Europe’s resolve against Putin risks crumbling at the first hurdle

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 5 December 2022. © Richard Kemp

If you hold out an olive branch to a bear it will take your arm off. Winter has barely begun and there are already worrying signs that major European countries – and the EU – are weakening their stance on Ukraine and playing into Russian hands.

During his state visit last week to the United States, French president Emmanuel Macron told reporters that Europe should prepare a new security architecture taking into account Russian concerns about Nato’s expansion of its borders, preparing to provide guarantees if Russian president Vladimir Putin agrees to negotiations on ending the war.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz, too, spoke of welcoming Russia back into the fold after the conflict, and on Friday was on the phone with Putin for an hour.

Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Ursula von der Leyen tweeted a video claiming 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers had died or been injured since the invasion began, later doctoring it to remove reference to casualties after a strong backlash from Kyiv. Posting it in the first place suggests she was trying to signal the true cost of the war in order to promote dialogue. Parroting the Kremlin’s casualty estimates only helps Russia – Putin’s bombardment of Ukrainian energy infrastructure in recent weeks has partly been to create a humanitarian disaster to make European knees tremble and force a new wave of refugees into the West.

The EU’s answer to that should not be panicky talk of concessions, but immediate strengthening of Ukrainian air defences; sending more generators, fuel and supplies to get battered Ukrainian cities back on their feet.

It is true to say that Putin isn’t going to withdraw from Ukraine any time soon and Zelensky isn’t going to capitulate. Short of Kyiv pushing Russian troops out by military force, this war will only end with some form of negotiated settlement. But – crucially – it is essential that such a peace is on Ukraine’s terms.

As we have learnt, the kind of signals now coming out of France and Germany, suggesting weakness rather than strength, is no way to deal with Russia. Moscow’s response to these ill-advised overtures reveals an intention to exploit talk of negotiations by luring European leaders to agree preliminary concessions while making none. In his call with Scholz, Putin said weapons supply and financial aid to Ukraine led to Kyiv’s ‘outright rejection’ of the very idea of talks and urged him to change Germany’s position. The day before, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told a press conference that negotiations would be possible if Nato reverses its stance on former Soviet countries, including removing weapons and repudiating potential membership for Georgia and Ukraine. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov went on to stress that any negotiations would be ‘complicated’ by Western refusal to recognise the Ukrainian territories it illegally annexed in September.

All very predictable. Rather than Scholz’s conciliatory approach in the face of mass killing and destruction, any talk about Russia returning to the fold should be stressing the high price it will need to pay to redress the untold harm it has done and continues to do. And Macron would do better to demand Russian security guarantees to Ukraine and the rest of Europe instead of suggesting Nato might be willing to reward Putin’s aggression by acceding to Moscow’s diktats on the alliance’s legitimate defensive policies in Eastern Europe. In other words, the exact opposite of what certain Western European leaders seem to be proposing.

Right now, with Russia on the back foot, and Kyiv preparing for a renewed offensive as the ground freezes over, the West should be showing its teeth, doubling down on military and financial support for Ukraine and not even picking up the phone to Putin.

As James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, recognised in an interview with the Telegraph on Saturday, if Putin seeks any kind of negotiation now it will not be in good faith but to buy time to build up his forces and send ammunition forward.

After a shaky start, President Biden now seems to have hardened to this reality, saying no negotiations or talks until Russia has left Ukraine. That has been Britain’s position since the war began. It is vital we, and Europe, continue to hold the line.

Image: Social distancing – Olaf Scholz and Volodymyr Zelensky (Source: Wikimedia Commons)