The standoff between Ukraine and Russia continues with no signs of any withdrawal of Russians troops from the border and the US warning for an invasion as a matter of days.
In fact, tensions have escalated in the so-called people’s republics in eastern Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk held by pro-Russian separatists, where shelling has claimed Ukrainian victims. For Ukraine, they are temporarily occupied territory and the shelling a provocation which it does not want to respond to.
Against all odds and despite advice not to leave his country in this tense situation, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky attended the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, where he appealed passionately for support to Ukraine. The current military threat against Ukraine is a threat against the whole security framework in Europe after WWII, he warned.
While the old security arrangements are failing Ukraine, he repeated previous appeals for new security guarantees to Ukraine and a diplomatic solution of the conflict with Russia. Instead, he has been met by silence. He was not even sure that he will be able to do it much longer. Whatever happens, “we are going to defend our country with or without the support of our partners,” he said.
He underlined that Ukraine is committed to the Minsk protocol, to a full cease-fire and to the unblocking of the implementation of the agreement. It was signed by Ukraine, Russia and OSCE in 2014 and renewed in 2015, with mediation by France and Germany, and requires Ukraine and Russia to take certain steps to deescalate the crisis and normalise the situation in the outbreak regions.
As regards membership in the EU, Europe should signal its positive attitude to Ukrainian membership. He asked also for an open door to NATO or at least open answers about possible membership in the future but was less clear on that point.
In the following interview by journalist Christiane Amanpour, the Ukrainian president explained why he has remained so calm despite warnings about imminent war. “Any provocation is dangerous and we need to stay calm. I trust more our own intelligence.”
How can you live in a country if you say that war will erupt any day? he asked rhetorically. What will then happen to the economy? “We aren’t prepared to put ourselves in ‘coffins’ waiting for an invasion.”
In a declaration on Saturday, EU High Representative Josep Borrell condemned the “use of heavy weaponry and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, which constitute a clear violation of the Minsk agreements and international humanitarian law”. He commended Ukraine’s posture of restraint in the face of continued provocations and efforts at destabilisation.
He also warned about “any further military aggression by Russia against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe costs in response, including restrictive measures (= sanctions) coordinated with partners”. The US have also warned about massive sanctions against Russia, its oligarchs and its economy. Until now, however, both the EU and the US have declined to disclose which sanctions they have in mind.
The West is afraid that imposing sanctions already now might provoke Russia or close the door for diplomacy. The extent and type of sanctions might also depend on what action Russia takes – a full scale invasion, annexation of the breakaway regions or a kind of hybrid war to destabilize Ukraine and ruin its economy.
The Ukrainian President does not agree. “We don’t need sanctions after the war has started, then it’s too late,” he said in the interview. “If Russia would withdraw its 150,000 strong troops around our borders, there will be no need for sanctions.“
He asked for the West to announce already now what sanctions it plans to impose on Russia in case it invades Ukraine. According to EU foreign policy chief Borrell, a package of sanctions that would be “prohibitively expensive for Russia and for its oligarchs”, has already been prepared.
The German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz said at the Munich conference that NATO membership for Ukraine – the pretext or reason given by Russia for massing its troops along the border – is not on the agenda and will not be for a long time. Zelensky explained that there is no consensus about it in Ukraine and that anyway it is far way if at all feasible. In the meantime, until a peaceful solution is found, Ukraine needs some form of security guarantees.
What is your interpretation of the intentions of Russian president Putin?
“I don’t know what he wants,” Zelensky replied. “That’s why I propose to meet.”
Nobody seems to know President Putin’s intentions. Until now, besides some telephone calls, meetings between Putin and Macron respectively Scholtz, and the exchange of letters between Russia and the US respectively the EU and its member states, no real negotiations have taken place.
In a speech last week at the European Parliament, Borrell responded to criticism against the alleged passive role of EU diplomacy and the lack of European action. The perhaps most important achievement has been unity among all EU member states in support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders. Even Russia which tried to divide the EU seems to have been surprised by EU’s united front.
“But what is clear is that we have to continue offering both things at the same time: the will to negotiate, to be ready to participate in talks – because, yes, Russia has also security concerns that have to be taken into consideration - and on the other hand, to prepare our capacity to respond, our dissuasion tools, sanctions.” Until now, Borrell admitted, the EU has not been negotiating with Russia.
“Most of all, we are ready to continue negotiations, talks, in order to look for a diplomatic solution to the worst crisis that Europe is living since the end of the Cold War.”
He underlined that Ukraine is not a military threat to Russia. The threat to Russia is rather political. “If Ukraine builds a vibrant democracy and goes into a prosperous economy, then it will be an example”. The current crisis cannot be reduced to a question about NATO expansion. “The real fight is between two different political and economic systems”.
The Brussels Times