When the Rules Are Broken

21 February 2015, 01:09

In 2009, US Vice President Joe Biden announced the “reset” in America’s policy with Russia at the 45th Munich Security Conference. It was less than a year after the Russian aggression in Georgia. We will not agree with Russia on everything. For example, the United States will not — will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. We will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence. It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances,” he said back then. “But the United States and Russia can disagree and still work together where our interests coincide.”

“As a result of these choices made by Mr. Putin, the world looks differently today than it did when I spoke in Munich not just six years ago, but even two years ago,” Mr. Biden noted at the same Bayerischer Hof hotel conference hall six years later, on February 6-8, 2015.

RELATED ARTICLE: Jan Tombinski on Reforming Ukraine

The Munich Security Conference is not a place where landmark decisions on things like the launch of the “reset” policy or delivery of arms to Ukraine are made. Nor is it a place where one can hear details of a “peace plan” for Ukraine in official statements by the world leaders, especially when the conference takes place a day or two before their meeting with the leader of the aggressor-state, then a visit to Washington. However, leading diplomats and analysts come here every year to share their opinions on the pressing challenges, the current one being probably one of the worst one in decades. The Ukrainian Week asked François Heisbourg and Judy Dempsey for their comments and expectations.

 François Heisbourg, Chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, moderator of the panel on hybrid war at the 51st Munich Security Conference

Delivery of arms to Ukraine: EU and US stances

I would be careful on this one. As NATO Secretary General reminded people at the conference, this is not something decided by NATO. It’s not a collective decision. Transfer of arms is a product of national policy. From what I see in Paris, for instance, and even in the way Angela Merkel answered questions on this at the conference, countries have different views, considering it a dangerous idea to send weapons to Ukraine and preferring to go on with sanctions instead, but nobody is going to stop others from providing arms to Ukraine. That is the impression I got from listening to Angela Merkel (during her remarks and Q&A session on February 6 – Ed.). She is not going to transfer arms to Ukraine and will continue to express her doubts – and I use the word “doubt” here because that is what she used when answering American Senator Bob Corker’s question about delivery of weapons to Ukraine – but she will hardly interfere with decisions of other countries to provide weapons. So, it really boils down to American leadership, if there is such a thing.

A lot depends on public opinion in Germany. I don’t know how strongly people here feel about this. But at the time of the annexation of Crimea, the Russians, for instance, expected that Germany would be the weak link because it is the country with the most economic assets in Russia, the oldest historical tradition of cooperation with Russia, and a strong pro-Russian sentiment in all of Germany. However, Mrs. Merkel understood quickly what was going on and who Vladimir Putin is. Subsequently, German public opinion has been channeled in the right direction to understand what’s going on.

Response of the international community to the “new world order”

I think one of the new characteristics of the new order is that there will be no international community. In fact, during the last days of the Soviet Union and the early days of Russia, the latter was quite a positive player on the UN Security Council. Even until the annexation of Crimea there had been hope that, no matter how difficult and tricky relations with Russia were, some sort of order would be preserved – particularly in the framework of the US’ “reset policy”. That is now over.

Sentiments in France

Don’t forget that it was the Americans who invented the “reset policy” eight-nine months after the war in Georgia. So, before piling up on Germany or France, remember that that policy was American, and everyone followed. The signal was given by Joe Biden here in February 2009. So, a general understanding in all Western states was then that the war in Georgia was an exception that did not set a new pattern, so they could continue business as usual. Now, everybody knows what’s going on. Even those in Europe who like Vladimir Putin know that this is no longer the case. Plus, sanctions prevent business as usual from happening anyway.

What is true is that public opinion is deeply divided in all of Europe. The propaganda battle in Western European countries is very intense and Russia is very effective – both in terms of direct intervention through social media and channels like Russia Today (much better than Ukraine), and indirectly, through authoritarian-type policymakers like Marine Le Pen, for instance.

Potential collapse of Russia as a result of sanctions

That is a deeply undesirable outcome because, if the Russians see something like that happening, they will likely act extremely forcefully. This is the point I was trying to make in my question to the German Defense Minister when she compared sanctions to a short sword. I said that the people who are receiving the sharp end of the sword don’t see this as a metaphor. Take Japan in 1941 and sanctions against it. The Japanese would have run out of the ability to wage a war in six months, so they attacked Pearl Harbor.

Sanctions are not a risk-free option. My basic argument is that we would be better off putting economic and military help to Ukraine, and not sanctions, at the center of our strategy. The ones imposed already have been effective – actually, too effective in terms of their economic impact – while being completely ineffective in terms of their political effect. Of course, there was an unexpected slump in oil prices. That’s why we should not impose more sanctions. The Germans often think of them as an easy answer to our problem because they do not carry the risk of war. But they are wrong in that. Sanctions do carry a risk of war when they reach a certain level of effectiveness. And when the Germans say that it could be dangerous to provide arms to Ukraine, sanctions are probably equally dangerous.

Financial aid to Ukraine

It is necessary and Mrs. Merkel mentioned it specifically, but a broader plan is necessary. A major problem now, however, is Greece. So, if Mr. Hollande, Mr. Renzi or Mrs. Merkel tell their voters in the middle of all this financial mess in the eurozone that “we are going to give a EUR 50bn package for Ukraine”, it won’t be an easy political decision for them. But I was reassured by Mrs. Merkel’s immediate answer about the need to provide the IMF package to Ukraine. That means that she thinks it is important.


 Judy Dempsey, Non-resident Senior Associate at Carnegie Europe, Editor-in-Chief of the Strategic Europe blog, and author of The Merkel Phenomenon (Das Phänomen Merkel, Körber-Stiftung Edition, 2013)

Delivery of arms to Ukraine: EU and US stances

This is really complicated. First of all, the US Congress has not yet been able to reach a consensus on this but they are talking about it, and that is a big change. If the US arms Ukraine, that doesn’t mean that American soldiers will be sent there. Europe is much more complicated. The Baltic States would clearly like some weapons to be sent in. Poland is waiting for an EU consensus. Angela Merkel still believes in diplomacy. But what is diplomacy without the threat of visible use of force to back it up. She would not deal with this issue. She has just put force off the agenda. This is the new Germany we are dealing with. And it reflects the German view.

As to France, I must say that it has changed a lot. It hardly knew where Kyiv was only a few months ago, focusing on Africa instead. What Mrs. Merkel has done to France is very interesting: she has engaged it in dealing with Eastern Europe. This is a positive side of all that can be said.

At a point, Poland felt sidelined. This is how Vladimir Putin wants this, preferring Germany and France for the Normandy format instead as Russia’s “traditional partners”. But ever since then, according to people in the German foreign ministry and the chancellery, Poland has been kept informed all the time. The Swedes and Poland are working very hard behind the scenes. Poland is trying to push the reform programme with Ukraine as much as it can. This is the reality of politics.

The interesting thing is that the EU is not involved in any of these negotiations. Germany is the leader in Europe and Mrs. Merkel has done it all alone. She is now doing foreign policy, weighing up all strategic implications of what she has done. It is a high-risk strategy for her.

Assessment of reforms in Ukraine

It is extremely difficult to do reforms overnight. You need state institutions and state apparatus, a new culture of civil service and technocrats. It takes a lot of time.

What the public demands is another matter. My impression is that people want the authorities to just deal with corruption. They want something tangible, a perspective. The first thing is to stop corruption – and much more has to be done to get rid of it. On the other hand, it is so endemic, deep down in every aspect of life.

The second thing – and it is as difficult – is the lustration law. People want to end the old history. They do not want the Maidan revolution to be betrayed once more.  

The EU and the IMF are pushing for reforms in Ukraine, but you have to be very careful not to push too hard. An excuse for delaying reforms can always be found. And they can’t be done in a vacuum. Reforms need to be done well, and explained to the public – why they are needed. This is really important.

Korbut Anna

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