PARIS/BERLIN/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Is it better to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his invasion of Ukraine or is he impeached? Should Kyiv make concessions to end the war, or would that embolden the Kremlin? Are the tougher sanctions on Russia worth the collateral damage?
These are some of the questions testing the international coalition that quickly rallied around Ukraine in the days following the Russian invasion, but, after three months of war, has become tense, officials and diplomats told Reuters.
As Western governments grapple with soaring inflation and energy costs, countries including Italy and Hungary have called for a quick ceasefire. That could pave the way for the reduction of sanctions and an end to the blockade of Ukrainian ports that has exacerbated the food security crisis of the world’s poorest countries.
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However, Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states warn not to trust Russia and say a ceasefire will enable it to consolidate its regional victories, regroup and launch more attacks along the line.
A senior Ukrainian official told Reuters that the Russians “have been repeating the narrative that this will be an exhausting war, and we have to sit around the table and seek consensus.”
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said he wants to “weak” Russia and has called on President Joe Biden to put Putin on trial for war crimes. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Kyiv should not be too armed to accept a bad peace deal and that Ukraine “must win”. Read more
Germany and France remained more opaque, vowing to prevent Putin from winning rather than defeating him, while simultaneously supporting tough new sanctions.
“The question is will we go back to the Cold War or not. That is the difference between us, Biden and Johnson,” an ally of French President Emmanuel Macron told Reuters.
Russia launched what it called a “special operation” in Ukraine in February, saying it was necessary to rid the country of dangerous nationalists and undermine Ukraine’s military capabilities – goals that the West denounced as a baseless excuse.
Moscow has since argued that military support from Washington and its allies is delaying the war and deterring Ukraine from peace talks. In March, the Kremlin demanded that Ukraine halt military action, change its constitution to enshrine neutrality, recognize Crimea as Russian, and recognize eastern regions controlled by separatists as independent states as a condition for peace.
Ukrainian and French sources and officials in other countries consulted by Reuters for this story requested anonymity in order to speak freely about sensitive diplomatic and security policies.
Divisions could become more pronounced as sanctions and war impact the global economy, threatening domestic backlash and playing into Putin’s favour.
“It was clear from the start that it was going to get more and more difficult with time – war fatigue is coming,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said in an interview with CNN.
“There may be a difference between those countries that have much better neighbors than us, and those with different histories like us, the Baltic states, and Poland.”
Dealing with Mr. Putin
Macron warned that any peace should not “humiliate” Russia as it did with Germany in 1918.
He, like German Chancellor Olaf Schulz, has kept channels of communication with the Kremlin open, sparking panic in the most hard-line countries. The Polish president compared the calls to talking with Adolf Hitler during World War II. Read more
“We will have to deal with Mr. Putin at some point, unless there is a palace coup. Even more so because this war should be as short as possible,” said Macron’s ally.
Schulz said his calls and Macron’s calls with Putin were used to deliver firm and clear messages, and stressed that sanctions against Russia would not end unless Putin withdraws his forces and agrees to a peace deal accepted by Kyiv.
But a member of Schultz’s team told Reuters that Macron’s wording was “unfortunate”. Some French diplomats also privately expressed reservations about Macron’s position, saying he risks isolating Ukraine and its eastern European allies.
While Ukraine is grateful for the West’s support, it has been alarmed by suggestions that it should cede territory as part of a ceasefire agreement and has at times questioned whether its allies are properly united against Russia.
Macron’s warning not to humiliate Russia prompted Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba to warn that France was only humiliating itself, and that Kyiv’s relations with Schulze were frosty. Read more
“We don’t have Churchill all over the EU. We have no illusions about that,” the senior Ukrainian official said, referring to Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
“There is no spirit of compromise with Putin or Russia in what the president says,” a French presidential official said. The official said France wanted a victory for Ukraine and the restoration of Ukrainian territory, and that the dialogue with Putin “was not to make concessions but to say things as we see them.”
A US administration official said Washington had been more outspoken in its skepticism about Russia’s good faith behavior, but denied there was a “strategic difference” between allies.
A State Department spokesman told Reuters that the United States, working with its allies, “has provided” Ukraine – with sanctions, arms transfers, and other measures – despite holdouts since before the invasion, casting doubt on the unity of the alliance. The goal is to put Ukraine in a strong negotiating position, the spokesman said.
Referring to Austin’s comments, the first official said Washington had no intention of changing the Russian leadership but wanted to see the country so weakened that it could never carry out such an attack on Ukraine again.
“Everyone focused on the first part of what Austin said, not the second part. We want to see Russia so weak that it can’t do something like that again,” the official said.
A German government source said Austin’s goal to weaken Russia was problematic. The source said it was unfortunate that German Foreign Minister Annalena Barbock, of Schulz’s coalition partner, the Greens, had endorsed this goal, as it complicated the question of when sanctions could be lifted, regardless of whether Ukraine had agreed to a peace deal. .
German government sources also said they were concerned that some in the West might incite Ukraine to pursue unrealistic military goals, including the recapture of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, which could prolong the conflict.
Barbuk has said publicly that the sanctions should remain in place until Russian forces withdraw from Crimea.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany has repeatedly criticized Germany for its failure to send heavy weapons to Ukraine, even though Berlin has vigorously defended its record of support. Read more
Mikhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, noted Ukraine’s frustration:
“Russia must not win, but we will not provide heavy weapons – it may offend Russia. Putin must lose but let’s not impose new sanctions. Millions will starve, but we are not ready for military convoys loaded with grain,” he wrote on Twitter. May 31.
“High prices are not the worst that awaits a democratic world with this policy,” he said.
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(Reporting by John Irish and Michelle Rose in Paris, Humira Pamuk and Andrea Shallal in Washington, Andreas Renk and Sarah Marsh in Berlin, Elizabeth Piper in London; Writing by Mathias Williams; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel
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