This week Minsk hosts another four-party meeting on Ukraine, bringing together representatives from Kiev, south-east regions, Russia and OSCE – organization for security and cooperation in Europe.
Days before the meeting the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of an anti-Russia resolution “strongly condemning the actions of the Russian Federation, under President Vladimir Putin, which has carried out a policy of aggression against neighboring countries aimed at political and economic domination.” A number of western analysts described the document as a US declaration of war on Russia.
On the other hand, French President Francois Hollande made a sudden stop in Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Hollande said his meeting with Putin "came at the right time, in good circumstances, and will undoubtedly lead to some results in the coming days" – a peacemaker statement, in a stark contrast with the US rhetoric…
Says Gilbert Doctorow, research fellow with the American University in Moscow:
I think that these two separate events on the two continents have a commonality. They illustrate the divergence in directions of Europe and the US at this moment. The fact that President Hollande went to see Vladimir Putin on his way back from Kazakhstan, the remarks that were made thereafter and which have followed up in his talks with Angela Merkel are what he would like to believe. And why he would like to believe that is the essence of our analysis.
The French and the Germans have made progress in the ceasefire and implementation of the Minsk accords – a precondition for reviewing and, possibly, turning back the sanctions. If they decide, irrespective of the reality on the ground, that the reality is a better one and that there is progress in satisfying the Minsk accords, that frees their hands to do the necessary and to stay and turn back the sanctions.
Now, in the US the vote of the House of Representatives is not binding on the President, but it is an informal declaration of a war on Russia. It frees the President’s hands to do whatever he thinks is necessary, to deal with what is termed as the Russian aggression and the Russian threat to the post-Cold War order in Europe.
That is one important straw in the wind, but it is not the only one. The past week or two have seen other developments where Washington, not the legislature but the executive arm, was moving more aggressively against Russia. And I think of the attempts to isolate and to punish Orban in Hungary. I think of the spontaneous demonstrations against the Czech President, which, no doubt, have the backing of the National Endowment for Freedom, which is Washington financed.
That is to say that Washington is moving with a heavy fist against those eastern and central European countries, that it fears are headed for the Russian orbit, or, to put it more generally, are weak on the sanctions against Russia. So, the old continent and America are divergent right now in how they are approaching Russia.
How far could the Old World go in its disagreement with the US?
Gilbert Doctorow: In front of me I have an English translation of the heading of a speech, made yesterday by the Deputy Chair of Die Linke – the left in the Bundestag – in which she denounced Angela Merkel, saying – “you do not have the courage to resist the US Government”. In the past two weeks there have been several very high-profile statements by the leading politicians and public figures in Germany against Merkel’s position on the sanctions, and on degrading the Russian economy.
I have in mind an open letter that was signed by a substantial number of people in different walks of life in Germany, that was published in the magazine Tagesspiegel. And it goes under the heading "Nicht in unserem Namen" – not in our name. And it has the former President of the German Republic, it has the leading politicians, as well as actors and playwrights, and other well-known personalities in Germany, who are highly critical of Merkel’s policy.
In France it is not surprising that Hollande would look for a way to back away, to move off the sanctions that France has been supporting till now. You have the very principled position of Marine Le Pen’s organization – the Front National. And they are saying that they are not pro-Putin, they are not anti-Ukraine, but they would like the US to remove its heavy hand from Europe and let the Europeans solve the problems on their own.
Now, this is the kind of very subtle message which is finding its way into the French mainstream. I don’t think it was accidental that one of Nicolas Sarkozy’s first acts in his final contest for the control of his party – the UMP – was exactly to say – “let the Mistral go to Russia”. So, in the public space the influence of Marine Le Pen’s party is increasing. And that is a position that is national, defending the nation against what they see as subservience to the American interests.
Where will it end? I think it is entirely possible that the US-led policy of punishing and sanctioning Russia will fall down in Europe; that the sanctions will not be reinstituted in March 2015 and may well be curtailed even before then. And if that happens, then you have a general situation in the States that is not too dissimilar from what happened when David Cameron was refused his bill authorizing force in Syria. The US Congress then turned on Obama and he understood he couldn’t pass a similar resolution in the US Congress.
So, strategically speaking, I think Europe is what counts, and these two different paths that we mentioned at the start, this divergence that came out so clearly in the last week is worth a close study.
It seems that NATO intelligence is suggesting the West has been misreading Putin’s signals.
Gilbert Doctorow: Yes, let’s go back a little bit further. November 11, the online edition of Foreign Affairs magazine published a poll of this 29-men brain trust of experts on Russia. This is a follow-up to the essay originally published in the September-October issue by John Mearsheimer, asking the question – who is to blame? – and answering that the West is to blame for the present confrontation crisis over Ukraine.
That’s stirred up a lot of discussion in the States, because until now the public space has been 99% anti-Russian, and anyone even thinking of saying something other than that was denounced as a steward to Putin. Now you have the Foreign Affairs magazine publishing in their September issue this critique fundamentally overturning all the premises of the US foreign policy in Russia, but not only in Russia.
And it created a storm. The result of that storm was a poll taken, as I say, of the 29-member brain trust, which concluded with the following – fully one third of the brain trust agreed or agreed strongly that the West is to blame for the present confrontation with Russia. When you consider that that brain trust is packed with people like Masha Gessen or Alexander Motyl, who are viscerally anti-Russian, and there are quite a few of them in that group, then the fact that one third would speak out (and they are identified one by one, their position statements are shown on the online Foreign Affairs and you can view them by downloading it), and they came out in principle against the US foreign policy. So, after that I think other people become braver.
I think what we are seeing is that a certain kind of civil bravery has emerged, that people, who months ago didn’t believe that the US foreign policy was being properly conducted, have come out into the open. I think that’s the big change. And for that the Foreign Affairs article, and the controversy which followed, had a very salutary effect on the public space in the US.
And is it going to make a difference?
Gilbert Doctorow: It will make a difference if Europe stumbles. If Europe holds the line and remains subservient to the instructions from Joe Biden, then the attitudes of this 33% will have no bearing on the future course of the US policy.
However, if — as I believe it is entirely possible — because when you speak of crisis, you want to look at Europe, not the US. You have caught me today in Brussels in the midst of the evolving general strike. The city is more or less shut down. And that is because of the austerity programs. And over the weekend you’ve seen similar mass demonstrations in other capitals of Europe. The policies that are identified with Angela Merkel, of Europe-wide austerity and Russia bashing are both coming under a very strong criticism from those who are suffering. And that is the men in the street. That is the domestic economies.
Dr. John Laughland, Director of Studies at the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, UK:
…I think if they are referring to progress, they are perhaps referring to the fact that Ukraine and the separatists in the eastern Ukraine – the Kiev Government and the separatists – have agreed to continue and to pursue their discussions. In other words, the Minsk process is on track. And in spite of all the aggressive rhetoric Kiev is actually talking to its rebels. And of course, Russia and also the Western powers have always said that the negotiations are the way forward. So, I suspect that that is what they are referring to.
Hollande’s visit to Moscow may have helped. It was certainly symbolically very important. It marked a radical change from the harsh words that have been used by many European politicians, including particularly by Angela Merkel, who’s been one of the most aggressive. Despite what people say, she is far more anti-Russian than many other European leaders, and certainly more so than François Hollande. So, I think that also possibly represents some kind of progress, or at least some kind of change in the atmosphere.
So, do I get it right that the perceptions in Europe of what is really going on in Ukraine are changing?
Dr. John Laughland: It depends on what you mean by perceptions. The media reports continue to be very misleading. There aren’t very many media reports at the moment about the eastern Ukraine. We don’t have a great deal of information as to what, if any, fighting is going on, or what territory is or is not controlled. It’s rather disappeared actually from the headlines. So, I wouldn’t necessarily say there’s been a change in terms of the general public’s perception.
Is there a change taking place among the leaders – that is the question to which I would possibly give a positive answer. Again, it is difficult to know exactly what they think, but if François Hollande decided to visit Moscow, as he did yesterday, that suggests that there is at least some kind of political will to obviously keep the contacts with Moscow open, and not to adopt the policy of confrontation. And in that sense we might be able, therefore, to talk about a change of perception among the Western leaders, at least.
Well, the signals coming from Washington are totally different…
Dr. John Laughland: Well, perhaps you are referring to the resolution voted by the US Congress last week, which was extremely aggressive. Ron Paul called it one of the worst pieces of legislation he’d ever seen the Congress voted on in his entire career. And goodness knows, he himself has opposed many other pieces of the legislation in the past. So, yes, that resolution was a nasty piece of work. But of course, the foreign policy of the US is not made by the US Congress, as in every country it is made by the Government. And while such resolutions definitely can contribute to a bad atmosphere in Washington, nonetheless the final decisions will rest with Obama and with the State Department.
There is a difference, yes, as you suggest in your question, between the language coming out of Washington generally and the language, some of it, coming from some European capitals. The Europeans have basically followed America up to date. Certainly, Angela Merkel has closely met the America foreign policy and has made a number of very aggressive declarations recently, including last week. But who knows? As I say, the visit of François Hollande to Moscow does make me wonder whether in fact the Europeans, perhaps, have not after all decided to at least put out a few feelers to Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and therefore, perhaps, to deescalate the increasing confrontation between Russia and the West.