The Kremlin has gotten the attention it sought: it now has most of the western world guessing whether it will unleash an additional hundred thousand of Russian troops on Ukraine, this bringing about a military conflagration at a scale unheard of in Europe since the end of world war II. But a time-honored Russian military dictum says “war is nothing, it’s the maneuvers that matter”. The stated objective of Russia’s current campaign is to weaken the western strategic military alliance — and Ukraine in this game is merely a pawn. So far, European capitals seem to be falling into the trap of thinking tactically about defusing the crisis, rather than strategically about securing free Europe’s future.
Ever since the Russian foreign ministry presented its “proposals” — in effect, an ultimatum — on December 17, 2021, Europe has been suspended in a state of “drôle de guerre”. The military chips are down: relentless and widely televised accumulation of the Russian military might at Ukraine’s doorstep is matched by U.K. shipments of anti-tank arms to Kyiv. Large-scale military maneuvers are announced at sea, both by Russia and NATO. All of this is accompanied by a flurry of diplomacy, where stern-faced Russian officials face down their European opponents.
Since a significant reduction of NATO presence and activity has been at the forefront of Russian demands, it is curious to note that after press-conferences following the meetings with the German foreign minister Annalena Baerbok in Moscow and with the U.S. State secretary Antony Blinken in Geneva, their Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov had little to say about NATO. His deputy, Sergey Ryabkov, even said that a mere statement from the US saying they would reject NATO membership for Ukraine would be sufficient to assuage Russia’s fears. Instead, Mr. Lavrov has doubled down on a fulfillment of the Minsk II protocol by Ukraineas the key step towards de-escalating tensions.
While the real possibility of full-scale war hangs in the air, wouldn’t it be logical to listen to these “reasonable” requests? In fact, if Paris and Berlin succumb to these siren calls and agree to lean on Ukraine to fulfill Minsk agreements, they would durably dynamite both democracy and peace in Europe. If Russia wins this particular “maneuver”, it will durably subdue Ukraine and pre-position itself strategically to threaten Europe ever closer to its geographic center.
To refresh our memory, the Minsk II Protocol was signed by Kyiv with a gun barrel to its head, as Russia’s invasion of the Donbass was in full swing. Paris and Berlin mediating in the “Normandy Format” tried to de-escalate and “freeze” the fighting by separating troops and promising an impartial monitoring of the ceasefire. Ukraine got the promise of re-establishing control over its state border with Russia. Moscow squeezed Ukraine to politically engage the puppet governments in Donetsk and Luhansk and to hold local elections while it still held sway.
Obviously, Moscow never intended to give up control of the state border with Ukraine which it has effectively erased. With European think-tanks seriously pondering the scenarios of a Russian military onslaught on Kyiv, none of the politicians (and even less so, the proponents of realpolitik) would seriously bring the matter of the state border to the table. Yet, while negotiators in Paris and Berlin have little leverage on Moscow, they kept their leverage on Ukraine.
Mr. Lavrov knows that because they are desperate for aseat at the negotiating table, Paris and Berlin may well succumb to the temptation and renew demands on Kyiv to fulfill its part of Minsk II. After all, this is the deal they’ve mediated, and that Ukraine has signed. Surely, Kyiv will be told that their “strategic patience” — i.e. the time won through negotiations and procedures that are necessary for arranging elections in Donbass — will be rewarded by shoring up Ukraine’s defenses against any future attack, and by shows of Europe’s unwavering support.But the results of prioritizing tactical “compromise” without strategic vision will be bleak. The Kremlin said it wants guarantees that Ukraine “never, ever” (to quote Mr. Ryabkov) will join NATO. Given the fluidity of international diplomacy, to come even close to “never” two sides need to be at play — NATO won’t admit Ukraine, and Ukraine would not want to join. As observers rightly note, Kyiv’s membership in the alliance is currently a moot point — not least because Berlin and Paris are opposed.
If Moscow succeeds — through European blessing — to “reintegrate” the puppet governments in Donetsk and Luhansk into Ukraine’s body politic without their demilitarization or democratization, Russia will essentially gain an internal veto on Ukraine’s membership in any pro-western alliance. Should Ukraine resist, Russia could effectively justify its efforts to bring them entirely into its foldat a later point and without much protest from Europe — this can be done through politico-military means, for instance by fully occupying and recognizing the two statelets, as has already been done in Georgia.
Thus, Paris and Berlin must understand that leaning on Kyiv to implement Minsk II today would likely mean that they have durably sacrificed Ukraine’s democratic statehood. The current government in Kyiv will be politically wounded, perhaps mortally. The issue of the Donbass will come to dominate and polarize the domestic debate, giving pro-Russian actors a wide field for subversive play. Even if elections were held there, the sheer state of local lawlessness would push Ukraine into a state of decaying stasis. The financial scale and political weight of EU “Eastern Partnership” initiatives wouldn’tbe sufficient to reverse that course.
The international implications of such action will be even worse. As the Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba noted, Berlin’s actions to date — such as the refusal to supply defensive weapons or to consider the blocking of the Nord Stream-2 gaz pipeline — already “undermine the unity” of the western partners. Russia’s western neighbors also reacted nervously to French proposals of dialogue with Moscow, separate to that with NATO. Pushing Minsk II down Kyiv’s throat would finally break that fragile unity — the Ukrainians, Poles, and Balts would conclude that Paris and Berlin have decisively chosen “Russia first” and would take steps to shore up their own security through auxiliary alliances — such as the trilateral UK-Poland-Ukraine proposal already floated by London. Domestically,democratic governments would likely be dominated by hardliners, and those already on an illiberal course (both pro- and anti-Russian) would likely get strengthened.
It has been the general strategic thinking in Europe that through its sheer wealth and accrued stability it could simply outlive any aggressive challenger. This is perhaps still true — even though both wealth and stability have taken a hit recently. Europe may indeed survive Putin by retrenching around its central, Berlin-Paris core. But it would have forsaken the promise of a Europe, whole and free. And the next time Mr. Putin, or his successor, comes knocking, it will be much closer to home.