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Ukraine: Zelensky Doesn't Understand The Rules Of Realpolitik

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is delusional in believing that the U.S. and Europe will force Moscow’s hand, so long as Russia holds so many cards.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at a news conference in Kiev, Ukraine
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at a news conference in Kiev, Ukraine
Alexander Demchenko

KIEV — While President Volodymyr Zelensky awaits NATO membership, he has released his own vision to assert Ukraine with its more powerful European neighbors: As Zelensky outlined in an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, this "Plan B" is aimed at deescalating the conflict with Russia in the contested Donbas region in order to move toward a comprehensive treaty to guarantee Ukraine's military, economic and energy security through an accord with the United States, the European Union and the Russian Federation.

The Ukrainian President argues that the ongoing Normandy Format (between Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France) will not be an alternative, but will be integrated into a broader process.

As Zelensky says in the interview, "Ukraine can have a Plan B once its territorial integrity is ensured." Such conditional agreements like the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances are insufficient because they've been regularly violated, the President added, noting that the commitment of the U.S. and EU to consolidate the status of Ukraine is crucial. Zelensky told the German daily that he was scheduled to talk to U.S. President Joe Biden about this plan.

Unfortunately, Zelensky's administration still has not understood that any agreements are impossible without Moscow's consent. And Moscow has very different — imperial — plans for Ukraine. The problem with the Budapest Memorandum (which aimed to protect the political independence of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan) was neither its quality nor its international legal status; the problem was that Russia did not give a damn about any agreements when it came to former Soviet republics, especially those intending to leave its orbit.

"What kind of treaty can you sign with a country that occupies part of your territory?"

There are no people in the halls of Kiev power who remember that from 1992 to 1994, before the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine signed a series of documents of varying legal quality that dealt with the dismantling of the country's nuclear capability in return for security guarantees from Washington and Moscow. A few months before Leonid Kuchma was elected president, the Ukrainian, American, and Russian leaders (Leonid Kravchuk, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin) signed a general statement that became a prologue to the Budapest Memorandum. Both Washington and Moscow gave Ukraine security guarantees at the time. Then the Americans "helped" Kiev get paltry compensation from Russia for its enormous nuclear complex.

Most have forgotten that U.S. leaders came to the Ukrainian leadership with threats. They forgot that the Budapest Memorandum was not about the security of Ukraine, but about the security of the United States, which feared a possible uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons, or even the appearance of another ambitious member of the nuclear club. It was to Washington's advantage to concentrate everything in the Russian Federation.

Did the Budapest Memorandum alone provide security guarantees? The 1997 Partition Treaty on the Status and Conditions of the Black Sea Fleet — which Ukraine, unlike Russia, has not denounced — appoints Russia as a guarantor of Ukraine's territorial integrity. It did not say that this guarantor would take from Ukraine the peninsula where its military base was stationed. There are few documents of this kind still in force, but it is possible to find them.

A lot of good international agreements can be written. The U.S. and the EU can even put their signatures on them, but these documents will be meaningless if they do not have the approval of the Russian President. And what kind of treaty can you sign with a country that occupies part of your territory?

Then U.S. Secretary of State Kerry speaks with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Deshchytsia in 2014 — Photo: US State Dept

Volodymyr Zelensky also says that the Normandy Format will be an element, an addition to this Plan B. But as Zelensky points out, there is a problem: the position of both Russia and the two moderators, France and Germany.

In the interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Zelensky says that at the last meeting of the advisors to the leaders of the Normandy four countries, Russian representative Dmitry Kozak asked the European partners whether Russia was a party to the conflict.

"The representatives of Germany and France did not answer directly that Russia was a party to the conflict," says Zelensky. "They again included such ‘cautious' diplomacy, which Ukraine does not agree with, because Russia is a party to the conflict, and we understand that."

It is important to say here that the Normandy Format cannot be part of Plan B. Because this format is the stepchild of the poisoned Minsk Protocol, which Ukraine agreed to only under the threat of a full-scale invasion. Zelensky is outraged — and rightly so — that NATO countries, especially Germany, are blocking Ukraine's accession to the alliance and are not even providing arms. Instead, they pander to Russia, trading with the country and building joint energy projects that are detrimental to Ukrainian security.

By the way, it is telling that Konrad Schuller, the German journalist interviewing Zelensky, kept asking: If Ukraine joined NATO, could it guarantee that it would not ask the alliance for help in its war with Russia?

"All those Russian billions flowing into EU banks every year ... the Europeans can't do without them now."

Schuller incidentally forgot to mention that in 2008, the German and French leaders, despite U.S. support, blocked an action plan for Ukraine to become a NATO member. Six years later, Europe had a major problem: a war with Russia already on its borders. And this is just the beginning.

It is not Zelensky's fault that the NATO countries do not want to get involved in a confrontation with Russia. But it is important to understand their reasoning. This is not merely because Europeans are frightened by the military might of Russia. The EU, which is used to an expensive and measured existence, does not want to quarrel with the country that provides it with so much financial support. All those Russian billions flowing into EU banks every year, the common energy projects, the participation of European companies in mining operations in Russia, the corrupt EU politicians and officials – the Europeans can't do without it now. It is part of their lives.

It also seems that the U.S. needs a lot from Russia nowadays, such as giving up the alliance with China. And that the Biden administration may even agree to the status quo, to what it was before the escalation in Donbas. Yes, we should always hope for the best, but we should have no illusions.

Ultimately, there is no one to blame but ourselves for the fact that we could not properly build our state. Everyone has their own interests. Every country stands up for itself. As far as Russia is concerned, the Americans will be biding their time, just as they did in the days of the Soviet Union. Ukraine, too, will be waiting for a convenient moment — waiting for many years. At least, this time can be spent on creating a fully developed, European country. That is the real Plan B.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Putin's "Pig-Like" Latvia Threat Is A Chilling Reminder Of What's At Stake In Ukraine

In the Ukraine war, Russia's military spending is as high as ever. Now the West is alarmed because the Kremlin leader is indirectly hinting at a possible attack on Latvia, a NATO member. It is a reminder of a growing danger to Europe.

Photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Pavel Lokshin


BERLIN — Russian President Vladimir Putin sometimes chooses downright bizarre occasions to launch his threats against the West. It was at Monday's meeting of the Russian Human Rights Council, where Putin expressed a new, deep concern. It was not of course about the human rights of the thousands of political prisoners in his own country, but about the Russian population living in neighboring Latvia, which happens to be a NATO member, having to take language tests.

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