It came as no shock to me that the meeting in Paris between the so-called Normandy Four between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and Franc ended without any breakthroughs.
The first meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was mostly a get-to-know-you affair.
That’s sad because it was a missed opportunity for Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Zelensky to announce to the world their independence as actors on the world stage.
But that is definitely not what happened. While it’s true that the group agreed on a number of minor points to begin the healing process between Ukraine, Russia and the European Union, the lack of breakthrough on any of the major issues surrounding these actors speaks louder than anything else.
It is Merkel, Macron and Zelensky that need something from Putin. Germany and France want Russia to rejoin Europe as a full partner. Both are setting the stage to lift the worst of the sanctions next year. It should not be lost on anyone that Crimea was brought up once by Zelensky during the presser and both Merkel and Macron brushed it off.
Crimea is no longer a condition for ending this stalemate.
But that doesn’t mean the U.S. is backing down in Ukraine, even though Trump is beginning to understand just how deep the rabbit hole of corruption goes there.
Putin and Russia are pursuing their own ends and are happy to resolve the issues outstanding iwith Europe — gas transit, sanctions, the conflict in the Donbass, NATO encroachment, etc. — but only on terms deemed acceptable to them.
Otherwise they will continue stitching Central Asia together with pipelines, power plants and railways to open up trade and commerce. All of that growth will be lost to Europe if they continue to hold Russia, Iran and Turkey at arm’s length because of fear of pissing off the U.S.
Russia is in no position to beg anything from Europe but rather can and will stand as an antipode against the United States. From Russia’s perspective the EU and the U.S. destroyed Ukraine by trying to cleave it from Russia’s sphere of influence in a cynical ploy to pressure Russia geopolitically.
Ukraine was supposed to fall into the EU’s lap, including Crimea, bottling Russia up permanently. Then they could slowly strangle the Russian economy through monopsony leverage over the gas pipelines into Europe.
So, if anything, Putin will hold out for everything at this point, since he knows Merkel and Macron deal from weak hands. Zelensky is simply a pawn trapped between them and the U.S. inside his own country.
The EU has made it exceedingly difficult for Russia to build the pipelines Europe wants, consistently changing the rules of their Gas Directives to make the projects less and less profitable. Some of that is because of U.S. pressure and some of that is the EU’s own arrogance and hubris.
This is what eventually caused Putin to cancel the South Stream pipeline and re-route it through Turkey. The failure of the putsch in Kiev to bring the country into the fold quickly meant that the EU would have to foot the bill for the country’s rebuild.
And since the best parts of it either broke away (the Donbass) or rejoined with Russia (Crimea) adding it to the EU would have been a nightmare in 2014-15 at the height of Merkel’s insane refugee crisis.
This is what prompted the Minsk meetings in the first place. The agreements were a way to freeze the conflict in perpetuity until one side blinked and offload the responsibility of Ukraine onto the U.S. who instigated this mess in the first place.
Here we are five years later and little has changed other than Crimea is now solidly Russian and growing economically. The EU is in serious trouble financially and economically and needs to re-open Russian markets now nearly irretrievably closed to the previous suppliers.
Germany’s politics have fractured to a near breaking point and over the next two years leading up to the next election expect the center to collapse further in favor of the AfD, Alternative for Germany.
This meeting, after the disastrous NATO summit last week, should have been a place for Merkel and Macron to push Zelensky into a solid position on something.
The gas transit contract should have been that thing. It’s something that even the nationalists wouldn’t complain about since it would bring money into the state coffers and shore up European investors that energy supplies into Europe in 2020 wouldn’t be interrupted.
Both Merkel and Macron could have and should have been working to minimize the legal hurdles to getting this deal done; the outstanding awards against Gazprom and Gazprom’s counter-suits which are holding up the final deal.
Putin and Gazprom went into the meeting having made reasonable opening offers. But even with that low-hanging fruit in front of them Merkel and Macron betrayed their political impotence ultimately.
And so did Zelensky because he can’t agree to anything of substance lest he be gutted politically by the nationalists who are threatening civil war if he bows to Russia.
That said, the protests on the Maidan during the meeting were, at best, tepid, so the threat to Zelensky may be less than originally thought and a deal with Gazprom closer than it looks.
The only thing of substance they agreed to was codifying the Steinmeyer formula for implementing the beginning of the Minsk agreements. Poroshenko signed these but never implemented any of them nor sought their ratification as law.
But even then, Zelensky wouldn’t budge on regaining control of the Ukrainian border before the elections in the Donbass took place.
After five years of bloody war to prevent secession, assisted by billions in weapons, mercenaries and personnel by the U.S., U.K. and Canada, asking this of the people in Luhansk and Donetsk was ridiculous.
But that’s obviously what Zelensky was coached to offer. Putin was having none of it, nor should he.
Putin is only interested in returning the Donbass back to nominal control in Kiev as a way to keep the U.S. from losing what’s left of its mind and openly looking for a hot war.
He’d prefer Ukraine to remain a buffer territory between Russia and an increasingly desperate NATO. This way no NATO missiles are on his border. Given the hostility in both the British and U.S. legislatures towards Russia at this point, can anyone blame him for this?
Merkel and Macron came into this meeting to burnish their resumes. Macron let slip what his real agenda was when he referred to Ukraine as an ‘open wound’ which needed to be closed. This was him admitting that the war in the Donbass is a manufactured conflict that benefits no one at the table but which they are powerless to affect.
So, in the end, it was Putin who coached Zelensky through the basics of diplomacy, getting agreement on things like prisoner swaps, ceasefire areas (which never seemed to hold under Poroshenko) and offering a discounted gas price for residential consumers in Ukraine.
And Zelensky, for his part, tried to put the brave face on his isolation by consistently referring the to the Donbass as ‘occupied’ territory as a sop to the nationalists who threaten his presidency. But he couldn’t get any help from Merkel and Macron who both want him to cut a deal with Putin and move on.
Jon Laughland, writing for RT, put it well, saying that Zelensky found out his best friend in Europe was none other than Putin himself. Because…
Putin likes him and wants him to succeed. Moscow knows that Ukraine is bitterly divided between pro and anti-Russian factions and that they take power one after the other. The Orange Revolution in 2004 lasted only 3 years before Viktor Yanukovich won parliamentary elections and became prime minister and then president. The Maidan revolution has lasted 5 years but with the same result; the aggressively anti-Russian party is out of power.
Putin also knows that time is on his side. Even though the U.S. Congress will try to strand the final work on Nordstream 2, leaving it incomplete, there is simply zero chance that Merkel and the Germans will allow that to happen, ensuring that the funds are available to finish the pipeline and deliver gas.
Merkel wants the gas transit deal in place to help right the failed state in Kiev and stop the migration out of the country. And Putin will happily oblige her but only if the EU stands by it as a partner and not treat Gazprom as ‘the help.’
In the end, Ukraine is only important to the U.S. as a pressure point on Russia and its destruction is okay as well since a failed state on Russia’s border is its own reward for the Empire of Chaos.
The big question now is whether Trump will listen to his instincts and allow this Obama-era policy to end or not, impeachment proceedings be damned. His receiving Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the White House the day after this meeting itself is symbolic of the need for a different narrative.
But his tweet after the meeting doesn’t imply that anything’s changed.
The one issue that should dovetail with this meeting is the one not on the list. But Trump will be looking for help from Russia with Iran and North Korea relations which his diplomats and National Security people have sabotaged.
But his hands are tied now that the NDAA is on its way to his desk with the rider of new sanctions on European companies assisting in the completion of Nordstream 2.
So this means, in the end, that Zelensky went to Paris only to find out he still has no friends except the one person he’s not allowed to be friends with, Putin. And that means this situation will grind on without significant movement until the next meeting in March.
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