On December 9, Ukraine’s new President Volodomyr Zelensky met face to face in Paris with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He retained his dignity and ceded nothing—quite an accomplishment, given the pressures and competing interests bearing down on him and his hapless and struggling nation. After long meetings, the perpetrator and the victim only agreed to swap prisoners, impose ceasefires in certain areas, and meet again in April. Zelensky later described the outcome as a “draw,” a success against his nemesis.
Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany met as members of the so-called Normandy Format, which aims to resolve a war that began after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. Initially, talks involved Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and the European Union in Geneva in 2014, under the auspices of the United Nations. But these failed and Putin rejected out of hand participation by the two power blocs. He then cherry picked France and Germany instead.
The leaders deliberated in the Élysée Palace for eight hours, punctuated by an undoubtedly splendid dinner. That day, three Ukrainian soldiers died, bringing military deaths to about 4,100, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. To date, Russia’s predation has resulted in 14,000 deaths, the displacement of 1.5 million Ukrainians, the decimation of Ukraine’s industrial heartland, and the takeover of Crimea. The conflict represents Europe’s biggest humanitarian disaster since the Second World War.
And yet, French President Emmanuel Macron pursues détente with Russia, and in recent months has roiled European politics and undermined Ukraine. He immediately dubbed the summit a success, but in reality, his effort was merely a beau geste, as the next one will be. Nothing will change as long as Vladimir Putin remains President of Russia and Macron is driving this process.
Putin’s goal has not been peace, but rather to co-opt his Format partners while inflicting human and economic pain on the Ukrainians. Since 2015, French exports to Russia have nearly doubled, and Macron now claims that a direct relationship with Russia is “very important” to Europe. Germany, represented at the meeting by lame duck Chancellor Angela Merkel, is about to become Europe’s hub for Russian natural gas with the completion by Russia’s Gazprom of its Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Most EU members have fought the project because it will bypass and weaken Ukraine. They believe it is a weapon, in the form of an underwater pipeline, that will give Putin the power to plunge the Soviet Union’s former satellites and republics in Europe into darkness or recession.
“Once Nord Stream 2 is built, Putin can do with Ukraine whatever he wants, and then we have potentially his army on the eastern border of the EU,” Poland’s former Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned two years ago.
Ukraine’s other ally, the United States, also has a President with Putin on his speed dial. Instead of fulsome support for the embattled country, the White House has been enmeshed in the impeachment quagmire. Without a strong American wind at its back, Ukraine’s “street” rose again before the meeting and thousands preemptively gathered to warn against the abrogation of any “red lines” or capitulation to Putin. These mass demonstrations against the Kremlin worked as they have in 2004 and 2014.
Then Washington emitted confusing signals. The day after Paris, President Donald Trump hosted Putin’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the White House—a coveted meeting that Zelensky had been denied since his election. But two days later, Congress imposed tough sanctions designed to delay Nord Stream 2 for two, possibly three years, to prevent “Putin from leveraging billions of dollars that could be used to fuel Russian aggression,” as co-sponsor Ted Cruz crowed.
Trump and Brexit have also agitated the continent as a whole, but for weeks Macron has issued a series of statements that have upended Europe. He described NATO as suffering from “brain death,” and announced he wants to limit the size of the European Union, form a European army, and bring Russia in from the cold. Last month, he unilaterally opposed the opening of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, leaving four other Western Balkans countries in the lurch and sending a chilling message to Ukraine. Simultaneously, Putin has been lobbying Serbia, Moldova, and others to join its Eurasian Economic Union trade arrangement. But in 2014, when Ukraine snubbed that arrangement and signed an association agreement with the European Union instead, Moscow invaded the country in response.
Adding to the pre-summit anxiety was a tweet from France’s former ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, that acceded to Putin entirely and exposed Élysée realpolitik: “The fundamental question: Will Putin be satisfied with Ukraine as a buffer state between Russia and EU/NATO, or does he want it as a satellite-state?”
Ironically, Macron misses the mark when it comes to reconstituting the European Union. Sanctioning and isolating the Kremlin is the only defense against future aggression, and Ukraine is Europe’s only bulwark against Russia. Its military is the same size as France’s, with 205,000 active personnel, and its battle-hardened troops have protected the eastern wall of Europe against Russia for nearly six years. Economically, the country is a prize with a young, educated workforce, world-class IT sector, massive agricultural and industrial potential, and an electorate that has voted overwhelmingly for democracy, the rule of law, and Europeanization.
The Paris summit was a flop. In the press conference, Putin thanked both Macron and Merkel, but ignored Zelensky. Then two days later, at his press conference in Moscow on December 10, Putin sabotaged any upcoming talks when he said: “[T]he Ukrainian side keeps insisting: ‘give us the opportunity to close the border using our troops.’ But I can imagine what would happen next. There would be Srebrenica, as simple as that.” It was a reference to the massacre in which Bosnian Serbs—these days favorite clients of Putin—killed more than 8,000 Muslims in the worst mass slaughter in Europe since World War II.
Putin and his regime are thugs and kleptocrats, and only they can stop this war, not Normandy salons populated by comfortable dilettantes in glamorous venues. Russia’s leaders may think of its occupied territory as a bargaining chip, but the chip has no currency, given the plunder and devastation they have wreaked. Alternatively, they may want the area as a gray zone to influence and vandalize Ukraine’s western trajectory. Whatever the strategy, however, the war will remain another frozen conflict and Ukraine must move on. Its only option is to safeguard itself from the marauder to the east and prosper. So is Europe’s.