One effect of, if not a rationale for, Putin’s Syria intervention is to distract from Ukraine. The Paris summit on Friday was overshadowed by images of Russian fighter jets over Syria. Indeed, Russia appears satisfied with its accomplishments in Ukraine and supports the current ceasefire, no doubt in part because the Kremlin hopes it will encourage the Europeans to lift sanctions on beleaguered Russian businesses. On Friday, it looked like Putin’s strategy might be working, as European leaders signaled they might review sanctions this year.
Indeed, the Paris summit appears to have gone even better for Putin than many have realized. An eye-opening account of the meeting from Leonid Bershidsky in Bloomberg View reveals that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande were hardly supportive of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko:
French diplomat Pierre Morel, who has been in close contact with Moscow and the Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, prepared a plan for the Paris meeting of the four leaders to approve. According to Morel’s proposal, Ukraine would need to pass a special law setting out rules for the local elections in the rebel-held areas of Ukraine. That was a cunning way to defuse a time bomb planted under the Minsk cease-fire deal reached last February. Back then, Russia and its proxies agreed to an election under Ukrainian law by the end of the year, but they were clearly not prepared to hold it under the current legislation, which doesn’t differentiate the rebel areas from all the others in Ukraine. They were threatening to hold their own polls in mid-October, something that might cause the war to reignite.
Poroshenko, however, swept the French diplomat’s suggestion aside as “Mr. Morel’s personal opinion.” He was going into the meeting to demand Russia abide by the Minsk ceasefire, cancel what he called “fake elections” and return control of Ukraine’s eastern border to Kiev by the end of the year.
[Poroshenko] underestimated the determination of France and Germany to get the Ukrainian matter out of the way in the most efficient manner possible. After five hours of talks in the Elysee Palace, the Morel plan was imposed on Ukraine in a form more beneficial to Putin. First, Ukraine must design the special election law in consultation with Moscow and the separatists. Then, it will have to pass it and amnesty the separatist leaders so they can run for local legislatures. In 80 days’ time, after the passage of the law, the election should be held. Then, if international observers declare it acceptable, Ukraine is supposed to regain control of its border with Russia. Hollande told reporters after the talks that wasn’t likely to happen this year, because of the need to draft the legislation and properly prepare the election.
This is a slap in Poroshenko’s face. It’s almost politically impossible for him to push a Moscow-approved election bill through Ukraine’s parliament. Poroshenko has had trouble getting the legislature even to approve a tame constitutional amendment allowing for a special status of the rebel-held regions; riots broke out outside the parliament building during the vote and police suffered casualties. Trying to sell election rules favorable to Moscow might mean the breakup of Ukraine’s ruling coalition and perhaps snap elections likely to produce a parliament less favorable to Poroshenko.
It seems pretty clear that Europeans just want Ukraine to get off their radar as much as possible, and are perfectly satisfied with a settlement that leaves Russia able to create chaos for Kiev whenever it wants. Score one for Putin, then. It could not come at a better time, freeing Moscow to redirect resources to in Syria.
Pity, really. More savvy statesmen might press their advantage in Ukraine now that Putin’s occupied elsewhere.