The France-Germany-Russia-Ukraine summit meeting in Paris on Monday, seeking ways to end the war ravaging eastern Ukraine, ended with a few promising words but no progress in reality. Russia, the aggressor, continues to keep the Ukrainian territory it seized in 2014, and Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, showed he can’t easily be pressured into surrender.
That left a just and lasting peace in Ukraine not an inch closer.
Still, while Mr. Zelensky’s steadfastness was a relief to millions of Ukrainians, the intransigence of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, brought into sharper relief a few realities, none of which bodes well for the West in the long term.
Since 2014, Ukraine has had to endure the occupation of its southeastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions by ragtag paramilitary bands armed, equipped and controlled by the Kremlin. The war has killed an estimated 13,000 people, wounded almost 30,000 and forced 1.5 million people to become refugees. When so-called “rebels” faced defeat in the winter of 2014-15, Russia deployed regular troops, tanks and rocket launchers to save its proxies. On July 17, 2014, the Russian-made Buk missile that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, killing all 298 people on board, was launched from Russian-controlled territory.
Mr. Putin’s precondition for traveling to Paris was that any negotiation start from what is known as “special self-governing status” for Russian-controlled territories once local elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are held and certified as valid by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
As for Mr. Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, he did not retreat from promises to his people that the elections will not take place until Ukraine regains control of its border with Russia, all “foreign troops” leave Luhansk and Donetsk, and the Russia-armed separatists disarm and disband, a very unlikely sequence.
Before the meeting, Mr. Putin warned that no agreements with Ukraine would be possible without an “approval” by the “People’s Republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk. As a result, following what are almost certain to be Russia-manipulated “elections,” two Ukrainian provinces with an area of just over 20,000 square miles and a population of almost six million people would be doomed to remain under the rule of thugs entirely dependent on Moscow, while Ukraine’s current turn to the West would be permanently and severely handicapped, if not entirely blocked in Ukraine’s Parliament (the Rada), by deputies from Luhansk and Donetsk. And if they failed in the Rada, or Ukraine ever thought again of joining the E.U., not to mention NATO, Moscow could always restart the war, calling it a “pro-Russian rebellion.”
President Zelensky made “peace” central to his election campaign because he believed in the West’s unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty. He may have miscalculated badly. After five years of fighting, sanctions and Russia’s stonewalling, the West appears to be afflicted by what might be called “Ukraine fatigue.” It would like the issue to go away, and a formula found to save face. (As for President Trump, who was not at the Paris meeting, he has already spoken about his wish to see Russia readmitted to the Group of 8.)
Germany and France, which have taken the lead in ending the Ukrainian conflict, favor an “accommodation” with Moscow. In Germany, recent national surveys find that 69 percent of Germans want “more cooperation” with Russia, while fewer than one in four support continuing sanctions because of the “Ukraine crisis.” Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, who is stepping down in 2021, would very much like to crown her legacy with a diplomatic victory.
The approach of France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, the host in Paris, does not augur well for Ukraine either. He wants to “rethink” Europe’s “strategic relations with Russia,” and believes that Mr. Putin’s fear of NATO’s and the European Union’s expansion into the former Soviet Union’s territory, which Russia considers its “safe zone,” have led to a decision “to put a stop to it.” The presumed implications are clear: if guarantees of “no further advances” into Russia’s “safe zone” are given in future negotiations, Russia would become a responsible and cooperative European citizen, and removing Ukraine as an unnecessary irritant in Europe’s relations would be the first step on this path.
But that is Eurocentric arrogance. It assumes that Mr. Putin was only reacting to the West, and did not have his own objectives shaped by deeply held fears and hatreds, solemn dreams of glory and political imperatives on which he depends to survive. Indeed, Mr. Putin has reinvented himself as a wartime president, and wartime presidents never quit. They need wars, victories and conquests, along with an easily manipulated population.
Today in Russia, you can see baby carriages shaped like tanks and four-year-olds marching in the May 9 ‘Victory Day’ parades wearing the uniforms of the Red Army during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45. Is that because Mr. Putin is wary of NATO? And is Stalin back in posters and statues because Mr. Putin is genuinely concerned about Russia’s “safe zone”? Russia’s Yunarmiya (Youth Army) recruits children as young as eight and counts hundreds of thousands of members; and in Patriot Parks throughout Russia, children can ride in tank simulators while older youths, under supervision, shoot Kalashnikovs — with blanks for children 10 and older and live ammo for those 18 and over. Are NATO and the E.U. to blame for such state-induced militarized patriotism?
In the West, the notion of Russia’s foreign policy as the extension of the Putin regime is uncomfortable and annoying — not to mention an obstacle to a guaranteed peace. So this summit meeting is likely to become another illustration of the built-in negotiating handicap of liberal bourgeois democracies dealing with totalitarians and authoritarians: the first want peace, the latter need victory.
Yet perhaps the tallest obstacle to a just, fair, and lasting peace in Ukraine is that Mr. Putin cannot abide a stable, prosperous, democratic and West-oriented Ukraine. Russians would do well to ask: If Ukrainians (whom Russians consider “fraternal,” if lesser, Russians) can live well in a law-abiding and truly European state, why can’t we? Mr. Putin’s regime might not survive millions of Russians asking that question. And he would go to extraordinary lengths to make sure they never do. The Paris summit has affirmed that resolve.
Yes, even what Shakespeare called “a most base and vile-concluded peace” is better than “a resolved and honorable war.” But let us not deceive ourselves: the Paris summit has shown that this is exactly the kind of peace Ukraine is likely ever to get. And historical precedents are fairly unambiguous regarding longer-term results: appeasing aggressors only whets their appetite for more aggression.
Read the original text at The New York Times.