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Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to Germany: did he manage to win the extremely difficult negotiations?

Zelensky meets Merkel at briefing in Berlin, June 18, 2019
Reuters

Zelensky’s visit to Germany revealed interesting trends, which exist about Ukraine, and also confirmed the problems in relations between two countries.

On July 11-12, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky visited Germany. Perhaps it is one of two of the most important visits for him this year, together with the forthcoming visit to the USA in the second half of July.

Germany is our key partner in the European Union and one of the most important in the West. Many things depend on this country: external financial support from European funds, cooperation with the EU under the Association Agreement, future geo-energy projects, dynamics and legitimacy of the negotiations in the “Normandy format” and the Minsk Trilateral Contact Group, the intensity of political communication with Western Europe.

What is the principal difference between this visit and the previous ones, and why has it become important today?

The arrival of the US President Joe Biden to Europe in June laid the foundations for a new reality in international relations. Reactivating the union between the USA and Germany has become one of the priorities of Biden’s administration. They have made every effort to launch the process, overcoming Donald Trump’s negative heritage.

At the end of April, Germany and the USA reached the first compromise arrangements on the project “Nord Stream 2” – one of the main irritants of bilateral relations between the countries. Due to that, the USA did not impose sanctions on the management company Nord Stream 2 and its CEO Matthias Warnig. The USA have also frozen Trump’s decision to withdraw some American troops from Germany, and have even sent 500 more soldiers there. The climate Summit in the United States led to the resumption of extensive contacts between Washington and Berlin towards the climate change and protecting the environment. The United States has launched several projects aimed at establishing new next-generation technologies that should become competitive with the Chinese, and they cannot do without Germany in this area. Finally, the public rhetoric of the United States has also changed: it has become softer and warmer. On the eve of the G7 summit in Britain in the middle of June, Joseph Biden demonstratively made his Instagram video, in which he praised Angela Merkel and called her the European leader he “admires the most”. He stated on Twitter that relations with Germany “have never been so strong.”

Moreover, the “strategic dialogue” Biden started with Russia at the summit with Vladimir Putin on June 16 increased the strategic value of Germany for the United States even more. Taking the decision to begin a systemic and lasting confrontation with China, Biden’s administration aims to ensure at least the neutrality of the Russian Federation in this area and use Russia as a “joker” against the PRC. Germany is at the center of these maneuvers. Firstly, the FRG, as one of the most powerful country of the European Union, its economic giant, is necessary for the United States to develop an effective, well-coordinated and coherent strategy towards Russia. Secondly, without Germany’s participation in the anti-China coalition, the plans of Washington to restraint the PRC in Europe are condemned. Thirdly, German mediation efforts will be just right for the formation of “predictable and stable relations” with Russia, taking into account the deep involvement of Berlin in the political negotiations about Ukraine and Belarus, relationship with the Russian leadership and leverage over the countries of Eastern Europe that take much more radical anti-Russian positions in the EU.

Such international political situation creates a new reality for Ukraine and our political power in several fields at once, for example:

1. Donbas and Crimea. The rapprochement of the United States and Germany means that Washington will take into account the position of the European allies towards the paradigm of settlement of the conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. And this may mean a probable return to the sociopolitical mainstream of the old concepts and plans, attempts to promote which in Ukraine were 1-2 years ago: the “Steinmeier formula” and the “cluster plan”, which Germany and France supported. The Europeans made it clear that they will not lift the sanctions because of Crimea, but they do not want to pedal this issue too much. For its part, the US-China confrontation raises the stock of Germany and Russia in the American foreign policy strategies even more, which means that agreements between Washington, Berlin and Moscow will probably include some kind of compromise about Ukraine, which is a secondary factor on the global agenda for all of them.

2. “Nord Stream 2” and power industry. Biden’s attempts to re-establish lost relations with Berlin have already led to the fact that the issue of Nord Stream 2 has become a subject of bargaining between them, and a concession of Washington. The increasing value of Germany for the United States, and also the Americans’ wish to tear the Russian Federation away from China or prevent their extreme rapprochement, mean that issues such as Nord Stream 2 will be a bargaining chip in these negotiations. So, the issue of Nord Stream 2 gets even more out of control of Ukraine, and perhaps it will be resolved in favour of the interests of Germany, the Russian Federation and the United States. For Ukraine, it means that it is necessary to look for ways not to “stop the construction of the pipeline”, but how to get proper compensation and cover the losses from the appearance of Nord Stream 2 by creating other alternative fields of cooperation with Europe in the energy sector.

3. Pressure on China. For many years, Ukraine has been at a tipping point between the United States, on which it depends for financial and military support, security programs and support for internal reforms, and China, which remains Kyiv’s largest trade and economic partner at the moment. The intensification of the conflict between two important partners for Ukraine puts Kyiv in a situation of a difficult choice: either we are on the side of the United States and lose the Chinese market, export positions and billions of dollars from trade, as well as the perspective of cooperation with Beijing, or we are on the side of China, but then we will face the anger of Washington, political pressure will increase, including the pressure on the ruling elites dependent upon the West and Western banks. The option of balancing between the PRC and the United States is also possible, but it requires a great revision of foreign policy, its principles, tasks and goals, as well as the resource allocation, including personnel. Three options — three different policies. Ukraine has not made a choice yet, but by inertia it is inclined towards the first option.

4. Sanctions. The post-Trump German-American “Renaissance” and the dialogue between the Russian Federation and the USA, including on cyber security, toned down the position of the States on anti-Russian sanctions. Of course, no one will cancel them altogether in the near future, but the Europeans talk more openly about the necessity of cooperation and trade with the Russian Federation, despite the sanctions, and the United States refrains from bombing Moscow with new packages of sanctions, even after continuing incidents in the area of cyber security. For Ukraine, this means that the sanctions policy will be weakened and paused for a while. We already wrote about the sanctions against the Russian Federation at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future last year, their effectiveness and impact, where we showed that even then Ukraine had to determine how to use them correctly, because their effect is very controversial and not always strong.

5. Internal reforms. The US-Chinese confrontation forces the United States to speed up the formation of a global anti-Chinese coalition and building a united front to restrain China’s further expansion in Europe. It means that countries have to quickly determine what they want in this area, how they see their role and what they can offer the States. Ukraine has delayed the implementation of reforms that our Western partners demand from us for many years, and about which it became quite clear after Antony Blinken’s visit to Ukraine. The Biden’s administration does not have time to wait again or be satisfied with empty words: Ukraine either does what it is told, or offers an alternative, or does not, and falls out of the global strategy of the West, because an inefficient and not reformed country (according to the principles as they are seen in the West) cannot be a reliable and long-term partner.

6. International political positioning. All these global changes are drawing Ukraine into the determination of its functionality in the world, to the revision of the foreign policy. If Kyiv won’t be able to do this, Ukraine risks remaining on secondary roles in world processes, and in the long view, it will be marginalized to the status of a buffer state and a bargaining chip, if necessary.

Returning to the issue of Germany and Ukraine, our relations have not developed in the best way in recent months. They were characterized by tension, awkwardness and mistrust. Mostly, because of the changes in the global conjuncture mentioned above, to which people were hostile in Ukraine, not wanting to recognize the changes in international politics as systemic trends.

Since January 2021, Ukraine has markedly begun to bet on Washington in its foreign policy unambiguously, and often in contrast to the EU countries. As Europeans raise the issue of a dialogue with the Russian Federation more often, Ukraine is getting annoyed and playing the “Atlantic card”, contrasting the partnership with the United States and relations with Europe. This causes tension in relations between Ukraine and Berlin.

For example, Ukraine openly declares the intention to bring the American side into the negotiation formats on the Donbas, while the Germans and the French are skeptical and slightly jealous about this idea, not wanting to give the United States leadership in the field, which the EU considers as its own. In June, the Ukrainian Ambassador to the FRG boycotted commemorative events for the 80th anniversary of the Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR because the Germans chose to hold it in the German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst.

In the same month, the unexpected offer of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the French President Emmanuel Macron to resume the EU-Russia format caused criticism from official Kyiv. A month earlier, NSDC Secretary Danilov openly blamed Germany and France of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the Ukrainian Ambassador to Berlin threatened to restart the development of nuclear weapons, if the Europeans did not help us. And in the same month, in answer to a request to provide Ukraine with armament, the Germans blatantly refused.

Considering above, the main task for Volodymyr Zelensky during his trip to Germany was to suppress the negativity of the outgoing order, finally turn the page, take a fresh look at our relations, start a serious talk and form the new functionality of Ukraine in international politics for Western partners, in the present case for Germany and the entire European Union, especially on the eve of the autumn federal elections to the Bundestag.

Based on Zelensky’s visit to Berlin, I and my colleagues from the Institute for the Future have already managed to identify a number of key messages.

First, there have been no breakthroughs considering the settlement of the conflict in Donbas, but old concepts and ideas have returned to the agenda. The German Chancellor remembered the unfortunate “Steinmeier formula”, which they tried to implement in Ukrainian legislation in the day, which caused protests by the part of the population. And Zelensky mentioned the plan about “clusters”, stating that Ukraine supports it. As a matter of fact, both of these ideas are based on the same Minsk agreements, and both suggest holding local elections before the returning of the state border in Donbas to Ukraine’s control. In other words, these plans are not favourable to Ukraine, and the fulfillment of them may lead to an internal political crisis. The fact that these ideas have again been brought to the public indicates the desire of European partners (and possibly the United States) to try to achieve some “progress” in settlement of the conflict in the East of Ukraine one more time, as it is seen in the West.

Second, the political relations between Germany and Ukraine remain difficult, strained and lack initiative before the elections to the Bundestag. A significant compromise on the main issues was not reached, personal relations between Zelensky and Merkel do not seem to work out, and the parties have different views on Russia, Ukraine’s European integration, joining NATO, the global policy of the USA and the conflict in Donbas.

Third, the matter of military supplies from German to Ukraine is closed. The German leadership declines to discuss this, insisting that they will not provide armament to Ukraine in order not to discredit their status as mediators in the negotiations, not to provoke Russia and not to conflict with their principles of foreign policy. Even the meeting with the Minister of Defence of the FRG was canceled for no apparent reason.

Fourth, the positions of Germany and Ukraine concerning the “Nord Stream 2” remain unchanged. The Germans are determined to finish the construction of the pipeline and put it into operation. Ukraine’s arguments about the necessity to stop the project and about its threat to national security impressed no one in Berlin, but Germany is ready to discuss the guarantees for Ukraine about the volume of gas transit, even in a dialogue with the United States.

Fifth: the Ukrainian leadership starts to realize that the Nord Stream 2 will be completed and put into operation. It means that the key issue for Ukraine in this area will be only the price of launching the Nord Stream 2, what will we ask in exchange: monetary compensation, long-term additional transit guarantees after 2024, or some other promises?

Getting the money would be a complete defeat. Guarantees of further transit of some minimum volumes also will not cover the negative impact of the launch of Nord Stream 2 to the full extent. And the shift of the discussion about the project to the “Normandy format” and tying it with political issues on Donbas, as Volodymyr Zelensky suggested, is a “pig in a poke” at all, creating serious risks that in exchange for the launch of the pipeline, some mythical and unreliable promises will be sold to us within the scope of the implementation of peace initiatives in Donbas.

Zelensky’s visit did not bring any special breakthroughs, but it showed some disturbing developments that will grow around Ukraine in the near future, and especially in the autumn. The risks they carry are capable of turning things around in Ukraine if Kyiv does not have its own vision of the future, considering present international events. The Nord Stream 2 case shows that for the United States, relations with Germany are becoming highly important for their global policy, including the Chinese issue. Moreover, this is an example of the fact that political concessions and compromises in the EU-Russia-US triangle are possible.

The Biden-Putin summit additionally demonstrated the readiness of the United States to develop relations with the Russian Federation into a “controlled confrontation”, as I wrote last month, and here the United States will need Germany again. The ability to reach a compromise creates the same perspective for Ukraine, which is the subject of a discussion between Washington, Berlin, Paris and Moscow. And this means that in the near future they will try to find at least some way to either freeze the conflict for long again, or to reach a suitable compromise in favour of “progress”. That is where the “Steinmeier formula” and “cluster plans” comes from in the political discourse.

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