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February 4, 2023

A proxy war between Russia and the West? (I)

In order to understand why the negotiations in the ‘Normandy format’ – without the US, in Minsk last week (11-12 February) on the Ukrainian crisis happened in the context of the most dangerous moment in the Russia-West relations after WWII, we need to specify two crucial things. The first one is that approximately 6,000 Ukrainian troops (other voices say there were 8,000)  – standing for about one fifth of the regular army of the country – during the negotiations, were surrounded by Russian separatist forces at Debaltseve, in Eastern Ukraine. The possibility of a military collapse of Ukraine was real and this is why, for instance, the US and other Western countries considered supplying lethal armament to Kiev to prevent such an eventuality accompanied by hard to anticipate consequences, but all in a negative register (ranging from fatalities and a quick headway made by Russia to high instability indicators for Ukraine and, by that, for the entire Eastern Europe). The second thing that needs to be noted refers to the fat that, faced with the reality of a military confrontation, the presumably victorious party becomes – as proved by history – little if at all willing to compromise. So the representatives of the West and of Ukraine came against a Russian and separatist negotiation strategy that was not at all adjusted to a win-win denouement.

This is what actually happened. At some stage Putin reportedly even asked for 5,000 prisoners from the Ukrainian army – those surrounded at Debaltseve-, which made President Poroshenko threaten to quit the talks. In fact, the fate of the confrontation in the locality will be a heavy argument not only on Minsk negotiations, but also on the future of the Ukrainian dossier. Carl Bildt was stating on twitter on 15 February – three days after the agreement had been signed – that “Russian forces did not succeed to capture Debaltseve before the ceasefire. A failure, but most unlikely to be the end of the story.” By the time of the negotiations in Minsk, the locality of Debaltseve was not yet occupied by the Russian separatists, the surrounding of the ‘heart’ of the Ukrainian army had not been finalised yet, in spite of huge efforts having been made the previous days.

So what did happen in Minsk? What is the worth of the agreement made among ‘Europe’s three big powers’? According to German „Der Spiegel” publication, the agreement „is a fragile deal full of question marks, one which can only succeed if all parties dedicate themselves to adhering to it. Whether that will be the case is doubtful. The Minsk deal is brief respite. Nothing more.”

The agreement reached enshrined a ceasefire as of Sunday, 15 February. On the other hand, it formalised what the Merkel-Holland duo had already obtained from Putin. Elections will take place only in the areas marked by the previous September agreement (Minsk – 1), meaning not also in the several hundred square kilometres the separatists had conquered in January. Russian secessionists are not to be a separate part in any negotiation and – a major concession to Putin – the border between Ukraine and Russia in the separatists-controlled region will not be defended by Ukrainians or some international force, but will practically be just a virtual line between the separatists and the protective Russia, situation which will be revised after elections. But the separatists have a veto on a fundamental thing – Ukraine’s membership of military alliances or economic blocs – EU and EUA – any constitutional reform requiring their approval. Of course that Russia also hoped to obtain a relaxation (at least) of sanctions. But on Monday, 16 February, not only did the EU take further sanctions (Russian leaders and separatists ‘indexed’ in what regards their assets or travelling to the West), but also made it clear that any existing sanctions would be dropped if the ceasefire agreement lasted.

What is the importance of the Minsk-II agreement? The German media has praised Angela Merkel’s performance in opposing the deliveries of lethal armament to Ukraine, noting that we must follow the Realpolitik. Because – the chancellor said – it is evident that, regardless of the armament given to Ukraine, it is not at all certain that the Ukrainian army could very soon force Russia to be open to compromise, during which time the risk of a Russia-US war would escalate. It is equally true that certain voices have found a resemblance with the 1938 Munich agreement when a ‘directorate’ of major European power made Czechoslovakia give Germany a portion of its territory without being consulted. A reader was commenting in the German  „Der Spiegel” weekly: „Sounds like the Sudatenland to me ! Another ‚Peace in our time?” hinting at the famous motivation/justification of the appeaser British PM Neville Chamberlain.  On his blog, Julian Lindley-French was writing on 13 February: ” ‚Peace in our time’. Those hollow words came to define British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the appeasement of Nazi Germany in the wake of the signing of the Munich Pact on 29 September, 1939. A day after the signing of yet another Minsk agreement it looks on the face of it as if the illiberal Realpolitik have once again trumped liberal naivety in an effort to bring ‘peace’ to Ukraine. Indeed, several commentators have alluded to the similarities between the Munich Pact and the Minsk Agreement.”  In Ukraine, reactions are diverse, some of them being fully negative. A columnist of Ukrainian „The Kyiv Post” daily wrote that the president of Ukraine „was pressured into peace at all costs by the fragmented EU that he is eager to join. He and Ukraine now face a recurring nightmare: the light-fingered neighbour next door has the key to the house and has annexed the nation’s sea-facing garden. Minsk II is tantamount to surrender for Ukraine”. In the overall system, Minsk II undoubtedly stands for the beginning of a restructuring of the security architecture in Europe. The European duo – the Franco-German axis – could not contain Moscow’s imperialist appetite. Practically, Vladimir Putin appropriated a slice of Ukraine, on which he holds control although theoretically the territory is still under Kiev administration. The veto the region cam raise to Kiev’s foreign policy is a blow applied to the European security system. The Helsinki-1975 process and OSCE as foundations of European security have been voided of one of their min operating principles: the state’s freedom of decision on foreign mattes. We could add to that the fact that Ukraine’s territorial integrity was denied by the forced annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014 and we will obtain the image of the main break in the European security architecture. One of the guiding principles of the Helsinki-1975 commandment is „the right of each State to define and conduct as it wishes its relations with other States in accordance with international law and in the spirit of the Helsinki Declaration”.

So the question is what kind of security will Europe have post-Minsk-II?



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