Putin Wins Again

BERLIN—The hastily arranged Ukraine peace talks in Minsk, Belarus, coincided with the 70th anniversary of the end of the Yalta Conference on Feb. 11, 1945. Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill spent a week haggling over the fate of Eastern Europe with Josef Stalin. In Minsk the leaders of Ukraine, Germany, and France hunkered down for 16 hours of negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. When they stumbled out to the waiting press Thursday morning, there were no cigars and few smiles.

“It wasn’t the best night of my life, but in my view, it’s a good morning,” Putin said, commenting on the renewal of a peace accord reached in Minsk in September. The Russian president, who had left his attendance at the meeting open until the last minute, had good reason to be satisfied: Ukraine’s border to Russia remains open for the foreseeable future; the government in Kiev is obliged to make unpopular concessions to the pro-Russian rebels; and he, Putin, has put his name to nothing.

With the same brinkmanship that he used to negotiate natural gas pricing with Ukraine on New Year’s Eves past, Putin kept upping the ante, then wore out his opponents’ nerves. He knew that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, and their Ukrainian colleague, President Petro Poroshenko, were expected at a European Union summit in Brussels later Thursday. Meanwhile, pro-Russian forces were encircling Ukrainian troops in the town of Debaltseve.

“They were extremely difficult negotiations,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who had to postpone a visit to Brazil to take part in the marathon talks. “Today’s agreement is not a comprehensive solution and certainly no breakthrough.” Merkel was just as blunt. “I don’t have any illusions,” she said. “There is still very, very much work to do.”

Only a week ago, Merkel announced out of the blue that she and Hollande would meet with Putin in a last-ditch effort to make peace in Ukraine. Seven sleepless days of shuttle diplomacy followed, taking the German chancellor to Kiev, Moscow, Washington, Ottawa, Minsk, and Brussels.

Putin, who has been largely shunned by Western leaders since annexing Crimea and fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, was due to meet Poroshenko, Merkel, and Hollande in Kazakhstan last month. The so-called Normandy format was created in June, when Merkel brokered a first encounter between Putin and Poroshenko during D-Day commemorations in France. Citing a lack of hope for concrete progress, she called off the January follow-up summit, much to Putin’s chagrin. When Steinmeier made a second attempt to lay the groundwork for a meeting, his efforts were rewarded by a flare-up in fighting, with rebel chief Alexander Zakharchenko vowing to conquer the entire Donetsk region.

Nothing happened on the ground to make Merkel change her mind. In fact, the situation, especially for civilians caught in the crossfire, only became direr. What triggered the chancellor’s emergency peace mission was a letter from Putin and a growing chorus of voices in the U.S. Congress calling for weapon deliveries to Ukraine. Merkel, who believes that arms shipments would only escalate the conflict, sprung into action, even if it meant risking unknown results and no guarantee of success.

A little more than a year ago, German diplomats triumphed in convincing Putin to free his former rival, imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Today they face the humiliation of having to sit down with their Russian counterparts, who flatly deny any involvement in eastern Ukraine despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

“We hope both sides here in Minsk negotiated seriously and with good intentions,” Steinmeier said, conveying exactly the opposite impression. There is plenty of reason for pessimism. What was agreed overnight is a rehash of the original Minsk document, with the addition of specific deadlines and details for its implementation.

Most troubling about the new agreement is that Ukraine doesn’t regain “full control” over hundreds of miles of border with Russia until after local elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and the passing of a new Ukrainian constitution with “the key element of decentralization”—both of which must happen before the end of 2015.

In other words, Putin determines who and what crosses the border into Ukraine until he is satisfied the Kiev government has genuflected deeply enough. And if Poroshenko doesn’t survive the domestic political fight to implement the Minsk provisions—plenty of Ukrainians already consider him a traitor—then more chaos in Kiev can only open up new opportunities for the Kremlin.

It’s a big question whether the deal will last that long. The cease-fire, followed by the withdrawal of heavy guns, is set to begin on Sunday, giving both sides an incentive to grab more territory in the coming days. The situation in the Ukrainian-held pocket of Debaltseve is so grave that Putin mentioned it in his remarks. The international body responsible for observing the new Minsk accord is the toothless Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Putin blamed Poroshenko for not meeting with representatives of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” even though the Kremlin hasn’t recognized them or their sham elections. Yet the only signatories to the Minsk agreements are the rebel leaders, Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, Russia’s ambassador to Kiev, Mikhail Zurabov, OSCE envoy Heidi Tagliavini, and former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.

As one of the peacemakers in Minsk, Putin didn’t sign anything. “I appeal to both sides of the conflict to put an end to the bloodshed and go over to a real political process for a long-term solution,” he said. A bit later the Ukrainian military reported that while the Minsk talks were taking place, 50 tanks and 40 multiple-launch rocket systems had crossed from Russia into Ukraine.

Putin has nothing to lose. If the Obama administration now pushes ahead with weapon deliveries to the Ukrainian army, the United States will look like a warmonger—not only to Russians but to many Europeans as well. After all, a new peace deal was just brokered in Minsk.

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