, and has repeatedly ruled out providing defensive arms. Recently, many senior figures in the Obama administration have publicly mooted supplying lethal aid to Ukraine, and there is strong and growing support for such a step in Congress. Nonetheless, Obama still seems unconvinced. One reason for Obama’s hesitation is a perceived need to keep in step with the EU leadership’s doveish policy in this respect. Merkel’s sense of urgency about again engaging Putin in the Minsk Two negotiations was widely understood to stem from her concern that Washington might provide defensive weapons to Ukraine, with what Berlin is convinced would be disastrous consequences.

Even without any such “provocation,” Putin escalated again anyway. After more than a year of Russia’s serial aggressions, it remains unclear whether the Obama administration will do anything to arm Ukraine, but it seems unlikely. As mentioned, Washington recently cancelled a modest training program for the Ukrainian military in order not to provoke Putin or give Moscow a chance for propaganda about American interference. The training, far from the front line, involved such provocative activities as battlefield first aid, combating enemy radio-jamming and surviving heavy artillery fire from the “separatists.”

The question of whether defensive weapons should be provided to Ukraine has been discussed heatedly and at length in Western countries since early in the Russian intervention. It is not an easy issue, and one of the key arguments adduced against doing so is that doing so would lead supposedly to immediate Russian escalation and more death and destruction in Ukraine. But at present one side is being handsomely supported – with repeatedly decisive and escalatory effects – by its generous Russian backers. This has taken the form of high-tech weaponry, substantial numbers of “volunteers” and highly skilled special forces, intelligence, massive propaganda and diplomatic threats and persuasion. Meanwhile the other side is receiving some economic and diplomatic support, though not enough to safeguard it or its economy, but only very modest material support for its armed forces – blankets rather than anti-tank weapons.

As the strategic analyst Phillip Karber of Georgetown University has commented in a study of Russia’s so-called hybrid warfare in Ukraine:

While Russia has introduced thousands of weapons into the conflict, European and American political hesitation in helping Ukraine acquire replacements for its losses (and the political message it sends to others who would like to help) serves as a virtual military embargo on Ukraine. Ironically the most successful Western sanction has been in preventing a friendly country from defending itself.

Despite the undertakings given in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 to ensure Ukraine would be free from military or economic coercion in exchange for relinquishing its nuclear weapons, the signatories have failed to deliver. Signatory Russia has attacked Ukraine for attempting to reach a non-military bilateral agreement with the European Union, while the leaders of the Western world, the United States, Britain and France (also signatories) have failed to protect it.

So if Putin is less powerful than Stalin was at Yalta, he must feel increasingly confident that a little determination and guile on his part will be enough to brush aside Western opposition to his plans for perestroika of the post-1990 European security architecture. It is apparent that he has a certain amused contempt for Europe, its complicated decision-making structures, its unreadiness to pay for its own defence, and its “decadent” social fashions. He sees it as increasingly divided and lacking authoritative leadership, and is fully aware that several EU members are either sympathetic to his strategic objectives or at least afraid to contest them for fear of reprisals.

While Russia’s own economy was on a steady downward slide well before the imposition of sanctions, he also takes great heart from the sustained malaise in many EU economies, and the social distress and political volatility that malaise has engendered. Sanctions and the sharp drop in oil prices and the rouble are a constraint on his freedom of manoeuvre for the moment, but he feels confident that the increasingly compliant Russian population will endure the necessary belt-tightening until Ukraine is at least satisfactorily hamstrung. As soon as the economy starts to recover, if not before, he will probably feel ready to pursue further strategic gains.

If Ukraine, the largest country in continental Europe, is finally brought undone economically, politically or militarily by the battering it has suffered, that will also sound a potent message to any neighbouring country unwise enough to attempt to resist Russia’s designs for it. Already Ukraine’s economy is undermined, and not surprisingly, the government’s high popularity is starting to rapidly ebb.

Appeasement springs eternal

Appeasement is a rhetorical rather than an analytical term. One man’s appeasement is another’s judicious pragmatism. Western countries are often reproached by critics for their alleged hypocrisy in criticising Russia where they would not criticise, say, Saudi Arabia for similar offences. There is often some abstract justice in the criticism, although it seems to imply that Western countries have an absolute obligation to lead with their chins in policing the world without any regard to their own interests. Decisions whether to criticise, impose sanctions or intervene militarily are always the product of some combination of geopolitical interests, moral outrage, fear of retaliation, alliance or treaty obligations, domestic political pressures and other factors. But usually when the term is invoked in Western countries, it is because the invoker claims to see some point of comparison with the classic appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s.

Russian patriots and Western Russlandversteher become particularly enraged when any parallel between contemporary Russia and Nazi Germany is suggested. Nazi collaborators and alleged collaborators are denounced by Moscow as “fascists,” but so too are almost any other classes of humanity that the Kremlin wishes to discredit. To turn that longstanding weapon of hybrid warfare on its head against its inventors strikes Putinists and their sympathisers as particularly perfidious.

But the parallels are striking nonetheless: domestic xenophobia and revanchist irredentism, a charismatic autocrat whose constantly trumpeted superhuman qualities make him immensely popular among the masses, militarisation of society and the budget, relentless, mendacious propaganda, elephantiasis of the security organs, mass invigilation of the population and widespread repression of human rights, extensive regulation and uniformity of views in nearly all media outlets, a mobilised population that hates as it is told, a foreign policy that asserts the right to protect people of the same ethnicity, or even the same language by interfering with force in their countries of residence, a seemingly expanding appetite for further territorial conquest even after irredentist claims are satisfied… The list goes on.

Even Putin’s latest version of the Russian invasion of Crimea – to protect Russians supposedly in danger in Crimea and save the life of Yanukovych, all of which necessitated urgent military intervention and nuclear threats – starts to bear a resemblance to the 1939 Gleiwitz Incident, stage-managed by the high-ranking Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich to justify Germany’s attack on Poland.

To draw attention to such features is not to imply that Putin’s Russia will necessarily commit crimes of even remotely comparable magnitude to those of Nazi Germany. In addition to using the parallels to critique Putinism, such critics usually have one overriding objective in mind, namely to suggest that if Putin is not stopped, he will attack all neighbours who were ever part of Moscow’s empire, and quite possibly other countries as well. Attempts to conciliate him at other people’s expense are not only naive or unworthy and in breach of the appeasers’ obligations; they are also self-destructive, in that an appeased autocrat will simply pocket whatever he is given, and pursue further conquests.

A quote from Churchill is usually called for at this point. In a joint appeal to Europe to not betray the ideals on which the European Union is based, a former Czech ambassador to Moscow and a senior Slovak Green politician quoted Churchill: “You were given a choice between dishonour and war. You have chosen dishonour and will get war.” Cameron, Hollande, Merkel and Obama, they said, have chosen dishonour. “But now it is Ukraine that is getting the war, while Europe stands aside, even as its security is undermined and its values mocked.”

The proportions here have to be measured carefully, and an EU advocate would be quick to argue, among other things, that Ukraine is not a member of the European Union or NATO and therefore no duty is owed it. But Putin’s behaviour to date is certainly not inconsistent with the above line of analysis, and much of the public patriotic rhetoric in Russia goes further. In the face of Russia’s trashing of the post-1990 security architecture, its repeated brandishing of its nuclear weapons and its huge preponderance in tactical nuclear weapons over the Western alliance in the Eurasian theatre, Western Europe should at least be worrying about the risk of further whetting Putin’s appetite.

If it is unprepared to supply defensive weapons to countries that are under Russian attack, it should be ready to deploy sanctions with vigour and determination, and escalate in response to any escalation. So far it is not obviously doing so. The sanctions have been deployed slowly and reluctantly. Without the downing of Flight MH17, EU sanctions that really bite may not have materialised. Having materialised, the European Union collectively, and many EU member states individually, are continually undermining them by broaching the issue of their early release, or even denouncing them as own-goals. Any prospect of their early withdrawal should be removed from the table for the time being.

Putin will always be encouraged by the sight of EU seniors again absorbed in intensive discussions about whether to strengthen sanctions (they did not) or to extend or not to extend the most important ones due for renewal next July. As to the latter, they finally declared that those would be extended till the end of 2015, and moreover that their lifting would be made conditional on fulfilment by Russia of its obligations under Minsk Two. Passing the necessary legal instruments for doing so, we are assured, will occur nearer the time. The Russian propaganda outlet, RT, is claiming that extension of the sanctions due to expire in July to the end of the year is not yet a done deal. And a German Deutsche Welle commentator has suggested that a single pro-Russian member country could block the extension by a determined veto. While theoretically possible, this seems very unlikely, but there are a number of dissenting member states who are being eagerly courted by Moscow, so some doubt must remain.
 
Naturally, the Ukrainians find all these deliberations unsettling.Another to find them so is evidently Donald Tusk. After returning from a visit to Washington, he declared to Western media on his return, while the issue was still evidently moot, that Europe must maintain broad economic sanctions against Russia until Ukrainian control of its border with Russia is restored or risk a crisis with the White House. “Putin’s policy,” he said, “is much simpler than our sophisticated discussions. The only effective answer to Putin’s clear and simple policy is pressure.” He added that Putin’s policy is “simply to have enemies, to be stronger than them, to destroy them and to be in conflict.”

According to Tusk, Obama was not expecting the Europeans to step up sanctions (that issue was evidently already decided), just to maintain those already in place. “The comparison with appeasement applies…,” he said, “about the approach of some politicians who say Ukraine is too far from us, not our business… You know the melody.”

Whatever these comments may lack in subtlety in relation to the various categories of Russian sympathisers or appeasers in the European Union, whose views Tusk has the remit of endeavouring to bring into alignment with a broad EU consensus, they certainly lack nothing in clarity. In the event, at the EU Summit last week, Tusk and his close colleague Merkel seem to have carried the day. But more such deliberations will surely arise in response to Russia’s studiedly ambiguous hybrid warfare against its largest Western neighbour. There will remain in the approaches of both the Obama administration and the European Union much that will continue to unsettle the Ukrainians. •

Read next

2322 words

Conflict out of chaos

20 March 2015

Books | The Islamic State seemed to appear out of nowhere, writes Matthew Gray, but its origins lie in decades of conflict and bad decisions

Right:

Product of many mistakes: an image from a propaganda video uploaded by the Islamic State in June last year allegedly shows ISIS militants at an undisclosed location in Iraq's Nineveh province. ISIL/HO/AFP Photo

Product of many mistakes: an image from a propaganda video uploaded by the Islamic State in June last year allegedly shows ISIS militants at an undisclosed location in Iraq's Nineveh province. ISIL/HO/AFP Photo