Inside Story

Ukraine, out of sight

Hit by low energy prices and Western sanctions, Vladimir Putin has been exerting less obvious pressure in Ukraine, writes John Besemeres

John Besemeres 21 December 2015 5398 words

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, shown here visiting a kindergarten being rebuilt in Debaltseve earlier this month, have been denied access to sensitive sites by the “people’s republics.” Evgeniy Maloletka/OSCE

Vladimir Putin’s recent excursion into the heat and turbulence of Middle Eastern conflicts was undertaken for a number of reasons. But probably key among them was the desire to improve his standing with the West enough to weaken or eliminate sanctions and secure his acquisitions in Crimea and Ukraine. Russia’s active military involvement in eastern Ukraine has moderated in recent months, though it has not ceased, and it could resume at short notice. Where does that leave the Ukrainian struggle for independence and closer relations with the West?

Even if the gunfire has fallen silent or become merely intermittent, Western policy-makers need to remind themselves that a Leninist kto-kogo struggle (who is defeating or dominating whom) is still being fought by the other side, and in a variety of ways. Putin wants to win, not to settle for an honourable draw, and his attention span is much longer even than German chancellor Angela Merkel’s, and certainly than French president François Hollande’s.

As von Clausewitz told us, war is the continuation of politics by other means. But for the Leninists and their modern legatees, the Putinists, politics (and information, culture, trade and the like) is the continuation of war by other means. They see many different paths to victory, and so it is with Ukraine.

In recent years, Moscow has essentially been replicating in countries to its west the sort of operation it undertook at the end of, and just after, the second world war to communise Central and Eastern Europe. This time the target countries are former Soviet republics rather than what were once Warsaw Pact countries-to-be, though Ukraine fits into both camps. The ideological bait and the mix of preferred instruments are also slightly modified to suit the times, and happily the use of military conquest and the violent repression of ungrateful new subjects are so far much less massive in scale.

But the pattern is broadly similar: outright invasion and seizure of territory; deployment of freshly minted partisan militias under Kremlin auspices; creation of pseudo-state structures, often with tell-tale Stalinist monikers like “people’s republic”; police state methods against whole categories of dissenters; negotiations on the basis of these faits accomplis; intensive propaganda to discredit the victims (“fascists”), legitimise the proxies (“rebels,” “separatists”), and reduce the outside world’s readiness to resist the new dispensation; and trade wars, using arbitrary and crippling sanctions for no legitimate reason to undermine the target country’s economy or generate coercive pressure (by cutting off sources of heating in winter, for example).

Also in the mix are exported corruption, especially bought or hired politicians; subverting and destabilising target states by organising violent takeovers of media outlets, administrative buildings and so on; bankrolling receptive parties; setting up pseudo-independence movements in areas where a military incursion might lend wings to a “national liberation movement” otherwise incapable of independent flight; and recruiting neighbouring states or peoples who may wish to cooperate in a possible carve-up of territory. (On the postwar events and present-day similarities, see respectively Anne Applebaum’s book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956 and her article “Russia and the Great Forgetting.”)

Though skirmishes have resumed in Eastern Ukraine in recent weeks, the outright military phase seemed to plateau at a lower level several months ago. Negotiations, manoeuvres and contacts have continued in various formats, but they seem to match Moscow’s plans and desiderata less closely than before. Reinforced by the slump in oil and gas prices and Russia’s overall economic malaise, sanctions are holding Moscow back from attempting to create further “facts on the ground” in Ukraine. And Putin’s costly insertion of his armed forces into Syria has yielded added complications that threaten further conflicts on multiple fronts and reduce his room for manoeuvre.

The Ukrainian armed forces and associated militias have continued to display unexpected resilience in maintaining the line of contact with Russian-dominated proxy forces. Even more surprisingly, the West’s unity on the sanctions has proved greater than Russia, or indeed many Western observers, were expecting. But that unity is still precarious, and much of what Russia has been saying lately about the need for a new grand alliance against terrorism, in the spirit of the second world war, points to the Kremlin’s reasonable calculation that EU sanctions could be rolled back in the relatively near future.

The West has agreed that sanctions relief should be linked to implementation of the Minsk ceasefire agreements, which sought to end the fighting in Ukraine. But those agreements are less than fully clear, and appear to place much more definite obligations on Kiev than on Moscow or its proxies. Russia hopes that it will be able to persuade a few European friends and potential veto-wielders that it has more or less met the terms of Minsk. But it has not met the requirement to withdraw its forces and weaponry (indeed it still pretends it has not deployed either), much less to concede control of its “border” with the “people’s republics.” Few people really believe it ever will.

The last few months have seen renewed signs of pressure from the pro-Moscow camp in the European Union, notably via statements from EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and various senior national figures. But despite the growing agitation for a return to business as usual with Moscow, it is clear that sanctions will nonetheless be extended for another six months when they expire at the end of January.

Because a unanimous decision is required to extend sanctions, a determined veto by even one EU member state would be enough, in theory, to revoke them. In practice, it doesn’t seem to work that way. But if a stronger wave of sentiment were to develop with one or two senior and influential EU leaders behind it, the outcome may be different. In the second week of December, Italian premier Matteo Renzi caused a brief sensation by twice appearing to demand a reconsideration of the sanctions issue at the EU summit on 17–18 December, taking more adequate account of Russia’s “help” in the Middle East.

As of 14 December, however, his foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni, was “clarifying” that Italy would not block extension of the sanctions. But Gentiloni did emphasise that EU states are increasingly keen to come to terms with Russia over Ukraine. So, if not now, perhaps sanctions will be lifted in six months. And Luxembourg foreign minister Jean Asselborn has reminded everyone that sanctions could end earlier if the situation in Ukraine improves. This is clearly a space to keep watching.

From the outset, the Minsk agreements had a number of disadvantages for Ukraine and the West. As the distinguished Chatham House expert on Russia and Ukraine, James Sherr, has commented, “If Poroshenko, Merkel and Hollande received military advice when negotiating, there is no sign of it.” To be fair, Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko might well have known that the deal had grave flaws from Kiev’s point of view, but he had limited influence over the negotiating tactics and objectives of his Western supporters.

The central problem was that the agreements recognised the invaders and fifth columnists in Eastern Ukraine as legitimate representatives of a domestic constituency rather than the placemen of a foreign power that had annexed by force a large part of Ukraine and was manifestly intent on doing more of the same. Russia was treated not as a guilty participant but as an honest broker with “legitimate interests” in the outcome of the “conflict.” (Ukraine has experienced tensions during its twenty-four years of independence, but never violent subversion of the kind that conveniently “broke out” across eastern Ukraine in the weeks immediately after the invasion of Crimea.)

Under the Minsk agreements, Ukraine was required to change its constitution to guarantee autonomy to “certain regions” in the Donbass – and to do this in a way that met with the approval of the Moscow-controlled cliques in charge of the nascent police states of Donetsk and Luhansk. (For a recent depiction of life there by a Russian reporter who has been on the ground throughout, see Pavel Kanygin’s article, “The Donbass War: Assessing the Aftermath.”)

Most Ukrainians don’t see why being attacked by Russians and their Trojan horses in the Donbass should mean that they must make constitutional changes that will shore up the position of the aggressors. Meeting this Minsk provision therefore requires Kiev to take an extremely unpopular decision at a time when the governing parties’ public standing is in steep decline. One of the key reasons for the decline is that they had to impose painful economic reforms on the population to clean up the fiscal mess left by predecessors, notably the deposed president Viktor Yanukovych, and meet the prerequisites for a desperately needed IMF bailout. While this has been going on, the Ukrainian economy has contracted by 7 per cent and a projected 12 per cent in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and incomes and living standards have slumped even more sharply. GDP seems likely to register a small increase in the current quarter, but any turnaround will be slow, and much damage has been done.

Given their own desperate situation, most Ukrainians have no desire to pay for the despoliation of the east of their country by Moscow and its proxies. Some even argue for cutting the people’s republics loose and allowing them to secede de facto to Russia, forcing Moscow to pay for the damage it has caused, and leaving Ukraine reduced but more united. The Minsk agreements, however, gave Kiev responsibility for the social security of the Donbass inhabitants and the rehabilitation of the war zone, presumably including the cost of mopping up after the looting and gratuitous damage the proxies inflicted on Ukrainian and foreign businesses, above and beyond the armed conflict.

For reasons of its own, Russia wants the Donbass people’s republics to be reintegrated into Ukrainian state structures but given such far-reaching autonomy that they can block any westward moves by the Kiev government. And for any national government to acquiesce legally to any further excisions from Ukraine’s sovereign territory after Russia’s military surgery in Crimea would be political suicide.

In fact, Kiev has curtailed much of its support for the population still living in the people’s republics. (Current estimates, almost certainly on the low side, put war fatalities at more than 9000, with at least three million displaced, many of them to Kiev-controlled Ukraine.) It is thereby pressuring a reluctant Moscow to come to the aid of the Donbass population. Some humane Ukrainian commentators deplore Kiev’s policy in this matter, saying it will lead to the permanent estrangement of the Donbass population, and reporting from the region suggests they are probably right. But the state’s coffers are bare.

Two years on from the Euromaidan uprising, the population in Kiev-dominated regions is growing impatient with the government’s weak performance in tackling Ukraine’s endemic corruption (a common feature of most of post-communist Europe, apart from the Baltic states and Georgia). Sympathetic Western leaders, notably from the United States, take a similar view and have been expressing it forcefully. Other major sources of public resentment include the notorious influence of powerful oligarchs and the failure to find and prosecute those responsible for the violent repression of protesters during the Maidan demonstrations.

Supporters of President Poroshenko and the prime minister, Arseny Yatsenyuk, argue that fighting a war, keeping a stricken economy afloat and implementing painful measures to restore the fiscal balance is exhausting their political capital, and that they cannot afford to alienate the powerful oligarchs and other influential figures they need to keep in the tent. As for prosecuting those responsible for the violent attacks on Maidan demonstrators, they claim nearly all of them have fled to Russia after destroying the evidence, making prosecutions hard to mount.

A corruption scandal has recently engulfed the self-styled “kamikaze” prime minister himself, whose popularity had already sunk through the floor. One of his close allies is being pursued for accepting bribes by Swiss prosecutors, and has been forced to resign his seat in the Verkhovna Rada (parliament).

Earlier it was revealed that President Poroshenko’s own wealth, despite punitive Russian measures in Russia and Ukraine, has surged above the billion mark since he took office, a point eagerly picked up by Russian propaganda outlets. He is also justly criticised for having failed to divest himself of much of his wealth, as he promised to do before assuming office. But while no clear evidence of corruption by the president or prime minister has emerged, the public is not convinced by the government’s explanations for its failures, and impatience is growing.

Meanwhile, populist and nationalist solutions to complex economic and political issues are starting to gain traction in the Verkhovna Rada and more widely. A battle is being fought in the Rada and beyond over a populist counterproposal to the radical tax and budgetary package proposed by the highly competent American-Ukrainian finance minister Natalie Jaresko, in consultation with the International Monetary Fund. The rival bill, which would bust Ukraine’s precarious fiscal position, has elicited an IMF warning that its further support (without which the country may face default) could be withheld.

There is a serious risk that ambitious and irresponsible political groups could use or somehow precipitate violence in their efforts to exploit the current volatile political situation. The issue of the special autonomy to be bestowed upon the people’s republics under the Minsk agreements has done so already, and could again be a trigger. Extreme turbulence accompanied the first stage of the relevant legislation’s passage through the parliament on 31 August, despite the measures falling far short of the expectations of Moscow and its proxies. A violent hand-grenade attack outside the parliament, staged by one of the militant nationalist parties, resulted in police casualties. Fisticuffs inside the parliament are not unknown, but violence of this kind is a most unusual and ominous development.

Given all this, the passage of legislation necessary even to meet Ukraine’s Western supporters’ expectations may yet prove beyond the Poroshenko administration’s capacity. For their part, Russia and its proxies will almost certainly say that whatever legislation is passed is insufficient. They have been demanding not just decentralisation or autonomy, but effectively “federalisation.” Cobbling together a parliamentary majority to pass the unpopular legislation will be very difficult, and possibly contribute to the Kiev government’s collapse.

Whatever their flaws, the Minsk agreements were presumably as much as Merkel and Hollande felt they could get from Moscow. With the total absence of the United States from the negotiating process, President Poroshenko had no real alternative way of gaining the reduction in fighting he desperately needed to rescue the gravely ill Ukrainian economy. Apart from the few weeks of calm after 1 September 2015, though, there never really has been a genuine ceasefire in place. And Russia has continued to supply heavy weaponry and infiltrate personnel through the over 300 km of border it jointly controls with its Donbass proxies.

Throughout the occupation, with Russian connivance, the proxies have denied monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, access to the border and most other areas they hold. In recent months they have even been blocking charitable organisations seeking to bring relief to the suffering civilian population in the Donbas; these charities are acting as hostile “foreign agents,” the proxies allege, in another loyal echo of one of the worst xenophobic features of Putinism. The Donetsk and Luhansk regimes, on the other hand, have been very welcoming towards selected Western journalists, enabling them to see, record and display to the world the damage and suffering the civilian population has suffered. Often the news reports uncritically present the devastation as being essentially Kiev’s fault, without saying much if anything about the real causes of the conflict or the thuggish behaviour of the journalists’ hosts.

Russia has sent forty-five “humanitarian convoys” to proxy-held territory since the Donbass regions were seized, none of which they have allowed Ukrainian or OSCE officials to inspect. Many reports suggest that weaponry and other non-humanitarian cargo have been transported in this way. Russia has also provided financial support, but with its own economy under stress it doesn’t seem to see repairing its damage in Ukraine as a high priority. It does maintain close political control of the regions, however.

As it currently stands, the Minsk outcome only meets the Kremlin’s minimal requirements – to devastate the Ukrainian economy by means of arbitrary trade boycotts, and to seize enough territory to prevent the country from integrating with Western institutions. Even with the additional land the proxies grabbed after the Minsk II ceasefire supposedly came into effect last February, they occupy only about half of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Putin would like ideally at some point to take over both in their entirety, and more besides. Efforts continue aimed at destabilising the two largest and most Russified regions of Kharkiv and Odessa, the scene of repeated, mysterious bombings that were never typical of Ukraine before the Russian aggression began. The Transcarpathian region of western Ukraine, bordering Slovakia, has also been subject to transparently Kremlin-inspired attempts to create a separatist movement.

Where does this leave Putin’s Novorossiya project – the idea of seizing the entire eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, creating a land bridge to Crimea, and linking up with the Russian-sponsored breakaway territory of Transnistria in Moldova? This seems to have been the Kremlin’s preferred option at one stage, but Ukrainian resistance, Western reactions and the slump in energy prices and the rouble forced a reappraisal. Putin has not publicly mentioned it for well over a year, and he seems to have settled, for now anyway, on another “frozen conflict” in the Donbas.

As the Georgian precedent indicates, the Kremlin could easily decide to “unfreeze” the conflict at some opportune moment, but for the time being that seems unlikely. In recent months it has restrained some of the domestic hypernationalists, once tacitly encouraged, who have been calling for outright invasion of Ukraine and condemning Putin for failing to do so. Keeping Ukraine a failed state and out of Western institutions is the minimal requirement. But what the Putin regime would like ultimately is a Ukraine subordinate to Moscow, with a compliant government in Kiev, its economy integrated in the Eurasian Economic Union, its military industries closely linked to the Russian military-industrial complex, and Russian as an official, and effectively the dominant, language.

If the Ukrainians don’t oblige, the Donbass front could always be reactivated and the destabilisation of other regions renewed. But there are other ways of exerting severe pressure. Trade boycotts, “energy diplomacy” and manipulating prices have all been used frequently.

It is true that such measures may be exhausting their potential. As Moscow has intensified its trade boycotts, Ukraine has been tearing itself away from its dependence on Russian imports and exports. Quite recently, Russian and EU trade with Ukraine were each roughly a third of the total, but Ukraine’s trade with the European Union is now more than double that with Russia.

In an ideal world this would not be the optimal trade pattern between the two countries, but as Putin has turned trade – like culture and broadcasting – into a coercive weapon, Kiev feels that it has no choice but to greatly reduce contact with Russia in all fields. If Putin’s methods ultimately fail in the struggle to dominate Ukraine, he will have done severe and gratuitous damage to Russia as well as to his victim along the way.

But while the economic weapons are starting to lose effectiveness because of gross overuse, they are still potent. Moscow has foreshadowed yet another cut-off of gas supplies during the coming winter; it has abruptly curtailed all agricultural imports from Ukraine; and when Ukraine banned civilian Russian flights into Ukraine on ostensibly national security grounds, Moscow quickly responded in kind. These recent measures build on nearly two years of severe and punitive trade war waged by the Kremlin.

The gas is less potent than it once was thanks to efforts by Ukraine to build up reserves and acquire much more of its gas imports from other sources. But it has other vulnerabilities and Moscow will exploit them. As well as cutting off gas supplies, it has curtailed coal and nuclear fuel supplies. Kiev is partly to blame for this: it failed to contain the blockade of Crimea, mounted by mainly Crimean Tatar activists and aimed at preventing essential supplies being delivered from Ukraine to the peninsula. The Crimean Tatars have suffered heavily from Russian imperialism in various forms, including genocide at the hands of Stalin and systematic persecution by the new regime installed since the Russian annexation last year. But the activists went from obstructing land exports to sabotaging electricity supplies and then preventing Ukrainian services from carrying out repairs. In failing to block the blockaders, however understandable given Moscow’s behaviour in Crimea, Kiev gave Putin an excellent excuse to retaliate painfully. The ban on coal supplies in particular could be very damaging to Ukraine during the winter.

After blandly lying that he would not impose further sanctions on Ukraine, Putin has now ordered the imposition of tariffs on Ukrainian exports when Kiev’s free trade deal comes into force on 1 January 2016, on the grounds that without them, cheap EU goods would flood into Russia. EU officials and independent observers regard these Russian claims as specious, and an excuse for measures aimed at preventing Kiev from proceeding with its Association Agreement with the European Union. It has been estimated that this measure will cost Ukraine $1.5 billion annually.

Moscow is trying hard to damage the battered Ukrainian economy in other ways too. Not widely reported in the Australian press has been Russia’s unremitting campaign to use a $3 billion debt owed it by Ukraine to tip its unruly little brother over the economic precipice. The money, provided by Moscow to president Viktor Yanukovych just before he was deposed, has been described (not unfairly) by prime minister Yatsenyuk as a bribe to induce Yanukovych to abandon any thought of integration with the European Union.

As a condition for approval of a US$40 billion bailout package from the IMF, the Poroshenko administration was required to secure a negotiated restructuring of $18 billion owed to private creditors. After long and arduous negotiations, the creditors agreed to a 20 per cent haircut and some easing of the terms of repayment, which financial observers saw as a fairly favourable outcome for the creditors in the circumstances. Russia refused to negotiate on its $3 billion and maintained that the debt was state-to-state, not private. IMF policy has been not to disburse loans to states in arrears to other states.

In this case, though, the IMF let it be known that it would continue to disburse tranches of the bailout even if Ukraine remained in arrears to Russia. No doubt it was also taking into account the fact that, as the IMF’s president Christine Lagarde emphasised publicly, Kiev had taken some heroic decisions to meet the Fund’s tough conditions. Perhaps it also saw as relevant the fact that Russia had invaded Crimea after making the loan, seizing land and resources worth many tens of billions of dollars, and had also implicated itself heavily in the tens of billions of dollars’ damage done by the armed subversion of eastern Ukraine. All this suggested that Russia’s bonds might ultimately be judged to be odious debt in the technical legal sense.

As the IMF mood seemed to be hardening against him, Putin attempted to step round this obstacle by declaring a readiness to accept the $3 billion over three years, plus interest, starting with an upfront $75 million and subject to guarantees of repayment by Western institutions. Although the “offer” was conspicuously less generous than the deal accepted by the private creditors, it was widely hailed at first as a sign of Russia’s flexibility. Ukraine argued that it could not offer more generous terms to Russia than it had done to the other non-official creditors.

Last week the IMF announced that in Ukraine’s case it was prepared to set aside its usual rule of not extending support to countries in arrears to another sovereign. (“IMF Backstabs Russia by Lifting Loan Ban vs. Debt-Dodging Ukraine” is a sample of Western Putinist propaganda on this topic.) But shortly afterwards it announced that it upheld Russia’s contention that the $3 billion lent to Yanukovych by Putin was an official not a commercial debt, and called on Kiev to negotiate with Moscow on repayment of the debt. This is very unfavourable for Kiev, which will refuse to pay; and the issue will become another expensive matter between the two countries that will end up in court.

Another good example of Putin’s methods is Gazprom’s latest pipeline project, Nord Stream II, to be built in collaboration with big German and other West European companies. Like Nord Stream I, it will cost at least $10 billion but has no economic justification. (Existing pipelines through eastern and central Europe could do the same job.) The purpose is geopolitical: to bypass the East European countries, depriving them of transit fees and any leverage in price negotiations, and making it easy for Gazprom (Putin, that is) to cut off their gas supplies for punitive effect at any time without inconveniencing favoured customers further west, and charge them higher fees than those favoured customers. Western energy companies are apparently being drawn into a cosy deal with Gazprom to blackmail Russia’s eastern neighbours and profitably monopolise gas supplies to much of Europe.

After a lengthy period of considerable controversy, the European Union seems to be about to decide whether it should disallow this project as contrary to its Third Energy Package and anti-trust policies. In a more amenable age, Nord Stream I slipped through the net quite smoothly, aided and abetted by former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. His influence is still detectable. When Merkel’s deputy chancellor, Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel, made a “personal” trip to Moscow, he spent two hours with Putin and Gazprom head Aleksei Miller, during which the visitor expressed the hope that the project would go through with as little “outside interference” as possible. For her part, Chancellor Merkel seems also to be a supporter, if more cautious, of Nord Stream II, while still envisaging some residual role for Ukraine as a transit state. Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland and other affected states have protested loudly against Nord Stream II, and EU energy commissioner Maroš Ševčovič (a Slovak) has also expressed deep scepticism. At the EU summit on 17–18 December, strong opposition was expressed by a number of countries against allowing Nord Stream II to go ahead.

If, however, Nord Stream II were to proceed, Ukraine will suffer a further loss of more than$2 billion in transit fees annually on top of what it lost earlier from the effects of Nord Stream I.

Given the desperate state of Ukraine’s economy and public finances, and even with the IMF support that has raised its reserves to a princely $13 billion, sums like $2 billion here and $3 billion there may be enough to bankrupt the country. Russia, by contrast, still has $375 billion in its reserves, despite the steady and damaging drain by Putin’s various geopolitical projects.

While it has noted progress by Ukraine in its regular reports, the IMF usually adds the caveat that the country’s already clouded outlook for economic recovery depends on no further worsening of the military situation in eastern Ukraine. For the moment, Moscow is constrained in that respect by its desire to observe Minsk sufficiently to get sanctions relief. But another “outbreak” of fighting in eastern Ukraine at some point could be economically ruinous for Ukraine; and it would not be too difficult for Moscow to devise other, more economic punishments that would bring Ukraine financially undone.

Moscow’s recent military restraint is thus not any sign of a newly felt moderation on the part of Putin and his siloviki colleagues, but rather a result of the pressure he is under because of low energy prices and Western sanctions on Russia’s economy. GDP growth had dwindled to close to nothing even before the sanctions were applied; a decline of some 4 per cent is expected this year, and if sanctions are not lifted, a further decline is likely next year. But with his heavy military commitment in Syria, and now his extensive economic sanctions against his latest enemy, Erdogan’s Turkey, Putin has demonstrated yet again that no economic price is too great for his adoring subjects to pay when his geopolitical projects demand it.

He would much prefer that sanctions be removed, of course, and he is working to that end with his numerous EU allies and sympathisers along the political spectrum – people like Sigmar Gabriel; Viktor Orban, the authoritarian right-wing prime minister of Hungary; Greece’s present leadership and Cyprus regardless of leadership; Miloš Zeman and Václav Klaus, president and former president of the Czech Republic; Slovak prime minister Robert Fico on some issues, though not on Nord Stream II; European Commission president Juncker; and EU “foreign minister” Federica Mogherini (though her sympathy for Russia may be fading) and her patron, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi. More broadly, there is a widespread and apparently growing desire among many European elites to get back to “business as usual” with Russia, a sentiment Juncker embodies, together with a palpable distaste for US influence on European affairs. But these currents have been held in check with great determination by Angela Merkel.

Now, however, the chancellor’s capacity to maintain support for sanctions against such widespread scepticism is coming under greater pressure from various quarters, both domestically and in the European Union more generally. Moreover, her own political position has been weakened by her quixotically generous response to the huge influx of would-be migrants into Europe, which, like many in the humanitarian German intelligentsia, she seems to see as a chance for Germany to put the seal on its European leadership role and to atone finally and decisively for sins past. This has damaged her domestic standing both in her party and the population.

The migration issue has also preoccupied many EU members desperate to find a short-term fix, and has created severe tensions and divisions between member states. While still trying to defend her initial position, Merkel is now championing the idea, most clearly enunciated by European Council President Donald Tusk, that preserving Schengen and beginning to repair the whole desperate situation requires adequate protection of Europe’s external borders, a radical diminution of the inflow and the safe return of those not found to be refugees.

Along the way, and via the serious further preoccupations of Putin in Syria, the Paris atrocities, and President Hollande’s sudden lunge towards Moscow, the chancellor’s capacity and will to ensure that the European Union holds the line on sanctions may have been damaged. Rolling back sanctions while Russia is still ensconced in Ukraine would be a severe blow to EU and transatlantic unity and a huge boost for Putin’s fortunes both domestically and ly. Merkel, the pacifist and nuanced supporter of Putin’s Nord Stream II operation, is arguably at this point a more crucial pillar of Western resistance to Russian aggression in Europe than NATO itself. •