Key Takeaway from Ukraine Peace Talks in Paris is that Zelensky’s Best Friend is Putin
The Paris talks on Ukraine have enabled Putin and Zelensky to meet for the first time. But they have agreed only to kick the can down the road, to agree to disagree, while seeking progress on issues other than the war in Donbass.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the weakness of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s position. He is a political novice facing perhaps the most experienced and formidable statesman in the world. Although an intelligent man, the former TV comedian says he likes to do things quickly.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, by contrast, is known for his extreme attention to detail and for his propensity to play a very long game.
Putin is not in a rush. Zelensky is, because time is not on Ukraine’s side. The country has avoided default by a whisker only by negotiating a new IMF loan to pay off the old one taken out five years ago and due for repayment this year.
The gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 is about to be completed, partly sidelining Ukraine as a transit country for European gas, thereby reducing both its political clout in Europe and, crucially, its revenue from transit fees. Zelensnky needs a new agreement with Gazprom by the end of this year, i.e. in the next three weeks. It is not yet in the bag.
The worst development for Ukraine, however, is in the US. Trump’s enemies, who are seeking to impeach him over Ukraine, are above all horrified at what they thought was Trump’s desire to stop arming the country.
When the director of European affairs at the US National Security Council, the Ukraine-born Col. Alexander Vindman, gave evidence to the House Intelligence Committee on November 19, he said that he was “shocked” when he heard the phone call between presidents Trump and Zelensky. But what shocked him was not the alleged quid-pro-quo Trump was asking for, dirt on Biden in return for aid, but instead his understanding that US policy on Ukraine was being abandoned.
Other Trump enemies have also made it clear that the specific reasons why they want to impeach Trump are but a cover for their main obsession, which is that the US should maintain its strong support for Ukraine and that there be no rapprochement with Russia and no revision of the Russiagate narrative. This was, for instance, clear in Fiona Hill’s testimony.
What this means for Zelensky is that Ukraine has become a political football in Washington. It is at the heart of the impeachment hearings. Whatever the outcome of that process, being pro-Ukraine will henceforth mean being anti-Trump and vice-versa.
After more than two years of anti-Russia hysteria by the Democrats, scepticism about Ukraine will inevitably rise among Republicans. Support for Ukraine will no longer be bi-partisan. And since there is every likelihood Trump will survive impeachment and be re-elected, Kiev only has two more years left. If he wins a second term, Trump will be able to do whatever he likes, unimpeded by the machinations of “the deep state” praised for its opposition to Trump by the New York Times.
All this explains why Zelensky got so little out of the Paris talks. He was not able to discuss Crimea, whose incorporation into Russia has therefore effectively been accepted by the EU. He has accepted the Steinmeier formula which Ukrainian nationalists hate because it forces Ukraine to grant decentralized federal status to Donetsk and Lugansk. And he has seen the Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015 confirmed and used as a basis for continuing discussions. Although the Minsk agreements were long ago incorporated into a UN Security Council Resolution, and are therefore very difficult to ignore, nationalists in Ukraine regard them as an agreement extorted from Ukraine under Russian military pressure.
On paper, therefore, Zelensky has not done well. However, if prisoner exchanges continue, following the initial one in September; if there genuinely is a ceasefire by the end of the year; and if Ukraine manages to renegotiate anything more than a one-year deal on gas transit with Russia, then Zelensky will be seen as having brought home tangible benefits. The concrete results are probably just as politically valuable to him as any hypothetical (but in reality improbable) comprehensive peace agreement.
Paradoxically, Zelensky has one strong point. Putin likes him and wants him to succeed. Moscow knows that Ukraine is bitterly divided between pro and anti-Russian factions and that they take power one after the other. The Orange Revolution in 2004 lasted only 3 years before Viktor Yanukovich won parliamentary elections and became prime minister and then president. The Maidan revolution has lasted 5 years but with the same result; the aggressively anti-Russian party is out of power.
Given that France wants to put the Ukraine issue to bed in order to work with Russia on a host of other issues, that Angela Merkel is determined to see the construction of North Stream 2 through to a successful conclusion, and that Trump may well get a second term, Ukraine is looking politically fragile on the international stage, if not yet isolated. If the Paris talks have told us one thing, it is that Zelensky’s best friend, right now, is Putin. Such are the ironies of international politics.
Reprinted with permission from RT.