July 16, 2021

Anxious days of reckoning for Ukraine as Washington and Berlin call the shots


During the final month before Ukraine will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its independence, the country is facing heightened anxiety and uncertainty in the external sphere.

Somehow unexpectedly, Kyiv finds itself hostage to whatever compromises and arrangements will be worked out in the interim between Washington and Berlin. Although it has sought to make its concerns and position known, and thereby to influence the outcome of those negotiations, Ukraine’s representatives have been reduced to waiting and hoping that those arrangements fall in their favor.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelens­kyy had what seemed to be a disappointing working visit to Berlin on July 12. It took place soon after German Chancelor Angela Merkel and her French counterpart, President Emmanuel Macron, had been overruled by other European Union leaders after abruptly calling for a direct EU-Russia summit.
Mr. Zelenskyy’s meetings in Berlin did not produce the results he wanted. In some respects, it might have even been a setback for Ukraine.

Ms. Merkel acted as if her meeting with the Ukrainian president was pro forma, merely for the record as it were, on the eve of her departure to Washington to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden on July 15.

With the new Biden administration not as forthcoming in following through on pre-election statements of enhanced support for Ukraine, Kyiv has been left somewhat in the dark, if not out in the cold, given the U.S.-German issues at stake that transcend merely Ukrainian concerns.

The most contentious issue has been the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which, to the dismay of Kyiv, the Biden administration has softened its stance on purportedly in order to ensure a renewed robust U.S.-German partnership.

Talk of Ukraine’s interests not being ignored has been emanating from both Berlin and Washington, fueling speculation that compensation of some sort will be offered to Kyiv.

Ukraine, which is dependent on the support of both the U.S. and Germany, is naturally concerned that no deals be made behind its back. It very much needs U.S. support but cannot afford to alienate Germany, a key European state, that has assumed an ambivalent role toward Presi­dent Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The key concern at the heart of the matter, as Mr. Zelenskyy put it at his joint press conference with Ms. Merkel, and around which everything else revolves, is Ukraine’s security. Be it the economic and geo-strategic danger posed by the notorious German-Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which was mentioned directly by Mr. Zelenskyy, or the failure of Ukraine’s “partners” in the Normandy Four negotiations, Germany and France, Ukraine needs help in its effort to get Russia to end its aggression in eastern Ukraine, which the Ukrainian president mentioned very delicately.

There were two issues which Mr. Zelenskyy chose not to bring up in public, but which have implicitly cast a shadow over Kyiv’s relations with Berlin. They are Germany’s enduring opposition to Ukraine becoming a member of NATO and its refusal to sell defensive weapons to Ukraine, a country resisting Russian aggression and one that sees itself as part of Europe.

At their press conference in Berlin, Ms. Merkel, who in a few weeks will leave office, seemed tired and unenthusiastic. She was superficial and evasive in her opening statement, referring to “separatists” in occupied areas of Ukraine without naming Russia as the aggressor; she gave no answer on the question of why Berlin and Paris have not succeeded as mediators in the Normandy format in obtaining any tangible results; she also made no mention of her position on Ukraine’s quest to join NATO and the European Union, nor did she touch on Ukraine’s appeals to obtain weapons from Germany.

Instead, the German leader tried to switch the onus to Ukraine, not only to the need for better progress in her view with regard to reforms in Ukraine – this has become the major refrain in recent months from all of Ukraine’s hesitant partners – but also, unexpectedly, she seemed to backtrack on where the Normandy Four process, if it can be called that, stands. That process appears totally stalled.

If at the last Normandy Four summit in Paris in December 2019 Ms. Merkel had appeared willing to acknowledge that some of the terms of the Minsk accords of 2013-2014 to end the Russo-Ukrainian war in eastern Ukraine needed to be reviewed, she now urged Ukraine to implement them, implicitly on Russia’s term. She even revived the discredited “Steinmeier formula” advanced by the German president in 2016, which Kyiv argues is unacceptable because it puts political demands advanced by Russia over the basic security concerns that predominate for Ukraine.

Mr. Zelenskyy retained his composure and politely stressed that the issue of Ukraine’s security is at stake and that there is no more time to be lost. He added that Ukraine is in danger and wants “concrete details,” not declaratory assurances, and that it is Russia which seems disinterested in ending the war.

He reiterated Ukraine’s opposition to Nord Stream 2 and its support for the engagement of the U.S. in the Normandy Four format, or in other peace negotiations with Russia.
On returning home without any concrete security assurances, the Ukrainian leader sought to put on a brave face.

“I am glad that we managed to have a common understanding after the meeting that I came to address security issues. Every issue, starting with Donbas and ending with the issue of Nord Stream 2, is a part of maintaining security in Europe, and for us, first of all, it is security in Ukraine,” Mr. Zelenskyy told journalists.

Yet even as Kyiv switched its gaze hopefully toward Washington to see what the Biden-Merkel summit will produce, France’s ambassador in Kyiv, Etienne de Poncins, gave Ukraine even more to think about. He told the Kyiv Post quite bluntly on July 15 that there is still no consensus among NATO members about a Member­ship Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine and that it should continue to focus on internal reforms which might eventually facilitate the process.

“Let’s do our homework and not open up a perspective that is not realistic yet,” Mr. de Poncins said.

So, suddenly, from Kyiv’s perspective, things don’t look so bright. NATO and EU membership have been deferred indefinitely, the Nord Stream 2 project has not stopped and Washington, Berlin and Paris must first work out the terms of their own interaction before responding to Ukraine’s predicament.

Clearly concerned, Mr. Zelenskyy published an appeal to Mr. Biden and Ms. Merkel just before their scheduled talks. He reminded them that the outcome “could change the future of Europe.”

He summarized the essence of Ukraine’s position with poignant words.
“Values, principles and security cannot be exchanged for economic interests. I believe that our partners, the United States and Germany, will jointly oppose the aggressor, not encourage him,” Mr. Zelenskyy said, adding, “no decision about Ukraine without Ukraine.”

We await further clarification on what to expect after the meeting of U.S. and German leaders and the forthcoming visit of Mr. Zelenskyy to Washington, which is expected shortly.

What emerges will undoubtedly determine the mood in Kyiv on August 24 when Ukraine celebrates its 30th anniversary of independence, its European self-identification and its resistance to various fronts of Russian bullying and aggression.