Merkel and Hollande in Moscow

The tragedy in Ukraine grinds on. After the comparatively peaceful period ushered in by the Minsk agreement in September, renewed fighting has broken out in recent weeks. Russia is copping most of the blame with the US (and more aggressive European players) considering sizeable arms transfers to Ukraine.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. In (most) western eyes, Russia is ipso facto guilty. That Ukraine has failed to honour their side of the Minsk agreement is never mentioned. The obligations, it seems, are entirely one-sided.

At any rate, the more important (or at least intriguing) news is that Merkel and Hollande are in Moscow this weekend. They arrived on Friday night, direct from Kiev, and went straight to the Kremlin where they remained closeted with Putin for an initial five hours. Media were not welcome; apparently photographers were allowed in for about 30 seconds and not a word was spoken.

German Chancellor Merkel gets into a car upon her arrival at Moscow's Vnukovo airport

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gets into a car upon her arrival at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport February 6, 2015. (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin) – Courtesy RT

What does this all mean? We should know a little more tomorrow but it seems safe to assume Merkel and Hollande are worried. Merkel has spoken to Putin some 40 times in the last year but this is her first visit so it’s a very public demonstration of something. Perhaps disquiet at the mounting risks of this ill considered adventure; perhaps a clear “nein” to the proposed arms transfusion; perhaps . . . . well, who knows?

Merkel’s position has puzzled me (and many others) for some time. The close and mutually beneficial relations built up with Russia in the last 10-15 years (with some 300,000 German jobs dependent on trade with Russia) are being jeopardised for . . . what? Hard to say. Speculations range from Doctorow’s thesis that Merkel dreams of a new Mitteleuropa with Germany dominating a range of subordinate countries like Poland to suspicions about American blackmail. The comparative improbability of these purported explanations is a fair indication of the strangeness of Merkel’s stance in this crisis so far.

I don’t know. What does seem certain is that this weekend’s mission is critical. As has been apparent to any open-minded observer from the beginning, Russia is in this matter much like Thatcher in the 80s; she’s “not for turning”. The neutrality of Ukraine and the protection of its eastern Russian majority regions are both nonnegotiable. Whether the west considers this reasonable is beside the point. It’s a fact of life. A little realism just now would go a long way. One can only hope that’s what Merkel and Hollande have in mind this weekend.

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