When Western leaders, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Milan 10 days ago, few held their breath for the resolution of a conflict that has bowed Ukraine’s economy and resulted in the death of nearly 4,000 people. President Putin has consistently misled his Western counterparts, first denying the role of Russian special forces in the annexation of Crimea, and later repeatedly covering up overwhelming evidence of support for rebel groups in the Donbas. Putin has no qualms looking his Western and Ukrainian partners in the face, denying any associations with rebel groups even as Russian soldiers occupy Ukrainian territory, supply militants with Russian weapons systems, and use Russian media to encourage volunteer fighters against the Ukrainian government. Why would anyone think that Milan would be any different?
Even by Putin’s standards of proper diplomatic behavior and decorum, it was clear from the beginning that he doesn’t take negotiations seriously. Arriving late from a state visit to Serbia, Putin stood up German chancellor Angela Merkel for several hours before paying a visit to his friend and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in the early hours of the morning. Putin continued to belligerently refer to southeastern Ukraine as “Novorossiya” (New Russia) in a press conference, implicitly laying claim to a large swath of Ukraine even while vociferously denying that Russia is a party to the conflict. Negotiations on the solidifying the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine went nowhere, and talks on the gas dispute between Kyiv and Moscow failed to reach any definitive conclusions. Putin later reneged on his promises to ensure the flow of gas to Ukraine over the winter, despite statements that he had agreed to do so.
Despite pressure by some political forces in Europe to reduce or rescind sanctions on Russia, European leaders have been increasingly vocal in their support of the current policy, stating firmly that sanctions on Russia will continue until Ukraine’s sovereignty is respected and Moscow’s behavior changes tune. Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, whose country has taken a relatively soft stance on its neighbor, stated that it is “very unlikely” that sanctions will be rescinded in the near future. Angela Merkel echoed these sentiments, saying that Russia would have to respect Ukrainian sovereignty before the sanctions would be up for discussion.
At the moment, Putin appears unmoved. At the news conference where he referred to southeastern Ukraine as Novorossiya, Putin also called for the final demarcation of the ceasefire zone between Ukraine and the Russian-backed rebel state. Like in Georgia and Moldova, such a demarcation would result in an internal state border and the indefinite prolongation of the conflict into a new frozen conflict. Apparently, this has been the Russian game plan from the beginning. A poor and corrupt self-declared state in southeastern Ukraine would not only prevent Ukraine’s NATO aspirations, but also be a constant de-stabilizing thorn in the side of Kyiv, scaring away foreign investors and raising the risk of a re-ignited Russian-backed conflict.
European leaders have been sending more confident signals to the Kremlin in recent days, but they must do more to ensure that Putin understands the costs of his doublespeak. Europe and its partners must make it clear that there will be no consideration of rescinding any sanctions until Ukraine regains control of its borders. Russia continues to deny international monitors the ability to monitor the joint border, lest it make Russian complicity in the conflict even more undeniable. Hopefully, Putin’s behavior at the Milan conference, which he clearly understood as a means to embarrass Europe, made clear his intentions to those European leaders sitting on the fence about the sanctions policy.
Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center