German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande came to Moscow last Friday night to discuss the outline of what was heralded as their peace plan for Ukraine. They spent five hours talking to President Vladimir Putin, but left for the security conference in Munich early Saturday without making a breakthrough. Their effort will yield another meeting in Minsk in the next few days, with Poroshenko joining the troika, but it appears to be doomed for three main reasons.
First of all, the United States government will not allow the Europeans to make any deals of their own. In March 1992 the U.S. torpedoed the European Union’s peace plan for Bosnia-Herzegovina, brokered by Portugal’s foreign minister José Cutileiro, which provided for a loose federation of three self-governing ethnic units. U.S. Ambassador in Belgrade Warren Zimmermann flew post haste to Sarajevo to tell Alija Izetbegovic that America would support the Muslim side if he reneged on the deal and reverted to the demand for a centralized, unitary state in which the Muslims would dominate by virtue of their plurality. The old Islamist was only too happy to oblige and promptly withdrew his signature.
The result was a brutal, three-sided ethno-religious war. It ended, three and a half years later, with the Dayton agreement which provided for a loose union of two entities of equal size, the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) and the Muslim-Croat Federation. That agreement was not different in substance from the Cutileiro framework, but it was brokered by the United States, not the EU. Its chief architect was the late Richard Holbrooke – every bit as nasty a piece of work as Victoria Nuland – who triumphantly announced that America is in charge because of Europe’s inability to solve its problems without Washington: “We are re-engaged in the world, and Bosnia was the test.” The price, to paraphrase Madeleine Albright, was well worth paying: one hundred thousand Serb, Croat and Muslim lives, utterly destroyed Bosnian economy and infrastructure, lasting inter-communal bad blood and hatred, rampant jihadism . . . the usual fruits of pax Americana.
Secondly, Merkel and Hollande are understood to have told Putin that they could still stop America from arming the Kiev regime if there was progress towards a political agreement. The problem is that they can do no such thing, and Putin knows that much (even if Merkel apparently does not). Back to the Balkans: During the Bosnian war the Clinton administration willfully and systematically violated the UN arms embargo on former Yugoslavia, starting as early as spring 1993. The U.S. Government surreptitiously supplied the Muslim side with all sorts of “lethal aid,” both directly (USAF C130 air drops to Tuzla) and courtesy of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (via Zagreb airport). Prime Minister John Major and President Francois Mitterand knew that the CIA/DoD joint operation was bound to prolong the war and undermine their efforts to end it, but they were powerless to change the mind of Clinton and his team. Likewise, the decision to escalate the conflict in Ukraine by arming the Kiev regime already has been made in Washington. The flow of arms is under way via Poland. Berlin and Paris cannot stop it, regardless of what happens at the forthcoming conference in Minsk.
Thirdly, Merkel and (especially) Hollande say that their plan includes “quite a strong autonomy” for the Russian speakers in the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. They are vague about the extent and nature of that “autonomy” because they do not have Poroshenko’s (read: Washington’s) approval for any meaningful autonomy. The territorial extent of the autonomous area is also left undefined. These are no technicalities, but key issues. I gather from my Moscow sources that Putin repeatedly asked Merkel and Hollande for clarity before promising to pursue their initiative. In the end he agreed to come to Minsk not because he believes they can “deliver” Poroshenko but because he does not want to be blamed for the plan’s failure.
It is to be feared that the character and scope of the two eastern regions’ self-rule is one of those issues on which there can be no agreement without a fight. What Poroshenko is willing to concede, now that he hopes he can up the ante with American weapons, is nowhere near what the people in the east are ready to accept. After all that has come to pass over the past year they rightly loathe all things Ukrainian, but under Putin’s pressure they would probably settle for meaningful self-rule that falls just short of full independence – in other words the status of a self-governing federal unit in a thoroughly decentralized Ukraine.
In today’s Kiev, however, and (far more importantly) in Washington, there is no willingness to offer them more than a limited, hollow autonomy, mainly in matters linguistic and cultural, and even that only for a limited period of time. The expectation that some seven million denizens of the two self-proclaimed republics would go for it and duly accept the prospect of the Right Sector (aka Ukrainian National Guard) patrolling the streets of Lugansk is as absurd today as the demand that the Serbs accept unitary Bosnia was absurd in 1992. Unfortunately but predictably, Petro Poroshenko is acting now just like Alija Izetbegovic acted 23 years ago. In both cases the promise of American political and military support trumped rationality and common sense.
The result is likely to be the same. There will be more bloodshed, probably ending in a Daytonized (con)federal Ukraine a year or two from now. The only likely alternative is that hybrid country’s further disintegration which would not stop at current front lines. Most ordinary Ukrainians understand that much. Except for the fanatical Galician fringe, they do not want to die for a Banderist apocalyptic utopia. Thousands of draft dodgers are pouring into Russia, Belarus, Moldova even. Many others will lay down their arms – even the state-of-the-art, U.S.-made ones – rather than risk the fate of their comrades left behind at Donetsk airport.
Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, Foreign Affairs Editor of Chronicles, is the author of The Sword of the Prophet and Defeating Jihad.