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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Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung


BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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