By Alexander Mercouris, Russia Insider, Feb. 18, 2015
A lengthy Der Spiegel article points to Russian-German understanding for a broad settlement of the Ukrainian conflict
Yesterday, Russia Insider published a lengthy account from the German magazine Der Spiegel of the Minsk negotiations. This article is a good example of the sort of press Merkel gets in Germany. It portrays her as the heroine of the hour, battling to save peace from the sinister designs of others. The article lavishes praise on her in a way that readers outside Germany might find unsettling. Contrary to what many in the West think, the Russian media never writes about Putin in this way.
The very favourable publicity Merkel gets in Germany is coordinated by her own office. Articles like the one in Der Spiegel are written in close communication with her office. This means that though the article gives a rather one-sided account of the Minsk negotiations, it is nonetheless packed with information if one knows how to read it properly. In the case of this particular piece, we can be certain that Merkel’s office was involved since the article actually names it as a source.
The first thing we learn from the text is that what triggered the Minsk process is the disintegration of the Ukrainian economy and especially of the Ukrainian military. This is exactly what we said when Merkel’s and Hollande’s trip to Moscow was first announced.
Der Spiegel gives us a summary of a report provided to Merkel by German intelligence that confirms what we previously said, that the Ukrainian army is bleeding to death, and is heading for total collapse:
According to a report delivered recently to the Chancellery in Berlin by Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, the Ukrainian army is slowly disintegrating, demoralized by the separatist advances and short on personnel.
Even arms deliveries from the West, the BND believes, would be more likely to overwhelm the Ukrainian army than it would to make it a more effective fighting force.
Der Spiegel also shows that the overriding fact that provoked Merkel to go to Moscow and launch the Minsk process was the encirclement of up to a quarter of the effective combat troops of the Ukrainian army by the rebel militia at Debaltsevo. The article says:
Debaltseve is a small town in eastern Ukraine, held by 6,000 government troops, or perhaps 8,000. Nobody wants to say for sure. It is the heart of an army that can only put 30,000 soldiers into the field, a weak heart.
Until Sunday of last week [Feb 8], that heart was largely encircled by pro-Russian separatists and the troops could only be supplied by way of highway M03. Then, Monday came. Separatist fighters began advancing across snowy fields towards the village of Lohvynove, a tiny settlement of 30 houses hugging the M03. The separatists stormed an army checkpoint and killed a few officers. They then dug in — and the heart of the Ukrainian army was surrounded.
The situation in Debaltseve plunged the Ukrainian army into a desperate, almost hopeless, position, as the negotiators in Minsk well knew. Indeed, it was the reason the talks were so urgently necessary.
Der Spiegel says Merkel launched the peace initiative in order to save what Der Spiegel calls “the heart of Ukraine’s army” from destruction. Der Spiegel even talks about the Europeans (ie. Merkel and Hollande) trying to “protect” the Ukrainian military at Debaltsevo. Der Spiegel’s words are:
The Europeans… insisted on an immediate cease-fire out of concern for the volatile situation facing the Ukrainian military.
The separatists, not surprisingly, wanted to delay the beginning of the cease-fire for as long as possible so as to give themselves time to completely conquer Debaltseve.
Poroshenko, too, seemed to prefer a delayed cease-fire — apparently not fully understanding the situation facing his military. The Europeans were trying to protect the Ukrainians from themselves.
Secondly, as we have also previously said, Der Spiegel shows this was a Western not a Russian initiative. The Russians did not initiate it. Merkel did. According to Der Spiegel, she first floated the idea at the end of January when she was dining at a restaurant in Strasbourg with Hollande and European Parliament President Martin Schultz. This is the key to understanding what happened in Minsk. Because it is difficult for some in the West to acknowledge that the initiative was launched by Merkel due to the critical condition the Ukrainians are in and that this forced Merkel to make major concessions to Putin in Minsk. Parts of the Western media are trying to deny the fact.
An article by Niall Ferguson in the Financial Times says it was Putin who invited Merkel and Hollande to Moscow in order to divide the West and prevent the US sending arms to Kiev. An editorial in the London Times says the same thing. Der Spiegel shows this is untrue.
Thirdly, as we have also said, the initiative was Merkel’s not Hollande’s. Hollande was brought along purely to give Merkel diplomatic cover. Der Spiegel does not openly say so, but a German Chancellor cannot afford to be seen cutting unilateral deals at the expense of other European states with the Russians in Moscow, as Ribbentrop and Molotov once did. This explains the following words in the Der Spiegel article, which Der Spiegel explicitly says originate with Merkel’s office:
The Chancellery has continued to insist that a modern-day Yalta conference — whereby Ukraine is divided up between Russia and the West — is not in the cards.
And it was conspicuous that Merkel’s file folder that she had with her during the negotiations didn’t contain a single map.
The chancellor, Berlin officials say, is uninterested in taking part in negotiations over the precise route of the demarcation line between the separatist areas and those areas under Kiev’s control.
This nervousness about appearing to cut unilateral deals with the Russians also explains why Der Spiegel focuses almost entirely on the negotiations in Minsk and almost entirely ignores the far more important negotiations that happened a few days before in Moscow, at which the Ukrainians were not present. It was almost certainly in the talks with Putin in Moscow, where the Ukrainians were not present, that the broad outline of what was formally decided in Minsk was actually agreed. Merkel then flew to Washington to brief Obama and obtain his consent. Poroshenko was then presented in Minsk with what had previously been agreed, leaving him scope only to quibble over the technical details in a way that it is in Merkel’s interests to highlight (see below).
Der Spiegel also provides what is probably a fair account of the U.S. view of the negotiations.
I have already explained why the U.S. idea of providing arms to Ukraine is a really bad idea, failing to change the situation on the ground in Kiev’s favour whilst committing the U.S. to send military advisers to Kiev in a way that would be seen as a commitment to Kiev by the U.S. that would turn the Ukrainian conflict into a U.S.-Russian proxy war.
The Der Spiegel article shows that this is very much the German view and that Obama privately shares it. As Der Spiegel puts it:
… the Ukrainians are currently unable to operate such high-tech equipment. They would have to receive extensive training from American advisers. That, though, would essentially make the US a party to the conflict, as Obama well knows…
The Der Spiegel article shows that this is also the Russian view. More interestingly, it also shows that far from being scared by the threat of U.S. weapons being sent to Kiev, some Russian officials actually relish the prospect because of the political and military advantages it would give them. In Der Spiegel’s words:
American weapons deliveries… don’t impress Putin one bit. On the contrary: Were U.S. weapons and military trainers to turn up in Ukraine, the Russian people, 85 percent of whom already support Putin, would unanimously stand behind their president, one Kremlin insider, who does not belong to the hawkish camp, says. “Plus, we would be happy to see American weapons quickly fall into the hands of the separatists as captured loot.”
The Der Spiegel article admits the Russians entered the negotiations from a position of strength. This, again, is what we have been saying all along. We have repeatedly said that in the Ukrainian conflict it is Russia that holds all the cards. On the eve of the Minsk negotiations this has become obvious and was the reason why Merkel launched the peace initiative in the first place. As Der Spiegel says:
The Russians took a tough line. They saw themselves as being in a position of strength, partly because of the situation in Debaltseve.
Der Spiegel claims Merkel was able to extract one concession from Putin. It claims Putin agreed the forthcoming elections in the rebel regions will be limited to areas the rebel militia was to control in accordance with a ceasefire line agreed on 19th September 2014, and would not take place in territories the rebel militia has captured since the failure of the Ukrainian government’s offensive in January.
If Der Spiegel is right about this, it must have been agreed verbally because there is nothing in the text of the agreements that came out of Minsk that refers to it. Der Spiegel probably is right, because as the remainder of the article shows, a great deal more was agreed verbally by Putin and Merkel than appears in writing.
In every other respect, it was the Russians who got what they wanted and who basically dictated the terms.
The Minsk agreements make no mention of Crimea, implicitly confirming that Merkel now accepts it as Russian and that for Ukraine it is irretrievably lost.
Ukraine is obliged to pass a law before the end of March granting the rebel regions in the Donbass special status within Ukraine. Ukraine is obliged to enact a new Constitution before the end of the year. As I have previously said, this provides a time line for the settlement of the conflict that did not exist previously.
Far more importantly, Der Spiegel says that Ukraine is obliged to agree with the rebels the terms of the new law for the special status of their regions within Ukraine and is also obliged to agree the provisions of the new Constitution with them as well.
Der Spiegel chalks it up as a “success” for Poroshenko that he refused to talk to the rebel leaders directly. If, however, Der Spiegel is right and Poroshenko and the Ukrainian government are now required to agree with the rebels the terms of the law on the special status of their regions and the terms of the new Constitution, then this “success” looks extremely hollow.
Even more importantly, Der Spiegel says the two rebel regions are to have a veto over Ukraine’s future political orientation, including its joining either NATO or the EU. In Der Spiegel’s words:
Russia has likely already achieved its minimum goal, that of preventing Ukraine from joining NATO or the European Union.
The deal agreed to in Minsk includes a kind of veto right for separatist areas in eastern Ukraine on important fundamental issues.
That right would apply to membership in military alliances and to membership in economic blocks such as the EU or Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union.
These provisions do not appear in writing in the Minsk agreements. If they exist (which, given that the Der Spiegel article is sourced from Merkel’s office, they surely do), they must have been agreed verbally by Putin and Merkel, almost certainly during the talks in Moscow that preceded the ones in Minsk. There would have been no point in asking Poroshenko to sign a document that contained these provisions since, for political reasons, he could never have signed it. However, the Russians have obtained confirmation in writing that they may control Ukraine’s border until the new Constitution is agreed. This gives them a powerful tool which they can use to enforce the terms they dictated in Moscow and Minsk, even those that were only agreed verbally with Merkel, if or rather when the Ukrainians try to back out of them.
The talks in Moscow and Minsk also show that Merkel now accepts the reality the two rebel regions in the Donbass cannot be brought back under Kiev’s control. Merkel has agreed a ceasefire line that gives the rebels control of the territory they captured following the failure of the government offensive in January. By doing so, Merkel has implicitly accepted the political reality of what lies beyond the ceasefire line: the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. Der Spiegel says this quite explicitly:
… it has become clear that the West is willing to accept Ukraine’s partition. Ukraine hasn’t just lost the Crimean Peninsula, it has now also lost territories in the east.
Der Spiegel gives a detailed account of the various technical discussions concerning the proposed ceasefire. Here again, it is clear the Russians got everything they wanted.
The new ceasefire line cedes the rebels the territory they have captured since January.
The agreement for the withdrawal of heavy weapons behind respective buffer zones, if implemented, would give local superiority to the rebel militia on the front line by depriving the Ukrainian army of the heavy weapons and artillery it has used to counter them. It would also prevent the shelling by the Ukrainian army of rebel controlled population centres such as Donetsk, Lugansk and Gorlovka.
A disproportionate amount of attention is being given to these technical ceasefire provisions, which as we have discussed previously, will almost certainly never be fully implemented. The far more important political agreements – discussed above – have gone unnoticed. This is because of the secrecy of this process.
We previously discussed how the absence of French and German officials from the negotiations in Moscow was intended to prevent leaks and keep the negotiations private. From the account Der Spiegel has provided, it appears that the most important agreements made in Moscow and Minsk were verbal, which is another way of keeping them private (though stenographic records and recordings of the conversations that set out these agreements certainly exist).
It is not difficult to understand the reasons for all this secrecy. Der Spiegel calls the Minsk agreements a success for Merkel. It is difficult to see why. If implemented, they mean the end of the West’s and the EU’s Ukraine project.
The whole purpose of the EU association agreement that began the crisis was to make Ukraine a part of the European Single Market with the ultimate aim of integrating Ukraine with the EU. That would have pulled Ukraine away from Russia. If the agreements reached in Moscow and Minsk are fully implemented and the rebel regions are granted special status and autonomy within Ukraine, preserving their economic links with Russia, and have a right of veto over Ukraine ever joining the EU, then that objective can never be achieved. The EuroMaidan “revolution”, so determinedly supported by the West, will have lost its point and will have failed.
Der Spiegel even explains how Merkel is using the debates about the technical issues to create confusion so as to hide her retreat on the key political issues:
…she has divided up the conflict into a multitude of technical details, with each appearing grotesquely minimal in comparison with what could ultimately happen. “Where there is a complete lack of trust, you can fight to the death about anything,” one of her advisors said during the US trip. Merkel’s answer is: Then you have to find a solution to each point of conflict, one after the other.”
Der Spiegel justifies Merkel’s retreat by invoking realpolitik. A surprisingly large part of the article is devoted to what almost reads like a lecture on the subject. It can all be summed up by just one paragraph:
Realpolitik focuses on power and powerlessness. It’s about realizing what you can achieve with what means and when it might be smarter to admit your own lack of power. Realpolitik has no illusions, it is bitter and, sometimes, it is brutal.
Lest there be any doubt that this originates with Merkel herself, the article pointedly refers to her speech at the Munich Security Conference, which as it points out, Poroshenko listened to in silence.
For fairly obvious reasons, Realpolitik – with its admission of powerlessness – is almost the last justification any Western politician wants to invoke. When a Western politician is forced to invoke Realpolitik to justify a policy, it is an almost certain sign of failure.
The Minsk agreements, both those made in writing and the far more important ones that appear to have been made verbally, do in fact represent the failure of Merkel’s earlier policy.
As we have discussed previously, Merkel failed to recognise the Ukrainian conflict as a civil war and treated it instead as a case of Russian “aggression” against Ukraine, which she thought she could reverse by imposing sanctions on Russia. The Der Spiegel article shows that Merkel still sees the conflict as a case of “aggression” by Russia. However her bruising encounters with Putin in Milan and Brisbane showed her that Russia would not change its policy.
When it became clear in January that the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian economy were facing disaster, she had no option but to reverse course. The result is the peace initiative that has resulted in the agreements that were reached in Minsk, which she is now trying to justify by invoking Realpolitik.
Does this, however, mean that the Ukrainian conflict is coming to an end? The short answer, unfortunately, is almost certainly no. Though it does appear that Putin and Merkel have finally reached an understanding, it is far from certain that they can impose it on the two sides so as to end the war. What happened in Minsk shows why.
Der Spiegel says that on one occasion, Putin had to put pressure on the rebel leaders to get them to sign the final agreement (known as the Minsk Memorandum) that came out of the negotiation. The Russians have, in fact, repeatedly shown that they are prepared to put pressure on the rebels to get them to agree to what they want.
Merkel, however, is still not able or willing to put analogous pressure on the Ukrainian government. Not only did Poroshenko refuse to meet the rebel leaders or agree to any reference to federalisation in any document, calling the prospect of future negotiations between the Ukrainian government and the rebel regions into question, but amazingly, he even refused to admit that a quarter of his army had been encircled in Debaltsevo.
The result is that no agreement was reached about the situation in Debaltsevo, putting the Ukrainian troops there in an impossible position.
Disaster at Debaltsevo
The Ukrainian military refuses to withdraw from Debaltsevo. It cannot remove its heavy weapons from Debaltsevo (as under the Minsk agreements it is obliged to do). Were it to do so, they would have to be transported across rebel controlled territory, which could only be done with the consent of the rebels. The removal of the heavy weapons would leave the Ukrainian troops in Debaltsevo unarmed and defenceless.
The rebels, therefore, have sufficient cause to keep up their attack on Debaltsevo because the Ukrainians are not abiding by the Minsk Memorandum by keeping their heavy weapons and staying there. Since the Ukrainian troops in Debaltsevo are surrounded, their position is militarily untenable and will inevitably collapse.
Poroshenko’s refusal to acknowledge reality in Debaltsevo has therefore doomed the Ukrainian troops there. Cut off from relief or re-supply, unable to retreat or give up their weapons and unable to defend themselves effectively, they have been left with no choice but to surrender or die.
Der Spiegel tells us Merkel launched her peace initiative to save the Ukrainian troops in Debaltsevo. Given that this is so, the logical course was for her to take Poroshenko aside, tell him to face reality and warn him that continued Western support was conditional on his doing so. The obligation she took on herself on behalf of the Ukrainian troops in Debaltsevo demanded no less.
Der Spiegel contains no hint that Merkel ever did any such thing even though saving the Ukrainian troops in Debaltsevo was the ostensible purpose of the peace mission. Instead, Der Spiegel gives us weak comments such as this
The world must hope that the government troops trapped in Debaltseve really do lay down their weapons and don’t try to fight their way free.
and this (with specific reference to Debaltsevo)
The Europeans were trying to protect the Ukrainians from themselves.
To which all one can say is that it is an astonishing abdication when hope takes the place of policy and that the Europeans are not “protecting the Ukrainians from themselves” if they cannot face the Ukrainians with the truth.
The overall conclusion, therefore, continues to be that the Minsk agreements will not end the Ukrainian conflict. As I have recently discussed, the Ukrainian government has never abided by a single agreement it has made and it will certainly not abide by agreements made verbally and to which it is not a party. Judging by her behaviour over Debaltsevo, it seems that Merkel is still unable or unwilling to exert the necessary pressure on them to do so. The probability, bordering on certainty, is therefore that the conflict will continue.
Minsk does nonetheless represent a watershed. Germany now recognises that the political objectives the West set itself in Ukraine cannot be achieved and is now looking for ways to limit the damage and to extricate itself from what increasingly looks like a debacle. I say Germany rather than Merkel, since it is clear Merkel has a consensus in Germany behind her.
Germany is not the West. There remain powerful forces in the U.S. and elsewhere still intent on confrontation and escalation. However, no one reading the big Western newspapers over the last few weeks can fail to notice the growing sense of weariness and defeat there is about this conflict.
The conflict in Ukraine itself will grind on, probably until the government currently in power in Kiev falls, which will surely happen sooner or later. However, as a crisis in international relations, following the talks in Moscow and Minsk, it appears its peak has passed.
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