Over the last two years, the issue of the Ukrainian crisis has been absent from the front pages.
The topic reemerged again last month, as US defence secretary James Mattis opened the door for shipping lethal defensive weapons to Kiev.
Kurt Volker, the US special representative for Ukraine, later confirmed this intention.
Speaking to the Financial Times, Volker let it be known that the US administration is “seriously considering” arming the Ukrainian army to fight the pro-Russian rebels.
This approach signals a tentative break with the policy toward Ukraine pursued by Barack Obama’s administration.
The latter perceived Moscow to be a ‘regional power’, a threat to its neighbours, but not yet a global force whose disposition had to be won by any price.
Obama therefore eschewed any idea of a grand bargain with Moscow. He was reluctant to reserve Ukraine and Eastern Europe as Russia’s sphere of influence for the Kremlin’s assistance in other regions, such as the Middle East.
At the same time, Obama was careful not to step over the line when dealing with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Among other things, that involved a rejection of calls to ship lethal weapons to Kiev.
Like Obama, Donald Trump’s team is not willing to unify the Ukraine crisis and problems in the Middle East or North Africa into one track.
As Fiona Hill, a senior Russia adviser in the current US administration, wrote last October: “There is no ‘grand bargain’ to be had with Russia in which the future of Ukraine is traded for other strategic goals in the Middle East. The conflict has to be dealt with on its own terms, in the context of its own complexities”.
What changed is the intensity with which Washington is ready to pressure the Russians. Where Obama vacillated, Trump’ team, it seems, is willing to push further.
The ball is now in Europe’s court. Should it – namely France and Germany – go along with the US and support the armament of Ukraine? Or would it be more prudent to play a moderating influence, persuading Trump’s administration to hold its horses?
It depends on what Europe wants. If the EU thinks the time for talks with Russia is over, then, by all means, they should support Volker’s line. But make no mistake: New economic sanctions and sending weapons to Ukraine cannot persuade Russia to compromise.
Should the US and her allies act upon Volker’s threats, it will turn the Ukraine crisis into a full-fledged proxy war. Putin won’t blink.
According to Levada Center, an independent pollster, 70 percent of Russians say they will stick by the government’s current foreign policy even despite new economic punishments. Hard pressure will only unite the population behind their leader, while giving more air to the Kremlin’s hardliners.
There is no indication that Europe is prepared yet for this scenario.
Jean-Claude Junker, the European Commission president, spoke of the necessity to improve ties with Moscow. German chancellor Angela Merkel, too, shared the sentiment. French president Emmanuel Macron also argued for a pragmatic approach to cooperation with Russia.
Now, there is no denying that a full solution to the Ukrainian crisis is not on the cards. The Minsk accords won’t be implemented any time soon – not in the next few months, not even in the next few years.
The Kremlin cannot abandon attempts to influence rebel-held territories – as stipulated by clauses 9 and 10 of the Minsk accords – unless it has guarantees on both Ukrainian neutrality, as well as on a special status for its eastern regions.
Kiev, for its part, will struggle to assign a special constitutional status to the rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk (clause 11). Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko doesn’t have parliamentary majority to deliver on this pledge.
The only viable option, it appears, involves keeping the conflict frozen with only partial implementation of the Minsk accords. Namely, both eastern rebels and the government should maintain the ceasefire. Granted that it holds, Kiev can continue implementing the domestic reforms it badly needs.
Russia has little incentive to stoke up conflicts. It needs eastern Ukraine as a reliable buffer from what it regards as Western and Nato’s attempts to encircle Russia. Putin should do right by observing rebels do not escalate the situation.
This outcome is far from perfect. But then ask yourself what the alternatives are.