Is the timid opening in the negotiations between Ukraine and Russia on March 29 in Istanbul a “positive signal”, as President Zelensky declared? If the Europeans give in to the illusion of a false peace and lift, or simply reduce, sanctions and military aid, it will be a tragedy, for Ukraine and for the world.
Note Zelenski’s caution: a “signal” does not necessarily have a substantial content. In fact, Ukraine still demands the complete withdrawal of Russian troops and respect for its territorial integrity, and Zelensky only envisaged concessions on the international status of Ukraine. Ukrainian negotiators have suggested an international guarantee of Ukraine’s security by a group of countries, NATO members or not, along the lines of Article 5 of the NATO Treaty (i.e., the intervention — actually not automatic in the case of Article 5 — of signatory countries in the event of aggression against Ukraine). The list of countries is rather baroque: the permanent members of the Security Council except Russia, plus Turkey, Israel and China. It is difficult to imagine China and the United States intervening jointly to defend Ukraine against a Russian invasion! I interpret this proposal not as the outline of a possible solution, but as a parable of the inanity of international guarantees in the face of the rogue state that Russia has become1. The integrity and security of Ukraine were guaranteed by the Budapest Memorandum signed in 1994 by Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the United Kingdom. This did not prevent Russia from violating it twice. If a cease-fire comes quickly, so much the better, but the price must not be exoneration of Russian crimes nor a territorial and institutional compromise “guaranteed” by a Budapest Memorandum bis.
This war is a moment of truth: everyone has recognized, including those who did not want to see it, that Ukraine is a free, united and heroic nation, everyone has had to recognize that Putin’s Russia is a rogue state, which lies all the time and with which there is no lasting agreement. All the “yes, but’s” fall down in front of the facts: “yes, Ukraine is a sovereign and independent country, but it is divided, it mistreats its Russian-speaking citizens”; “yes, Russia has become a monster, but we are the ones who have created this monster”; “yes, Russia is the aggressor and it has unacceptable demands, but we will have to take into account its legitimate demands”. When peace returns, if peace returns, we must not give in to these “yes, but” again. If the cease-fire means the return of Russian lies and Western pusillanimity, Ukraine will have resisted for nothing.
In the compromise drafted on 29 March in Istanbul, Ukraine’s “neutrality” and the existence of a territorial dispute would not exclude its accession to the EU2. All this is fine. However, the EU has decided to build a more significant and efficient European defense, interoperable with NATO forces but autonomous. Hence the significant and partly mutualized military investments of the member states. Ukraine, as a EU member, should therefore be a stakeholder in this European defense, and European troops could be stationed on its soil. Now Russia refuses this at all costs, Russia wants a defenseless Ukraine. The Ukrainian army, rather non-existent in 2014, has become in eight years an efficient army, endowed with a remarkable capacity of coordination and on-the-ground initiative (which are cruelly lacking in the Soviet, sorry, Russian army). Will it have to be dismantled in the name of neutrality?
The commitment to give up nuclear weapons is not an issue since 1994, but none of the Russian demands are acceptable, neither the so-called protection of the Russian language nor federalization. These are non-issues, which should not even be mentioned in a peace agreement, except to set in motion an infernal machine of the type of the Minsk agreements, which are unenforceable and place the aggressed Ukraine in the position of the guilty for not implementing the agreements, until they become the pretext for a new Russian aggression3.
The information is not yet corroborated, but it seems that the FSB had received a large budget to stage the reception of the liberators by jubilant crowds in return for the payment of “volunteers” recruited from the population of Donbass. The operation failed because the money was embezzled (perhaps also because not enough people could be recruited for the staging). This anecdote gives the measure of the Russian lie, of a state ready to do anything to win the war of disinformation. Meanwhile, Le Nouvel Observateur of March 24, although it is against Russian aggression, devotes half of its coverage of the war in Ukraine to the far right and to anti-Semitism in Ukraine. The article by Céline Lussato and an interview with Anne Colin Lebedev rightly bring the subject back to its modest proportions, but their very presence denotes a fixation of the newspaper on a marginal issue that has been made into a fuss by Russian disinformation for 20 years. This means that, despite the moment of truth, Western public opinion remains vulnerable to the heady venom of Russian lies.
Demonstration in Moscow in support of the annexation of Crimea in March 2014: “Crimea, welcome home.” Photo : Iouri Timofeev
But that is not all. A settlement of the conflict that is compatible with the existence of Ukraine as a free and independent nation has many conditions (which Putin will try to avoid or neutralise). One of them is crucial, and it should not be put aside, as a Ukrainian negotiator has incautiously suggested. It is Crimea. There is talk of removing the issue of Crimea’s status from the peace agreement and postponing it until 2037, after 15 years of “peaceful” negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. This 15-year postponement would give Russia enough time to accustom the world to the fait accompli. Already today, how many ignorant people, agents and useful idiots claim that “naturally, Crimea is Russian”. According to the scheme of neutrality with guarantees, Ukraine would accept a status of neutrality, excluding in particular the stationing of foreign military on its soil, while Russia would finalize the presence of a gigantic Russian military base in the heart of Ukraine, with missiles able to reach Western Europe. This is what will happen if Russia obtains international recognition for the annexation of Crimea and territorial contiguity between occupied Donbass and the peninsula. The only missing piece of this masterful move is the fall of Mariupol. That is why Putin has declared that the cease-fire and the progress of negotiations depend on the surrender of the “nationalists” who are defending Marioupol.
After WWII, USSR and then Russia have turned the enclave of Kaliningrad (the former Koenigsberg) into a sort of overarmed aircraft carrier of 215 km2. Crimea, on the other hand, is not a small piece of land; its surface area (26,945 km2) is comparable to that of Belgium. Since the annexation, Russia has been rapidly militarizing the peninsula, to the detriment of the economy and even of tourism4. One wonders whether the general invasion of Ukraine to overthrow the regime, and even to question the “state status” of Ukraine, is not a gigantic diversion, intended to smuggle the geographical and legal integration of Crimea to Russia! It would be in any case the way for Putin to turn its bitter defeat into a victory, if we let it happen. Putin has brought his war aims back to the Donbass, while continuing to bomb cities throughout the country. The partial destruction of Ukraine will be a nice side benefit (by the way, who will pay for the reconstruction?). But the main benefit will be the consecration of the occupation of Crimea. Did you like Kaliningrad? You will love Crimea!
If the compromise drawn on March 29 is confirmed on this point, Russia will be able to quietly continue to ruin the economy of the peninsula, to reinforce its military bases and its fleet, to privatize de facto the Black Sea, and to persecute the Tatars, who have been living in Crimea since the 13th century. The Tatars, considered disloyal (and for good reason!) are indeed the main target of the repression of opponents to the occupation5. Let us not forget once again the Crimean Tatars: if there is one part of Ukrainian land over which Russia has lost any right, it is Crimea. The USSR, whose heritage Putin claims, committed on this land an unprecedented and never punished crime, the deportation of the Crimean Tatars. Crimea belonged then to Russia within the USSR, but it can be said that this is the second genocide suffered by Ukraine after the Holodomor in 1933, since the Tatars are Ukrainian since 1991 and happy to be so. In June 1944, the entire Tatar population, men women, children and elderly were deported on Stalin’s orders to the Caucasus or to the Gulag. Nearly half of the Tatars perished during the transport, worthy of Nazi trains to the camps, or shortly afterwards6. The exile lasted 46 years: the surviving Tatars were not allowed to return home until after the collapse of the USSR. Then they became Ukrainian citizens. Before the deportation, they made up 20% of the Crimean population. After their return, they made up only 12%. The readers of Desk Russia are probably familiar with this dark page of Soviet history, but too many French people are unaware of it.
Last but not least, territorial contiguity with Crimea would turn the Azov Sea into a Russian sea. Now, Azov Sea is much more than a mere appendage of the Black Sea. River Don flows into the Azov Sea. Therefore, through the Don-Volga canal, the Russian fleet of the Caspian Sea would have direct access to the Black Sea. Crimes committed in Marioupol by Russia must not go unpunished, not only in the name of the right of humanity, but also because sizing Marioupol would greatly increase the sea power of Russia, and therefore its craving for revenge.
We can trust the Ukrainians to reject a shaky compromise that would only make Ukraine even more vulnerable to Russia than it was before the war. Russia has chosen to break with the West - there is nothing to say that this break is viable for this immense country in decline, even if it succeeds in forming a hypothetical anti-Western front, but that is another story. Russia is now our enemy as long as Putin’s regime is in place. A ceasefire or an armistice is possible, peace is not. If the Europeans give in to the illusion of a false peace and lift or simply reduce sanctions and military aid, it will be a tragedy, for Ukraine and for the world. We are not there yet but, in the event of a long war, the mobilization of Europeans might bend when confronted to the decline in living standards, a sensitive issue in a time of stagflation.
The existence of a territorial dispute is in theory incompatible with EU membership as an “ever closer political union” within defined borders, but the Cyprus precedent has shown that this condition can be lifted. ↩
Pro-Russia spokesmen in the West cannot but condemn the invasion, but, they claim Ukraine provoked the war by not implementing the Minsk Agreements. In France, former philosopher and former minister Luc Ferry is the champion of this sophistry. ↩
I translated and published in 2019 with the Jean Jaurès Foundation a Ukrainian article on the transformations of Crimea. It is known that Russian tourists on Crimean beaches regularly experience sandstorms caused by planes taking off from a nearby air base. ↩
109,956 Tatars (46.2%) of the 238,500 deported died between June 1944 and January 1947. ↩