A German-French joint statement on Friday regarding Ukraine condemned Russia and demanded the immediate release of the sailors detained following the so-called Kerch incident in November. Moscow hit back in equally strong language summarily rejecting the Franco-German demand.
The Franco-German motivation in provoking Russia remains unclear. Maybe, a combination of circumstances would be at play. There is frustration in Berlin and Paris that 2018 is ending with Moscow rather comfortably ensconced in the Ukraine situation. Ukraine is de facto divided into two separate nations with the one in Donbass under Moscow’s tutelage. Crimea’s annexation by Russia has become irreversible, too. In sum, the February 2014 coup in Kiev has turned out to be a disaster for the Western powers – by the idiom of steak cuts, Moscow got the best cuts, including the Porterhouse (Crimea).
By the way, Moscow announced on December 28 the completion of construction of a 60-kilometre fence on Crimea’s border with Ukraine.
The West, on the other hand, is saddled with a residual Ukraine that is more of a long-term liability – politically, militarily and financially. In geopolitical terms, the West’s tensions with Russia have become hopelessly complicated and the Black Sea, in particular, has turned into a contested region. In the Barack Obama era, the turn of events in 2014 might have had a greater logic insofar as the regime change in Ukraine (sponsored originally by the European Union and navigated to its climax by the US) became a pivotal moment in post-Cold War big-power politics.
It cemented the US’ transatlantic leadership, gave NATO a new sense of direction with Russia cast as “enemy”, thwarted (from the American perspective) Moscow’s predatorial diplomatic incursions into Europe, and galvanized Ukraine’s induction into the western alliance system, thereby taking a big leap forward in the US strategy to encircle Russia.
However, the best-laid plans under Obama have gone awry. To be sure, the Russian intervention in Syria in September 2015 would have been partly at least attributable to the tensions building up in Moscow’s ties with the West, with the Kremlin assessing that without a toehold in Syria, an effective Russian presence in the Mediterranean would be unsustainable. In turn, Russia forcefully reversed the tide of the Syrian conflict, weaned Turkey away from the western camp, forged a veritable alliance with Iran and established a permanent politico-military presence on the Middle Eastern landscape.
More importantly, Hillary Clinton failed to win the 2016 US presidential election to carry forward Obama’s Ukraine agenda to its logical conclusion of containment of Russia. Donald Trump, on the contrary, takes no real interest in a concerted Western strategy over Ukraine and it is even debatable whether he sees US interests at stake in Ukraine. Thus, despite the covert axis working actively – even proactively – between the Pentagon under James Mattis (who used to be a NATO commander himself) and the hardliners among the allies in Europe, Trump has remained disinterested in turning Ukraine into a flashpoint against Russia. Trump’s support for Kiev has been by far sub-optimal.
Conceivably, Mattis’ ouster as US defence secretary will demoralize the hardliners amongst the US’ European allies. Their sense of vulnerability vis-à-vis the resurgent Russia is only increasing. Indeed, Trump’s announcement on the withdrawal from Syria has also stunned them, as they fear the spectre of a triumphalist Russia on the march.
For both Germany and French, a piquant situation also arises because the US withdrawal from Syria will expose their own covert military intervention in Syria without any UN mandate, lacking legitimacy under international law. Ironically, there is danger that without Russian acquiescence, a cover-up of the war crimes committed by the German and French forces in Syria may get exposed in the coming period, causing huge discomfort to their carefully cultivated image as the paragon of the liberal international order. Reports in the Russian press have hinted that Moscow is in a position to expose the German and French war crimes in Syria.
Therefore, the German-French joint statement can be seen against the backdrop of the inflection point in Russia’s relations with Europe. What complicates matters is that German politics is in turmoil. Ukraine, no doubt, puts dark spot on Merkel’s foreign-policy legacy, because she took a big hand personally to queer the pitch of the regime change in Kiev in 2014, but is today helplessly watching Ukraine’s steady degradation.
What are the options available with Paris and Berlin over Ukraine vis-à-vis Russia? The faultlines in their relations with Trump seriously weaken their capacity to cope with Russian resurgence. Besides, the resilience of the Franco-German axis in the post-Merkel European scenario itself remains to be seen. Although France is slated to assume the rotating presidency of the EU in January, the French President Emmanuel Macron’s political standing to lead Europe is far from convincing.
Paradoxically, the sanctions against Russia have deprived the European powers of the ability to leverage their influence with Moscow. Russia has survived the sanctions. According to a statement by the Russian energy minister Alexander Novak last week, Moscow got a windfall of additional income to the tune of $100 billion thanks to the OPEC+ matrix through the past two-year period. On the other hand, the success of the “Swamp” in Washington in blocking Trump’s plans to improve relations with Russia has only guaranteed that the Russian-American relations are in free fall. It seems unlikely that Trump will succeed in turning around the US-Russian relations in the coming two years of his presidential term. To be sure, if the Trump administration goes ahead with the jettisoning of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Treaty, European security will take a serious knock. All in all, as the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall approaches in next year, it seems that the victors and losers of the Cold War remain indeterminate.