Gabriel on the Hook with Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a fish he caught during the hunting and fishing trip which took place on August 1-3 in the republic of Tyva in southern Siberia
Mr. Putin has bigger fish to fry. Among others, the German foreign minister. Source: Reuters

Vladimir Putin spent his summer vacation engaged in his favorite hobby, fishing, often posing for photos with his catch. However, anyone who has ever cast a line knows that the true allure of angling does not lie in hunting for trophies. Angling is a contemplative sport more than anything else.

But I digress. The tranquil days on remote Siberian lakes seem to have done the Russian president good. He spent time thinking about himself and the world, and he came to a remarkable conclusion: He wants to correct his thuggish image and to find a way out of international isolation. Mr. Putin even came up with an idea that he hopes will help him reach that lofty goal: a peace plan for Ukraine.

Many in Germany have been waiting for this kind of signal from President Putin. One German, in particular, hasn’t lost that opportunity to praise Russia for its supposed change of course. But he is someone who should know better: Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. The Social Democrat believes he sees a “real departure from previous positions.” But details of Mr. Putin’s plan clearly show that it is less intended to achieve peace than to prolong the conflict and secure Russian interests.

The Russian plan only freezes the conflict instead of solving it, which means that it can be thawed again at any time.

Moscow wants to submit a resolution at the United Nations Security Council. Mr. Putin has already outlined the draft. He envisions the deployment of UN peacekeepers to the Donbass, the border region in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian army for the last three-and-a-half years, and have repeatedly violated a 2015 cease-fire. According to the Russian plan, the UN mission would join observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) currently on the ground to supervise the line of demarcation and prevent fighting.

This may sound like progress. But it only freezes the conflict instead of solving it, which means that it can be thawed again at any time. All it would take is a detachment from the Kremlin. It leaves Ukraine liable to blackmail, and the connection to the West that the majority of Ukrainians favor would become an even more distant prospect. This is why the government in Kiev has vehemently rejected President Putin’s initiative.

But Mr. Gabriel believes he has discerned a “shift in Russian thinking” that should not be “recklessly” put at risk. He even holds out the prospect of lifting the sanctions the West has imposed on Russia because of its aggression against Ukraine. Mr. Putin has thrown out the bait, and Mr. Gabriel has bitten. The Russian leader has probably never been closer to his goal of breaking through the Europeans’ unified front on sanctions.

The supposedly new and improved Mr. Putin is just as cunning as the old one. He knows how enticing a UN peacekeeping mission sounds to German ears. He knows that the sanctions are hurting German exporters. And he also knows that the conflict in Ukraine raises the fear among many Germans of a confrontation between Russia and NATO – a fear that he is deliberately fueling with Moscow’s massive Zapad military exercise on the Polish border. (Zapad is Russian for West.)

Negotiations are alright, but not on the Kremlin's terms.

The question is: Why is Mr. Gabriel so willing to entertain the Kremlin’s poisoned offer to negotiate? Out of gullibility? The foreign minister is far too experienced a statesman for that. The answer has to do with the logic of Germany’s upcoming parliamentary election and how badly his party, the Social Democrats, need to burnish their image. A politician who promotes rapprochement is likely to score points with voters, not just on the left but well into the middle class.

To avoid any misunderstanding: Signals of a willingness to talk are highly welcome, and a true peace initiative from Moscow would be absolutely desirable. The situation in eastern Ukraine is at an impasse, and there is an acute humanitarian emergency that will only get worse in the winter. UN peacekeepers are the right idea in principle, but their deployment only makes sense with the right mission statement. It is crucial that the peacekeepers enjoy freedom of movement and are also allowed to monitor the border with Russia, through which the separatists obtain their weapons.

Of course, the Putin plan anticipates nothing of the sort. The UN peacekeepers’ range of action would be limited along the front, so that their mission would be to preserve the geopolitical status quo. Russia has experience with covert occupations. Berlin should heed the cautionary tales of Moscow-backed puppet governments in breakaway provinces of Georgia and Moldova. So it all boils down to this: Negotiations are alright, but not on the Kremlin’s terms.

Germany already arouses the suspicions of other European Union countries with its energy policy fixated on Russia. Mr. Gabriel’s concept of unilateral détente threatens to increase those suspicions. This shouldn’t be the intention of a German foreign minister – unless the election is more important to him.


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