Monday, February 09, 2015
Do not try to scare Putin, warns Merkel!
It was a day of bluster and speeches but also paralysis over how to bring the bloodshed in eastern Ukraine to an end.
On one side, hawks in Washington favour supplying “advanced weapons” to Ukraine’s government in Kiev. On the other, cautious European leaders warned it is easier to provoke Vladimir Putin than to scare him.
“I am firmly convinced this conflict cannot be solved with military means,” said Angela Merkel, the German chancellor at the Munich Security Conference.
Mrs Merkel, who is the only major Western leader to have a working relationship with Mr Putin, said a flow of American arms to Ukraine would not intimidate the Russian leader.
“I cannot imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to President Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily,” she said. “I have to put it that bluntly.”
She added that force had not proved to be the solution in the past when dealing with Russia. “I grew up in East Germany, I have seen the Wall,” she said. “The Americans did not intervene in the Wall, but in the end we won.”
More than 5,300 people have died in the conflict so far, many in devastating artillery barrages, and Kiev warned yesterday that rebel troops were massing for a fresh offensive.
An increasing number of US politicians and senior officials have suggested countering the rebel troops by supplying “defensive weapons” such as Javelin anti-tank missiles, small arms and ammunition to allow Ukraine to strike back at the tanks, artillery and troops that Russia appears to be sending to the east of the country.
General Philip Breedlove, Nato’s top military commander, insisted on Saturday that the option should remain on the table. “I don’t think we should preclude out of hand the possibility of the military option,” he said, adding: “There is no conversation about boots on the ground.”
French President Francois Hollande (R) gestures as he speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow. Credit: Kremin Pool
President Barack Obama has remained silent so far, but Ashton Carter, his nominee for defence secretary, told a Senate committee last week that he is “very much inclined” to provide arms to Petro Poroshenko’s government.
A day after five hours of talks in Moscow between Mrs Merkel, François Hollande and Mr Putin yielded no public agreement beyond a commitment to a further phone call, all the major players in the crisis met at the Munich Security Conference, electrifying what is usually a dry affair.
There was no mistaking where the sympathies of the audience, made up of international leaders including 20 heads of state, lay. When Mrs Merkel mentioned in her speech that she was glad to see Petro Poroshenko present, the Ukrainian President stood up and took a bow, to rapturous applause. Brandishing the passports of several Russian soldiers allegedly seized on Ukrainian territory, he said they were the “best evidence for the aggression and for the presence of Russian troops”.
Mr Hollande has said he is against arming Ukraine and Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, said the UK also supports a diplomatic solution while he denounced Mr Putin’s “bully-boy” tactics.
“At the moment we do not feel that the supply of arms would be a helpful contribution,” said Mr Hammond. “And so long as there is something approximating a military stalemate, the focus must be on finding a political solution to resolve it.”
He also rejected accusations that the UK had become a “diplomatic irrelevance”, saying: “We will decide, together, what is the best way to go forward. The United States and the United Kingdom will be at that table with France and Germany.”
But Malcolm Rifkind, the former Defence and Foreign Secretary, was one of several delegates who pressed Mrs Merkel on how Mr Putin could be tackled without bolstering Ukraine’s army. “Frederick the Great said that diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments,” the Tory MP pointed out.
Joe Biden, the US vice president, appeared to leave a route open for weapons supplies to Kiev, saying: “We do not believe in a military solution to the conflict, but we do not believe that Putin has the right to do whatever he wants.” He added: “Too many times, President Putin has promised peace and delivered tanks.”
On Sunday, Mrs Merkel, Mr Hollande, Mr Putin and Mr Poroshenko will resume the debate and are expected to thrash out a blueprint on a conference call. But it remains unclear what incentive, or threat, Moscow requires in order to scale back its support for the thousands of heavily armed militiamen in east Ukraine.
On Saturday Mr Putin insisted that his country was innocent, saying during a visit to Sochi on the Black Sea: “We are not going to wage war on anyone, we plan to cooperate with everybody.”
“There clearly is an attempt to restrain our development with different means,” he told trade union activists. “There is an attempt to perturb the existing world order… with one incontestable leader who wants to remain as such thinking he is allowed everything while others are only allowed what he allows and only in his interests.This world order will never suit Russia.”
In Munich, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, took the West to task for allegedly escalating the conflict but expressed hope the renewed peace talks would bear fruit. “We believe there is every possibility that we will reach a result and agree the recommendations that will allow the sides to really untie this knot of a conflict,” he said.
Representatives of the rebels, Ukraine, Russia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe signed a peace deal in Minsk, Belarus, in September. That deal agreed a ceasefire, a withdrawal of artillery, prisoner exchanges and other concessions but was never implemented in full. Despite some lulls, fighting and shelling continued and last month the rebels announced they were abandoning talks over a ceasefire and going on the offensive.
French and German officials have said the current peace talks are seeking a way to implement the original Minsk agreement, possibly conceding more land to the rebels to reflect their recent advances.
But Mr Poroshenko said any new deal should not expand the territory given over to rebel control, and its signatories could not pick and choose which points to fulfil.
“The Minsk protocol is not a buffet in the Bayerischer Hof hotel,” he said, referring to the location of the Munich conference.