Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, conferred with the Ukrainian and Russian presidents in Kyiv and Moscow on February 14 and 15, respectively, turning these maiden visits into a shuttle-diplomacy effort. Far from even-handed, however, Scholz effectively sided with Russia against Ukraine (see EDM, February 15). German economic interests as well as imponderable idiosyncrasies inspire Berlin’s Russia-First approach not only with regard to Ukraine.
Scholz borrowed some of his tactics on this trip from French President Emmanuel Macron, who had undertaken a similar effort on February 7 and 8 in Moscow and Kyiv (see EDM, February 10). Germany carries considerably more weight than France does with the Kremlin (or with Kyiv for that matter), so Scholz’s endorsement of Russia’s positions against Ukraine’s matters correspondingly more to the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Scholz talked behind closed doors for three hours, compared with the six hours of the Putin-Macron talks, Scholz being no match to Macron for loquacity.
Overshadowing Scholz’s two-stop visit were massive Russian ground and naval forces seemingly poised to attack Ukraine. This demonstration of force intimidated not Ukraine but some of its uncertain Western partners. Most of them followed the United States stampeding out of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission (OSCE SMM), leaving the Donbas frontline unmonitored.
Scholz framed his Moscow visit as an effort to de-escalate the confrontation and “avoid war in Europe.” The political conditions for war avoidance and de-escalation—namely, Ukraine’s compliance with the Minsk “agreements”—became the central topic of Scholz’s talks with Putin. This topic, moreover, became commingled with that of keeping Ukraine out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), under a formula yet to be finessed, in line with Russia’s demands for security guarantees.
The vast agenda of Russian-German bilateral relations took up relatively little time in the Putin-Scholz concluding press conference (Die Welt, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, February 15–17). Instead, the third country Ukraine figured front and center as an object of the two leaders’ talks. The German side allowed this unapologetically: as newcomers to this process, Scholz and his advisors have not yet learned to insist on “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine,” regardless of whether this principle is honored or not.
Putin came out of the private talks into the joint news conference reaffirming his familiar position, namely: Ukraine refuses to fulfill its “obligations” under the Minsk “agreements.” Kyiv must adopt a constitutional law on the special status of the Donetsk-Luhansk territory, offer a general post-conflict amnesty, accept the holding of elections in that territory under a special law, and introduce the “Steinmeier Formula” (regarding those elections and the activation of the special status) into Ukraine’s legislation. All these steps must be agreed upon between Kyiv and the authorities of Donetsk and Luhansk, in line with the Minsk “agreements,” through direct dialogue. “These are the ways to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity by peaceful means,” Putin declared (Kremlin.ru, accessed February 16).
Scholz reported on his talks with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv the preceding day. In Scholz’s version, Zelenskyy “firmly promised” to him (Scholz) that Kyiv would soon present draft laws on: a special status for the Donetsk-Luhansk territory, a corresponding amendment to Ukraine’s constitution; preparations for holding local elections in that territory; and the Steinmeier Formula. According, again, to Scholz, President Zelenskyy agreed that Kyiv would present these draft laws in the Minsk Contact Group for discussion with the representatives of Donetsk and Luhansk. “This is good progress,” Scholz reported, since “this is what was agreed upon in the Minsk agreements.” Scholz “encouraged Zelenskyy to mandate his negotiators to behave constructively” in the Contact Group “in order for Ukraine, Russia, the OSCE, and the other participants [sic] to discuss” (Bundeskanzler.de, accessed February 16).
Zelenskyy had said nothing of the sort in his joint news conference with Scholz in Kyiv on February 14 (see EDM, February 15), nor since then. No indication exists in the public domain thus far that Zelenskyy had made such promises or that Ukrainian diplomats are moving in that direction. Those purported promises with unilateral concessions to Russia would signify the abandonment of Ukraine’s long-held positions.
Both Macron and Sholz had imputed those promises to Zelenskyy during their Kyiv visits, as a sort of report card for Putin (see EDM, February 10, 15); then Scholz went into greater detail during his Moscow visit. It might seem either that somebody is miscommunicating what Zelenskyy actually said behind closed doors, or somebody is breaching Zelenskyy’s confidence by unilaterally and selectively unveiling their diplomatic dialogue. In either case, the purpose is to pin Zelenskyy down and Ukraine with him in an untenable position.
Putin’s and Scholz’s positions are identical on all those points. Both leaders adhere to the letter of the Minsk “agreements” in content and procedure. Scholz deprecated “self-serving interpretations of those agreements,” apparently meaning Kyiv’s, since he just endorsed Moscow’s. Scholz did not call for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine’s territory, for the restoration of Ukrainian control on the Ukrainian-Russian border in that territory, nor for the disarmament of Donetsk-Luhansk forces. These are among Ukraine’s preconditions to accepting the holding of elections in Donetsk-Luhansk (Ukrainian consent is indispensable as long as Ukraine’s sovereignty is internationally recognized). Those preconditions are fully in line with international laws and norms, unlike the Minsk “agreements” (plus Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s Formula) breaching those laws and norms. Expatiating on conflict-resolution in Ukraine’s east, Scholz turned (as per the German official transcript) a blind eye to Russia’s seizure of Crimea.
Also on February 15, the Russian State Duma (lower chamber of parliament) adopted a resolution requesting President Putin to grant official recognition to the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.” Putin’s United Russia party voted overwhelmingly in favor (Interfax, February 15). Such a move would openly breach the Minsk “agreements” and allow Ukraine to escape from them; but this is only a hypothetical possibility for an indefinite future. Russia’s policy into the foreseeable future is to enforce the Minsk dispensation against Ukraine, particularly with the newly won German help. The Kremlin had obviously scheduled the Duma’s vote on the day of Scholz’s visit in order to make both Kyiv and Berlin nervous. Apparently oblivious to bluff behind the Duma’s vote, the inexperienced Scholz voiced his concern for the integrity of the Minsk “agreements” and redoubled Berlin’s newfound allegiance to them.