Above Photo: Federal Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, President of Russia Vladimir Putin, President of France François Hollande at the Kremlin to discuss solutions to the situation in southeast Ukraine. Wikimedia Commons.
The U.S., having no need of or gift for statecraft, has long practiced what I’ve taken to calling the diplomacy of no diplomacy. You can’t expect much from bimbos such as Antony Blinken or Wendy Sherman, Blinken’s No. 2 at the State Department. All they can do is roar, even if they are mice next to any serious diplomat.
But have the European powers now followed along? I fear to ask because I fear the answer. But I must, given recent events.
Early last year, when Petro Poroshenko stated publicly that the post-coup regime in Kyiv had no intention of abiding by diplomatic commitments it made in 2014-15 to a peaceful settlement of the Ukraine crisis, a few eyebrows arched, but not over many. Who was the former Ukrainian president, anyway? I had him down from the first as a self-interested dummkopf who did what Washington told him to do and nothing more, no shred of statesmanship about him.
It was another matter when, in early December, Angela Merkel admitted in back-to-back interviews that the European powers were up to the same thing. The objective of diplomatic talks in late 2014 and early 2015, the former German chancellor told Der Spiegel and Die Zeit, was not, as they had pretended, a framework for a federalized Ukraine in the cause of a lasting peace between its hostile halves: It was to deceive the Russians to give Kyiv time to prepare for a military assault on the Russian-speaking provinces in the east, whose people had refused to accept the U.S.–orchestrated coup that brought compulsively Russophobic Nazi-inflected nationalists to power in February 2014.
Merkel’s revelations came as a shock, of course. But I contrived to mark down her comments as an inadvertent indiscretion in the autumn of a long-serving leader’s years. Merkel made her remarks more or less in passing. There was no boasting in them. She did not seem proud of her duplicity.
Now François Hollande weighs in. A few days before the year ended, the former French president gave a lengthy interview to The Kyiv Independent. In it he made the Franco–German position perfectly clear: Yes, Merkel and I lied to the Russians when we negotiated the Minsk I and Minsk II Protocols in September 2014 and February 2015. No, we never had any intention of making Kyiv observe them or otherwise enforcing them. It was a charade from the first and—the part of this interview that truly galls—Hollande advanced this as wise, sound statesmanship.
Let us count the betrayals we must assign to the hapless Hollande and the inconstant Merkel.
The betrayal of Russia and its president will go without saying. It is a matter of record that Vladimir Putin, who participated directly in the Minsk talks, worked long, long hours in the cause of a settlement that would leave Ukraine stable and unified, a freestanding post–Soviet republic on the Russian Federation’s southwestern order.
Here I will remind readers of the animosity Putin expressed in his New Year’s address, three days after Hollande described the Franco–German sting operation in detail:
The West lied to us about peace while preparing for aggression, and today, they no longer hesitate to openly admit it and to cynically use Ukraine and its people as a means to weaken and divide Russia.
This, a clear reference to the Merkel and Hollande interviews, leaves us with clear and obvious questions. Did Berlin and Paris give Moscow any alternative but to intervene in Ukraine militarily when they sabotaged peace negotiations? While Moscow remains open to talks to end the war, how seriously is it supposed to take any such prospect? Volodymyr Zelensky is forever slamming the door to negotiations with the Russians, but the Ukrainian president is late to the gate: The Germans and French got this done years ago.
To betray the diplomatic process as Germany and France have done is also to betray trust as a necessary condition of orderly state-to-state relations. Nations may not fully trust one another but must be able to trust the diplomatic process—to trust the word given in the process of a negotiation. In this way the core European powers have condemned all of us to an unstable, dangerous world—and so are guilty of betraying all of us—our security, our futures, our desire for a stable, peaceable world order.
There are, of course, the Ukrainians. The majority of them wanted a peace deal from the start. Poroshenko was roundly defeated in Ukraine’s 2019 elections because he failed to deliver one. You would never know this from the Western press, but Zelensky succeeded him with a 70–odd percent majority of the vote precisely because he promised to negotiate a settlement in direct talks with Putin.
Now the nation lies in ruins, its economy having cratered by 30 percent last year, 30 million of its people displaced, and its war dead to be counted in the tens of thousands. I see no argument against counting this a major consequence of the Franco–German design of deception.
I urge readers to peruse Hollande’s interview with The Kyiv Independent. The second-rate Socialist—and so much for France’s long and storied Socialist tradition—competes with any duplicitous American diplomat as measured by his lies, omissions, and upside-down logic.
By Hollande’s account, the intent to mislead the Russians dates to the D–Day celebrations of 2014, a few months after the coup in Kyiv and the start of the coup regime’s artillery attacks on civilian areas in the eastern provinces. In June of that year France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine gathered in Normandy to begin a negotiation process nominally intended to lead to a peace settlement and a stable national structure in Ukraine. This was named the Normandy Format.
This format produced the Minsk I Protocol the following September. When that collapsed in early 2015, Kyiv refusing to cease its shelling, the four nations convened again. This time, talks were based on a settlement plan Paris and Berlin developed jointly. Minsk II followed. This protocol included more than a ceasefire; it also provided for a restructuring of Ukraine such that the eastern provinces would enjoy that degree of autonomy deemed necessary to hold the nation together despite the marked differences between its Europe-tilted western region and its Russia-tilted east.
All terrific, on paper. All deception on the ground, Hollande now tells us: “Putin accepted the Normandy Format, which required him to report regularly on the progress that could be made in implementing the Minsk agreements.” As to what actually transpired, Hollande offers this, and it is here his accounting of events begins to turn on its head:
The Minsk agreements stopped the Russian offensive for a while. What was very important was to know how the West would use this respite to prevent any further Russian attempts.
To state the self-evident, NATO took this opportunity to begin training Ukrainian forces—this even as Putin took the terms of the Minsk accords seriously by Hollande’s own account. It is a matter of record that the offensive in the eastern provinces was Kyiv’s as it shelled its own citizens. The death toll reported by monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, tells the story of the next eight years: 14,000 civilians dead, more than 80 percent of them in the eastern provinces known as the Donbas.
The lies come thick and fast from there. Early in the exchange The Kyiv Independent asks, “Did you have the impression that Vladimir Putin would respect the Minsk agreements?” to which Hollande replies, “We couldn’t know that.”
Liar. Putin’s desire for a negotiated settlement was perfectly obvious from the D–Day meeting onward.
“He dreamt of a recreation of the Soviet Union,” Hollande says of the Russian leader. “Putin adopted an aggressive posture and waited to see what the West’s reaction would be.”
The former point is a common perversion of a remark of a sentimental sort that Putin made many years ago: Anyone who approves of the Soviet Union’s collapse has no heart, anyone who thinks it can be brought back to life has no brain. As to “Putin the aggressor,” whatever happened to Moscow’s decades-long efforts to negotiate a working post–Cold War order? Whatever happened to the decades of American subterfuge in Ukraine by means of various U.S.–sponsored “civil society groups”? Whatever happened to the February 2014 coup, an aggression if ever there was one?
Of these, Hollande has nothing to say. It goes on and on. “Moscow didn’t want peace.” “Mariupol was already in his [Putin’s] sights,” this a reference to the Ukrainian port that fell to Russian forces last spring. Nonsense and nonsense. None of this stands up to logical scrutiny or known facts.
And never mind that the subversion of the Normandy Format talks and the two Minsk accords led directly to the war that began a year ago next month. Europe’s duplicity has been a great success, Hollande wants us to know. “Ukraine has strengthened its military posture,” he asserts. “Indeed, the Ukrainian army was completely different from that of 2014. It was better trained and equipped. It is the merit of the Minsk agreements to have given the Ukrainian army this opportunity.”
The merits of the Minsk agreements: We must assume he means the merits of their subversion.
How, you ask, can Hollande count the underhanded strategy he pursued with Angela Merkel a success in view of how things have turned out? That is easy. The West went soft on Russia, so giving Putin the opening he was seeking. Consider this:
We have already seen the American withdrawal from the international scene in Syria with the “laissez faire” [the free pass] given to Putin regarding the support he gave Syrian dictator Bashar al–Assad.
Wow. I didn’t know the U.S. had free passes to give out in Syria—where its intervention was and remains illegal and where the Russians intervened against the Islamic State in September 2015 at the Assad government’s invitation.
How the French Socialists have fallen, I have to say.
Why did Hollande choose to make these weird remarks? This is an interesting question.
One clue may lie in his choice of The Kyiv Independent as the publication to grant this interview. The Kyiv Independent is not, to go straight to the point, independent. The Canadian government and the European Endowment for Democracy, the Continent’s version of the National Endowment for Democracy, have been among its supporters since its founding a year ago. It appears to be all mixed up with other NGOs of the anti–Russian sort. The Kyiv Independent, in other words, was dry ground for Hollande; it would ask all the right questions and none of the wrong ones. The interview was something of a staged vent, then.
It is inconceivable that Hollande spoke without Merkel’s knowledge. Maybe he was covering for what the two of them considered the former chancellor ’s mistake when she admitted her dishonesty and Hollande’s to Der Spiegel and Die Zeit. Hard to say.
Whatever Hollande’s specific motivation, it seems more obvious that his intent was to legitimize deception as a feature of 21st century statecraft. Greater cynicism knoweth no man.
He and Merkel have taken a grave step in the wrong direction these past nine years. It is many decades since we’ve seen any serious diplomacy from the Americans. It is another matter for the Europeans to abandon their long, admittedly pockmarked diplomatic traditions. Ever fewer nations take U.S. diplomats seriously anymore, knowing their word is simply no good. Will this now extend to the West altogether, the non–West seeing little point talking to it?
The duplicity with which France and Germany conducted the Minsk negotiations over some years now takes its place in the long story of the West’s dishonesty in its dealings with Russia since James Baker, George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, promised Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1990—in conversation, not in writing—that NATO would not expand eastward from Germany.
In effect, Hollande has just confirmed that lying to Moscow remains perfectly acceptable among the major Western powers. This has never led the world anywhere good and never will.