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Bombast, Distance and Distrust: Your Guide to Ukraine Talks

Bombast, Distance and Distrust: Your Guide to Ukraine Talks

Thursday, 10 February, 2022 - 05:45

The visuals on the split screen this week made a striking contrast. On one side, the leaders of Germany and the US sat in front of the fireplace of the Oval Office, their body language cordial and relaxed, their messages coordinated. Facing the press later, Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, switched spontaneously into redundant but frank English: “We will act together, and we will take all the necessary steps and all the necessary steps will be done by both of us together.”

The other side of my TV screen also showed a meeting of two leaders — French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The latter is the subject of all this crisis diplomacy as he masses troops around Ukraine.

Macron and Putin had already talked on the phone five times since December. Now they jaw-jawed for another six hours, facing each other across a long table in the sort of room you nowadays see only in the post-communist world — a space of bombast and cold lighting, designed to distance and intimidate people rather than connect them. The two men looked diminutive in it, their body language tense and shifty.

The three Western leaders in these two separate meetings are all working together to persuade Putin to lower the temperature. This is laudable. Macron subsequently visited Kyiv, and then met Scholz and Polish President Andrzej Duda in Berlin. Scholz in turn will visit Kyiv and then Moscow next week.

Jaw-jaw is better than war-war, as Winston Churchill allegedly said. And let nobody say today’s diplomats aren’t trying. What’s harder for the public to divine is what’s being said in these marathon meetings.

Is Putin negotiating in good faith? He denies that he intends to invade Ukraine. If he has no plans to do so, this diplomacy is all a show, staged for domestic propaganda to present him as the center of the world’s attention and to, perhaps, win concessions from Europe on issues that have long been an annoyance. If instead he has already decided to attack, without telling anybody yet, it’s also a show. Only if he’s still weighing which way to go can diplomacy accomplish anything.

Questions also surround Macron. In the past, he’s mused about “the brain death of NATO,” while talking up “European autonomy,” by which he apparently means a French-led European Union that acts independently of the US He’s also talked about offering Putin a nebulous sort of deal that might pry him out of the geopolitical embrace of China. A further consideration: he is running for re-election.

Before meeting Putin, Macron brainstormed about “Finlandization” as an option for Ukraine. That refers to Finland’s deal with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, in which it stayed nominally independent in return for non-alignment with any bloc — but in reality ceded parts of its autonomy to Moscow.

After their meeting, Putin mentioned that it was “too early to speak about” some ideas Macron had floated, which could nonetheless create “a foundation for our further steps.” Was that a reference to a Finlandization of Ukraine? If so, Macron would have breached Western unity and principle — the allies have so far insisted that no deals will be cut without the involvement and assent of smaller nations.

By contrast, Scholz cut a good figure. And he needed to. For weeks, he was criticized for trying to sit out the crisis. Germany was accused of being an unreliable ally, his own party — the Social Democrats — of appeasing Russia and being beholden to a Russo-German gas pipeline called Nord Stream 2. Scholz had to change that perception.

He did. Asked about Nord Stream 2, US President Joe Biden simply stated that, in case of an invasion, “we will bring an end to it.” Scholz didn’t mention the pipeline by name but immediately added that “we are absolutely united,” which left no doubt. If he doesn’t want to get too specific too early, he explained once again, it’s because it’s better to keep Putin guessing just how tough the West’s response will be. Scholz’s Germany, he implied, will be plenty tough.

For now, therefore, the West remains united. Good. Macron and others must now reaffirm the same message.

As long as you’re talking, you’re not shooting one another, a former German foreign minister once said. That may have been naive — history shows that both can be done at once. But for now, diplomacy is the only thing we have. Thank heavens all the major powers — including Germany — are fully invested in that effort.


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