Recently I took part in a panel discussion on relations between Russia and the EU. As the rest of Berlin was still getting out of bed, more than 100 people turned up for the event, mostly elderly Germans who will never forget the trauma and shame of the Second World War. One after another, members of the audience stood up, calling for a return to “the politics of peace”, to compromise, and to dialogue. Nobody in Europe wants war, I replied, surprised that such words even needed pronouncing.
The real question is whether Russian President Vladimir Putin is ready to compromise, I said. As for dialogue, no leaders have talked as often with their Russian counterparts in the past year as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
The problem isn’t a lack of words but a lack of deeds. On the issue of Ukraine, even the most well-intentioned diplomat cannot bridge the gulf between what the Kremlin says and what it does. Last Wednesday night, Steinmeier made his second attempt in 10 days to push forward the peace process, hosting his colleagues from Russia, Ukraine, and France in Berlin.
“Three on Earth, one on moon,” a Ukrainian diplomat tweeted in an oblique reference to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Afterwards, Steinmeier put on a brave face, admitting there had been no breakthrough but “discernible steps” towards implementing the so-called Minsk peace agreement signed in September.
Most Ukrainians probably haven’t heard the news that their country has taken any steps towards peace. On Thursday morning, they learned that a bus had been struck by a shell in the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, killing at least eight civilians. No less shocking were reports that rebel forces had finally taken the Donetsk airport — or what is left of it — after eight months of bitter fighting.
The city’s rebel-controlled administration said that in the previous 24 hours, 15 civilians had been killed and 20 wounded. The Ukrainian government and the separatists blamed each other for the bloodshed.
The escalation of hostilities in eastern Ukraine comes after a relative lull in December after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced a “regime of silence” to help reduce tensions. Fighting flared up along the ceasefire line in early January, as Steinmeier was expecting his Russian, Ukrainian, and French counterparts in Berlin to set up a summit between Putin and Poroshenko in Kazakhstan.
When those preliminary talks failed and the summit was postponed, the violence increased. A bus was struck by a rocket near Volnovakha on January 13, killing 13 passengers. With much of the world still reeling from the Charlie Hebdo attack, the bus tragedy was hardly noticed outside Ukraine.
Poroshenko, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, made an emotional plea for the world not to succumb to “Ukraine fatigue”.
The forgetfulness of the West is no less dangerous for his country’s survival than the Russian-backed insurgency. Without more funds from international lenders, Ukraine could face default in the coming months.
If Poroshenko sounded desperate at times, it’s because external and internal pressures are coming to a head. The rebels unsuccessfully tried to take Donetsk airport the day after his election in May. Since then, the tenacity of the soldiers defending the ruined terminal has become symbolic of Ukraine’s war effort. One Ukrainian weekly is running a cover entitled ‘Our Stalingrad’.
Although the airport is unusable because of the destruction, it played a strategic role as a Ukrainian bridgehead. Under control of the rebels, it could now be rebuilt into a base to supply the separatists from the air.
If that weren’t bad enough, a Russian news report that rebels in the Luhansk region have repaired an old L-29 training jet has raised fears in Kiev that this phony “air force” could one day disguise Russian airstrikes — the same way that armour looted from Ukrainian arsenals covers for military hardware that crosses over from Russia.
Mysterious explosions in cities outside the warzone keep the country on its toes. Mariupol, the largest city in the Donetsk region controlled by Kiev, was cut off from the rest of the country last week when the last rail link into the city was blown up.
Poroshenko’s biggest problem is that his government has lost control over hundreds of miles of its eastern border. In Davos, he said Russia had more than 9,000 troops and over 500 armoured vehicles in eastern Ukraine.
“Our approach is very simple. We have nothing to negotiate. Everything is already fixed and signed. We have the Minsk format,” said Poroshenko. Turning to Russia, he said: “The solution is very simple. Stop supplying weapons. Stop supplying ammunition. Withdraw the troops and close the border.”
Simple enough in theory, but virtually impossible in practice. Although it is a signatory to the Minsk agreement and a participant in Steinmeier’s Berlin talks, Russia isn’t formally a party to the conflict but simply a concerned neighbour. The de facto double role of warmonger and peacemaker puts all the cards in Putin’s hands. “Let us pull the veil away from Putin’s peace plan and call it for what it is — a Russian occupation plan,” said the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power.
What the Kremlin really wants is to legitimise the leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”, whose farcical elections in November even Russia couldn’t recognise. “The direct dialogue between Kiev and representatives of the proclaimed DNR and LNR is the key to solving the deep Ukrainian crisis,” Lavrov said in Berlin, referring to the separatist regions by their Russian initials. But if Poroshenko agreed, he would be condemning Ukraine to a future dictated by the Kremlin and its proxies.
Officially Russia is 100% for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, minus Crimea of course. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov last week repeated the fiction that Ukraine’s problems are of its own making and that Russia is already doing all it can by providing energy deliveries and humanitarian convoys. “Russia can’t solve an internal Ukrainian conflict,” he said. Even as it urges Putin to be part of the solution, the West is plotting to isolate him, ruin the Russian economy, and overthrow him, Peskov said.
Lavrov’s job is to keep talking. Already half of the EU’s members are leaning towards lifting economic sanctions against Russia, he has said. The Russian foreign minister is all for continuing the dialogue, even in difficult conditions. Politics of peace, compromise, whatever you call it.
n Lucian Kim is a Berlin-based journalist who has covered the Ukraine conflict for Slate, Newsweek, and BuzzFeed