by D. R. HAFEZ – 5th February 2015
As France’s President and Germany’s chancellor hurry to Moscow in an attempt to infuse the negotiations over the Ukrainian crisis with a new breath of dynamism, Francois Hollande’s reputation has never been so tightly related to external events. Forget the unemployment figures, forget the Macron law currently being stripped in the national assembly. President Hollande’s respectability as a world leader is currently on the line, for he is to be judged not only by the French electorate (who unfortunately, despite the recent terror attacks and internal fighting in the UMP camp, remain dubious as to his credentials for 2017) but by the world at large.
Given the stalemate on the Ukrainian dossier and given Hollande’s willingness to engage French military forces and diplomatic softpower in multiple conflicts throughout the world (Mali, Chad, Niger, Syria, Iraq to name but a few) this new meeting in Moscow seems the perfect opportunity to begin finding a solution acceptable to all, and incidentally rescue some much needed popularity points in the polls. Two questions remain – what to propose and how to go about it.
Russia is bogged down in Ukraine – a face-saving solution would be welcome
As this blog has often accurately remarked, the Ukrainian crisis ultimately neither aids Russia’s prospects, nor Europe’s. In the case of the former country, economic uncertainty (the Ruble losing its value) and fragility (Russia relies heavily on its gas exports and industry, but has been criticized for the threadbare nature of its economic and manufacturing web) as well as political isolation (think back to the G20 summit in November) make the Ukrainian issue very much a burden. True the idea of being able to flex one’s muscles, as well as gaining long lost provinces in Crimea was evidently appealing to Moscow, but the negative image given through the action of arming the rebels, as well as the disruption of economic ties more than outweigh those initial positives. For Moscow, the problem now needs to be resolved without losing face. The whole issue hinges on the degree to which all parties are willing to give in to satisfy the individual media needs of the other parties.
Europe taken aback
For Europe, the Ukrainian issue has come at the wrong time, and has overstayed for far too long. Europe has appeared yet again weak politically, with some parties calling for aggressive actions to be taken against Russia (ex: Poland), whilst others were more measured. Once more, Ukraine is not the only problem on Europe’s plate – Syria, ISIS, the Sahel, Iran, the economic feebleness of southern Europe must all be given the attention that they deserve. Finally, and most importantly, the chaos and brutality that has swept across Ukraine over the last year has damaged the country and the people’s aspirations. Lest we forget, a strong Ukraine, with economic soundness is a blessing for both Europe and Russia. Hence the importance for Europe to be the main instigator in finding a durable solution – with all the respect that one must give to the USA, this is a problem on Brussels’s front doorstep – for it to not be at the heart of the negotiations, or to relinquish the initiative to the USA would be a public admission of its incapability of being than simply a regional version of the WTO.
Form follows function – practical steps to appease all
So why should the French President be particularly involved in this issue – well, for starters, France relies less heavily than other countries on Russian gas, meaning that it is more neutral and more importantly less able to be swayed than other European countries. Secondly, France has its own pressing trade deals – the Mistral ships to name but one – that must see closure and are a thorn in both Russian and French sides. More importantly however, France possesses the diplomatic capability of melting Russian hearts. Finally, from a personal point of view, Mr. Hollande knows the importance of securing such peace agreements for his own image’s sake, something that Mutti is blissfully unburdened with. Likewise, Mr. Putin is also in a fairly weak position (though not as desperate as western media outlets would have you think) and, like all strongmen, wishes nothing more than a chance to prove his magnanimity once his muscles have done the initial talking.
France as an Eastern Player
So, how to go about it one might ask? It is crucial that Mr. Putin be portrayed as part of the solution, and not the initial problem – invitations to official parades send just the right personal signals to military-loving heads of states, whilst promises to bring Russia in from the cold, whether it be on Syria or Iran, would ensure that the next G20 summit would see President Putin take prime seat on the team photo. Of course, there are more technical matters to be dealt with – how to disarm the rebels and integrate their political formations so that Ukraine does not transform itself into an ever-simmering volcano, how to conduct investigations into the war crimes and downing of commercial airlines, how to finance the reconstruction of the country. However, in a conflict that has epitomized the individual willingness to one’s strength and capacity of causing chaos, politics must come first. President Hollande, for the sake of Ukraine and your own political future, it is time to lead the European delegation.