Monday, May 20, 2024

‘Wrong about Putin’: Did Germany and France turn blind eye to threat from Russia?

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The escalating civilian toll of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine has fuelled calls for a reappraisal of more than a decade of French and German efforts to engage with a leader whose forces stand accused of committing horrific war crimes in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s embattled President Volodymyr Zelensky did not mince his words as he addressed Western leaders in a video message late on Sunday, just hours after witnessing the trail of death and destruction that Russian forces left in their wake as they retreated from Kyiv’s northern suburb of Bucha.

He had a special message for the former leaders of Germany and France, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, whom he accused of denying Ukraine a path to NATO.

“I invite Ms Merkel and Mr Sarkozy to visit Bucha and see what the policy of concessions to Russia has led to in 14 years,” Zelensky said, referring to the gruesome killing of Ukrainian civilians in towns north of the capital – which world powers have described as “war crimes”.

“See with your own eyes the tortured and slain Ukrainians,” he added.

Zelensky was speaking on the anniversary of the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, where the transatlantic alliance offered Georgia and Ukraine a promise of future membership but without a timetable – a compromise that, according to Zelensky, left Ukraine in a “grey zone” and exposed to Russian aggression.

“They thought that by refusing Ukraine, they could appease Russia, to convince it to respect Ukraine and live normally alongside us,” he said in his video address, accusing NATO members of acting “in fear” of the Kremlin.

Collapse of the post-Cold War orderBack in 2008, both France and Germany had deemed it too early for Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO, arguing that neither country was ready. They also warned that bringing in the former Soviet Republics would compromise relations with Russia, echoing warnings voiced by US diplomats who sought to dissuade the White House from offering a concrete path to membership.

In a short statement issued by her spokeswoman on Monday, Merkel said she “stood by her decisions in relation to the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest”. She also offered her support to “all efforts to bring an end to Russia’s barbarism and war against Ukraine”.

In hindsight, “it is hard to know whether a membership plan for Ukraine would have been enough to dissuade Putin”, said Laure Delcour, an expert in EU-Russia relations at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris.

“NATO membership is a very long process and it is quite possible that Ukraine would still not be a member as we speak,” she told FRANCE 24. “One can also imagine that Putin would have moved faster to thwart Ukraine’s admission.”

“Move fast” is precisely what Putin did just four months after the Bucharest summit, sending his tanks into Georgia in support of pro-Russian separatists in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He repeated the trick six years later in Ukraine’s Donbas region, going one step further with the annexation of Crimea.

A ‘logical continuation’: After Georgia and Crimea, was an invasion of Ukraine inevitable?

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© Reuters

Each of Putin’s incursions met an ambivalent response from European leaders, alternating between heated rhetoric and sanctions, at first, and attempts at détente, soon after. With Ukraine now in the throes of a catastrophic war, those leaders stand accused of emboldening the Russian president and being blind to his imperialist ambitions.

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