French, German Leaders Give Putin Way Out in Ukraine

For the European powers, Ukrainian pride is a price worth paying to keep Russian aggression at bay.

Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and François Hollande of France meet in Paris, October 2
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and François Hollande of France meet in Paris, October 2 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

French and German leaders compelled Ukraine on Friday to hold elections in its eastern border regions that are controlled by Russian-backed separatists, potentially giving President Vladimir Putin a way out of a conflict that has triggered the worst crisis in East-West relations since the end of the Cold War.

The agreement, brokered by French president François Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel, comes in spite of previous insistences from Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko that Russia ought to withdraw its support from the separatists first before local elections could be called.

After a one-day summit between the four leaders in Paris, Poroshenko told reporters he felt “cautious optimism” about the deal. But Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky points out that the Ukrainian president made significant concessions.

First, he is to consult with Russia on a special election law for Donetsk and Luhansk, the two rebel regions in the Donbas, and then try to get a hostile Kiev parliament to enact them.

Poroshenko has had trouble getting the legislature even to approve a tame constitutional amendment allowing for a special status of the rebel-held regions; riots broke out outside the parliament building during the vote and police suffered casualties. Trying to sell election rules favorable to Moscow might mean the breakup of Ukraine’s ruling coalition and perhaps snap elections likely to produce a parliament less favorable to Poroshenko.

Second, Poroshenko would need to amnesty the separatist leaders so they can run in local elections — another tall order for the Ukrainian nationalists in the Kiev government.

Only after the elections are held would Ukraine regain control of its border with Russia. Hollande admitted that it is unlikely to happen this year already.

The agreement puts the ball in Kiev’s court and would seem to give Putin a win either way. If separatists sympathetic to him win the elections in the Donbas, the Russian leader would retain a foothold in the former Soviet republic. If, on the other hand, Poroshenko doesn’t keep up his end of the bargain, a “frozen conflict” on Russia’s frontier would still likely prevent Ukraine from joining Western institutions like the European Union and NATO — which is why Russia propped up the separatist insurgency in the Donbas in the first place.

Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor and Wikistrat analyst, argues at his blog that this may be the best possible deal that can be done at the moment. Short of reconquering the Donbas — which Ukraine has failed to do in the last year — leaders in Kiev must recognize that the region will be dominated, at least for one political generation, by local oligarchs and the remnants of local strongmen, he writes.

But Galeotti also cautions that this arrangement may prove untenable in the long term. Regaining control of the border, ejecting Russian forces and reestablishing Kiev’s authority in the rebel provinces are all prerequisites for rebuilding the Ukrainian nation.

For France and Germany, which have imposed economic sanctions on Russia for its military adventurism in Ukraine, the priority is not Ukrainian nationbuilding. It is to walk Europe back from the brink of a standoff with Russia. If the price is Ukraine’s pride, they will pay it.

Putin can neither seize the Donbas outright without potentially losing control of the situation nor can he afford to pull out without having something to show for it. He has staked his foreign policy on protecting the interests of “brotherly” Russian peoples abroad, like the inhabitants of the Donbas. The Paris agreement could give him a way out.