20 years under Putin: a timeline

On February 6, German Chancellor Merkel, French President Hollande, and Russian President Putin spent five hours negotiating a Ukraine peace deal in Moscow. At the end, the only thing they agreed on was to continue negotiations. Donald Jensen, resident fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, reviews the West’s latest diplomatic activity.


(Left to right) Vladimir Putin, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel met in Moscow on February 6 to negotiate the Ukraine peace deal. Photo: Sasha Mordovets / Getty Images


In a summit that was reportedly a Russian initiative, on February 6, German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president François Hollande, and Russian president Vladimir Putin met in Moscow to negotiate a peace deal regarding Ukraine. At the heart of the discussions were whether to return to the Minsk ceasefire agreement or not; there were also serious disagreements over how much Ukrainian territory would be left under the control of Russia-backed separatists. Earlier, on February 5 in Kiev, Merkel and Hollande met separately for five hours with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, whose relations with Putin are reportedly so bad that the two men cannot stand to be in the same room. The absence of a U.S. presence in the Moscow discussions was noteworthy. Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, uneasy at the idea of a deal being cut in Moscow without Ukraine or the U.S. at the table, said the Moscow summit showed that Putin wants to “split the unity between the EU and the U.S.”

Last week’s diplomatic activity vividly demonstrated the division between the United States and the European Union over whether to ship defensive lethal arms to Ukraine. U.S. secretary of state John Kerry, who went to Kiev to meet Poroshenko, has said that Washington favors a diplomatic solution to the crisis but is reviewing all options, including “the possibility of providing offensive systems to Ukraine.” Vice president Joe Biden had parallel consultations with European leaders in Brussels on Friday, February 6, but according to senior EU officials, the growing pressure in Washington to arm Ukraine with defensive weapons, such as anti-tank missiles, battlefield radars, and reconnaissance drones, was pushing Russia and the EU toward a diplomatic deal.

Although the Ukraine crisis has reinvigorated the NATO alliance in some respects, the Obama Administration and European leaders have found it difficult to find an effective, unified response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. At the core of the problem is the geopolitical asymmetry of power. NATO and the West are in principle far stronger, both economically and militarily, than Russia. But the latter is geographically closer to Ukraine and considers the country vital to its security.

For president Barack Obama, moreover, the crisis was initially a diversion: from his domestic concerns; from the higher priority he’d given to the Middle East and East Asia; from his desire to engage Russia on areas of mutual interest, such as Syria and the Iran nuclear program; and from his general reluctance to have the U.S. play an assertive role abroad. As the months passed, however, the White House successfully enlisted its European allies in tightening economic sanctions on Russia and providing economic aid to Ukraine, stopping short of giving Kiev military assistance of any kind.

The situation has been even more complicated for Brussels. There, the European Union was initially reluctant to act because of its members’ energy dependence on Russia, extensive trade with Moscow, and unwillingness to satisfy Ukraine’s desire for EU membership. The last concern reflected the high cost of further expansion, EU members’ unhappiness with the results of previous EU enlargement, and the fact that Ukraine’s inefficient, corrupt economy made Kiev’s entry into the EU a distant prospect. Despite these obstacles, the U.S. and EU came together on a sanctions policy toward Russia designed to punish it for its behavior, and gradually tightened them as Russia’s behavior worsened.

The disagreement between the U.S. and Europe over arms shipments—and likely over prolonging or further tightening sanctions—leaves the initiative with the Kremlin, whose interest lies in destabilizing the situation in Ukraine.

During the lull in the fighting that occurred between September and January, however, differences between Washington and Brussels surfaced again. On January 5, 2015, French President Hollande called for an end to sanctions. His comments were echoed by European foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, whose bureaucracy, in a discussion paper circulated to EU foreign ministers, suggested dividing the Ukraine issue into Russia’s annexation of Crimea, on the one hand, and Russia’s “destabilization of eastern Ukraine,” on the other. If Moscow withdrew from eastern Ukraine, the paper suggested, some sanctions could be rolled back and cooperation resumed. The paper was widely interpreted as a sign that EU resolve was starting to crumble, but at a formal meeting shortly thereafter, EU foreign ministers set aside that approach for the time being. Russia’s subsequent further escalation of the Ukraine conflict quickly made the Mogherini paper look naive.

At its core, the paper showed a lack of understanding of the forces driving Russia’s foreign policy. As Kadri Liik, a senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations, has recently pointed out, the document treats Russia’s interests as formal and bureaucratic. In fact, Russia’s differences with Europe run far deeper. Moscow sees itself as a great power, which by definition has a sphere of interest that should entitle it to control countries along its periphery. “Therefore, with this paper,” she concludes, “the EU is effectively asking Russia to abandon its basic political personality in exchange for more talking.”

The EU has also been internally divided. Although most members strongly opposed supplying weapons to Kiev, Poland announced on February 3 that it was prepared to sell them to Ukraine. During its first days in office, the new Greek government, positioning itself for upcoming negotiations with the EU over debt relief, flaunted its good ties with Moscow, whose financial assistance could be key if it were forced to leave the Eurozone. Earlier, Russian finance minister Anton Siluanov mentioned that Russia would consider extending financial aid if Greece made such a request. Athens is also no doubt tempted to oppose vigorous action on behalf of Ukraine because it could benefit from Russia’s latest pipeline plan, the so-called Turkish South Stream, which would bring Russian natural gas to a hub on the Turkey-Greece border. Finally, Moscow’s courtship of Europe’s far-right populist parties, and its effective use of soft power, have long undermined EU resolve. In France, Moscow has financed movements such as politician Marine Le Pen’s party, Front National. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban has sought to strengthen ties with Russia. And Putin, an unwelcome guest in many European capitals, is schedule to visit Budapest on February 17.

Within certain limits, the EU is still willing to pressure Russia, especially with economic sanctions. On January 29, European foreign ministers, responding to recent increased separatist military activity in eastern Ukraine, agreed to extend targeted sanctions against individual separatist leaders and their Russian supporters by six months and added additional people to the sanctions list. The EU extension suggested that Greece’s new government, though openly skeptical of sanctions against Russia, for the moment at least will not break European unity on the issue. The majority of ministers showed no appetite, however, for broader economic measures against Russia—steps favored by Poland and the Baltic republics. Members are also divided on the issue of whether to prolong sanctions when they come up for renewal later this year. According to EU rules, the vote must be unanimous for sanctions to continue.

In any case, the disagreement between the U.S. and Europe over arms shipments—and likely over prolonging or further tightening sanctions—leaves the initiative with the Kremlin, whose interest lies in destabilizing the situation in Ukraine. “As soon as [Putin] sees any break in the front of the West, the U.S., and the EU,” a Ukrainian diplomat said on February 6, “he will definitely see it as a spark for more actions.”