« Brexit is comparable to the Fall of the Berlin Wall »

28 septembre 2016 0 Par Pierre-Emmanuel Thomann


Interview in the Magazine Kultura (Source in Russian : http://portal-kultura.ru/articles/bolshaya-igra/139260-per-emmanuel-tomann-brexit-sravnim-s-padeniem-berlinskoy-steny/ )

1. Question (Kultura): "Western countries keep on pressuring Russia to follow Minsk II agreements. My question is what does the West expect in a good scenario and in a bad one?"

Pierre-Emmanuel Thomann:

I will respond to your questions with a focus on geopolitical analysis, and a "clinical" diagnosis of the situation.

First of all, your first question is a very difficult one because the "West" wants to appear united, but the "West" is in reality more divided than it seems on the handling of the Ukraine crisis. The West is divided between governments but also the populations themselves.

First of all, it is important to understand the geopolitical global context of this question. There is a growing fear of Europeans to be left alone facing World affairs and their destabilized neighborhood, because of a supposed American pivot to Asia ( this is exaggerated I think when you the see the Missile shield project and NATO reinforcement). The paradoxal result is : instead of having more autonomy and start to think on their own, the European align themselves on the Unites States to prevent more isolationism from USA. The more the USA are perceived as retreating,  the more the European wants to retain them in Europe and the result is more strategic dependence through NATO.

The good scenario !

This is a very intricate situation because different national Interests are mixed with a more or less common will to stay united between the US and Europeans, between EU member states themselves, and between France and Germany.

Germany and France, main negotiators in EU for the Minsk-2 process, would like the Ukrainian question to be resolved in a way that Ukraine is stabilized, Ukraine continue her Western orientation for enlarging market access without to provoke too much hostility from Russia, and stay coordinated with the USA. In sum, to please everybody, but this is obviously impossible. In reality, there is no real good scenario, and only a choice between different bad solutions !

In reality, France and Germany have also different security perceptions. France is more worried from the threats coming from the Mediterranean region, and Germany from the Eastern flank of EU where Ukraine lies. 

France would like to resolve the crisis more rapidly to be able to concentrate on the destabilization of Middle East and countries South of the Mediterranean sea, fix her growing internal problems (in a pre-electoral situation), and prepare the lifting of sanctions against Russia because they damage the French economy, especially agriculture. Traditionally, France has also seen Russia as a geopolitical counterweight to Germany and USA. This option might again gain some weight in French politics (political debates for the presidential elections,  Senate and Assembly voting against sanctions, no French participation to NATO maneuvers Anakonda 2016), but the current government put the Franco-German unity and transatlantic solidarity first, and this is playing in favor of the German position.   

Germany, because of her different geographical position is more keen in showing support in NATO and EU to Eastern and Central Europeans. The German government is also more dogmatic in their interpretation of international law (regarding annexation of Crimea). For historical reasons, Germans interpret more international relations with a legalist angle and less on "balance of power" like the French. Germany is at the center of EU,  they want to avoid fractures in EU, and insist on unity and respect of law. However, there is a lot of hypocrisy from the "West" because interpretation of international law is changing according to the "balance of power". In case of German unification, Yugoslav disintegration, the West and Germany defend the "right of people to determine themselves". As far as Ukraine and Crimea is concerned, the "integrity of states" is now defended. This is obviously double-standards policy.

The German and French government, to maintain their own position of power within EU, wants to appear united and strong : this is why they declared the sanctions should be maintained until Minsk II is implemented. The EU and Member states also made themselves dependent on the implementation of Minsk-2 and therefore, the factor Ukraine, before to reset relations with Russia. This posture is also counterproductive and reinforces misperceptions and obstacles to resolve the Ukrainian question. However, most German and French citizens are not supporting the sanctions and would be in favor of improving relations. There is growing divide between the European political personnel and their citizens, when Russian citizens are more united behind their president on this crisis.

There is also the EU factor : since EU is experiencing many deep crisis at the same time, the members states governments wants to appear united and do not want the EU to be seen as back-pedaling. This is playing against the lifting of sanctions. And with sanctions in place, it is difficult to progress since Russia does want either to be seen as changing her position because of sanctions.

The United States, and her closest "Atlanticists" allies in EU, are not so keen to overcome the crisis as their main objective is to prevent too much cooperation between Russia and EU member states. This is in line with the US strategy to prevent multipolarity to emerge too fast. The pressure from the US on Europeans to keep the sanctions on Russia is therefore very important, and enters in contradiction with the EU member states more skeptical to these sanctions. Since many European states, as I mentioned earlier on, fear an American pivot to Asia, their reflex is far is to align themselves on American policy.

The Russian government will privilege direct negotiations with USA and marginalize EU as long as EU policy is too much perceived as an annex to US foreign policy and too divided between member states. This prevent Minsk-2 to be more effective. But this posture also reinforces suspicion in EU about an instrumentalization of this crisis by Russia to gain more power at global level. How to stop these self-fulfilling processes ? It underlines that in a emerging multipolar world, Ukrainian question is a theater that will determine the new equilibrium of power in the world. The importance to Ukraine is asymmetric because it is a vital question for Russia, but less important for the "West". The sanctions are ineffective to resolve the Ukraine crisis, but they are instrumentalized by the different states in the wider context of geopolitical rivalry between the West (and the various postures of states within Euro-Atlantic space) and Russia.

To sum up, the good scenario is today very minimalistic : avoid a further deterioration of the situation since nobody knows yet how to get out of this stalemate provoked by mistakes made from all sides ! More time is needed, and solutions might emerge with the emerging of other  crisis (Middle East, Africa, Eastern Asia, Central Asia, Caucasus ..?) The list of potential conflicts is long.    

The bad scenario:

The Europeans and Americans have a different appreciation of the situation, since Russia is a neighbor of EU on the Eurasian continent, and the USA is more far away (in terms of perception of geography, because in reality USA and Russia are also neighbors near the North pole). You can also note that the European countries (except in Baltic states and Poland) in general do not see Russia as a threat, especially compared to ISIS when the US place the Islamic state and Russia at the same level of threat. 

The resuming of armed conflict in Ukraine between Kiev forces and the rebel republics, and a regional escalation between Ukraine and Russia, leading to more diplomatic confrontation between the West and Russia (the military option is limited) is what the Europeans would like to avoid. The American government is less preoccupied by the resuming of hostilities because of their geographical position. They also want to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia, but they apply a policy of containment and the roll back of Russian influence when it is possible.  This is why the USA do not ship heavy weapons to Ukraine, but they committed themselves to the training of the Ukrainian army and use this conflict to revive NATO and weapon business deals to equip NATO members with American equipment. 

Some European countries also take the Ukrainian crisis as an opportunity to apply the "containment" of Russia, and for the most "revanchists" of them, the weakening of Russia. The German government seems also divided although they do everything to mask it. The more "Atlanticist" Germans wants to have a buffer zone in Ukraine and Eastern partnership countries to contain Russia, (like Poland and Baltic states), when more moderate German politicians in the government want to resume cooperation with Russia in a more independent way from the US policy (we had already this division during the Cold war). The decision to move more NATO troops in the Baltic states, in Poland, in Bulgaria and Romania is totally counter-productive and lead to escalation on both sides. It is eroding trust.

Europeans should do everything to avoid a worsening of the situation since they would be the main losers with Ukrainian citizens of this situation. The bad scenario with an escalation of the situation will more or less depend on the future policies of newcomers after the presidential elections in the USA and France, and the consequences in case of Brexit. There are still many politicians in Europe and the USA very much influenced by the "Cold War" period and it is difficult for them to think differently. A more deep change in mentalities and representations takes time. This is why the crisis can take a long time before to have a chance to be resolved. The more Islamic terrorism is hurting Europeans, the more there is a chance to try to find common positions with Russia against common terrorist threats and relegate the Ukrainian question as a secondary matter. European are loosing time with the Ukrainian crisis as the internal and external Islamist threat is far more acute (although the security perceptions do not overlap yet).   

2. Question (Kultura)   : "Does anybody in the West believe Moscow could betray Donetsk and Lugansk and give them away to Kiev's mercy?"

Pierre-Emmanuel Thomann:

Western Europeans assume that Russia cannot stay neutral if the humanitarian situation of people in Donbass deteriorates and the conflict resumes military and endangers regional stability. Russia has shown more resilience under Western sanctions than expected in keeping her position and therefore the priority in the mind of many European politicians (not all, they are divided as I said) is to avoid to make things worst. Kiev is not in a position to get rid of the rebel Republics as she does not have the military force to do it, and not enough international support.

3. Question (Kultura):  "At present Moscow asks the governments of Donetsk and Lugansk unrecognized republics not to violate the ceasefire and Minsk-2 frontline. Do You think Russia may stop insisting on that, and if she does could the rebels move to the West and spread their power over Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Sumy, Mariupol, Kherson?  Will new Minsk-3 agreements appear in this case like Minsk-2 changed Minsk-1? "

Pierre-Emmanuel Thomann:

I do not see Russia changing her stance since the Russian government,  like the West, insist on  the implementation on  Minsk II agreements. I do not think Russia wants rebels to spread towards the West as the conflict would be incontrollable. Russia is interested in a stable, prosperous, independent Ukraine. Russia is however opposed to the forming of a hostile state at her borders with NATO troops and a new Ukraine used as a pivot for the West to weaken Russia and cut it from Central and Eastern European influence. If the Ukrainian government is launching a new offensive in Donbass,  it would  possibly provoke a strong reaction among rebels in a larger zone than Donbass, but the situation may get worse, with no winners, as there are so far no clear cut majorities for any camps.      

The negotiation of a Minsk-3 agreement looks more and more necessary to modify Minsk-2 since there are no sign yet that Ukraine is willing, nor able to implement it.   

4. Question (Kultura):  "If Minsk 2 agreements come to the deadlock could the West press on Kiev?" 

Pierre-Emmanuel Thomann:

As I said, Minsk-2 seems already in a deadlock. There is a difficulty in Western countries to press on Kiev for different reasons, although it should be necessary as the new constitution is still blocked in the Ukrainian political process.

If both EU members states and Russia find a way to have "face-saving" measures, so nobody is seen as a looser in this dispute, then more pressure could be applied on Ukraine, if the relation between EU and Russia is considered as more important.

However, I think the trend scenario is a "frozen conflict " as Kiev cannot implement Minsk II, the West does not apply yet real pressure on Ukraine and Russia cannot either change her position.

If the Ukrainian government chooses to escalate the conflict with military means against rebels (as it is already the case but at low level intensity), then the EU might put pressure on Kiev to stop escalation and force Kiev to implement what they promised in exchange of EU financial help. But this scenario also means potential dangerous escalation.

My opinion is that it is a necessity for EU member states to apply more pressure on Ukraine because Kiev refuses to implement a real decentralization, or federalization process for Ukraine.  This is blocking the whole process.  It is also probably an illusion to think that EU and Russia will be able to resolve the different disputes and divergent postures, with a  "one by one" crisis approach, like the Ukraine crisis, or on a "sectoral basis" since we cannot proceed to linkages in negotiations (Kissinger doctrine).  EU and Russia need to offer an acceptable place to each other in their respective visions. Then, sectoral crisis might have a chance to be resolved in a more global deal. If we want a cooperation paradigma to prevail, the central question is : Can we achieve in the long term a "Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok, in a multipolar world" combined with security space from "Vancouver to Vladivostok" ?  Time is running out to think more positively to identify our common interests and resolve the different crisis we face in our common neighbourhood  (Ukraine, Syria but also the frozen conflicts in Moldavia, Georgia…). The more we wait, the more it will be difficult to overcome the crisis.

5. Question (Kultura):  "Prime Minister Cameron said that "Brexit" is Putin's victory. Will "Brexit" have positive consequences for Russia in the Ukrainian crisis, sanction lifting, or something else?"

Pierre-Emmanuel Thomann:

In my opinion, the BREXIT won't have consequences on sanctions in short term because governments do not want to give the impression to be weak just after Brexit. The Brexit will have consequences for the medium long term. In EU, the continental countries like Germany and France will have more weight when they decide the sanctions will be lifted but Angela Merkel is so far resisting it.

The Brexit rises disagreements within EU,  and also between France and Germany because there is a geopolitical rivalry emerging clearly between Germany and France that was masked by the "fear argument" of Brexit. Brexit has consequences on the international balance of power within EU and UK cannot be used after Brexit to balance Germany by France, so it will reinforce the French politicians who want a better relation with Russia.  Russia was in the Gaullist doctrine a factor of equilibrium in Europe and it will come back as we will be, after Brexit, in a situation similar to the period when de Gaulle was president: UK was not part of the European economic community and there was the Cold War (now, a sort of "new Cold war") Then, the balance of power within EU is again a central feature and a major preoccupation of France. This will benefit to France and Russia to renew better relations.

There is a dangerous scenario also : Because of Brexit,  UK cannot be the best ally of the Americans in EU anymore; and the "Atlanticists" states will try to reinforce NATO to rally Europeans behind the USA, and the tool to do it is to make Russia more clearly an adversary. This dangerous scenario should be avoided because it will fragment more Europe between EU and Russia. Brexit is however an opportunity to reform the European project in a way it would be closer to citizens (less integration, modification of the project towards an "alliance of Nations" and reinforce the option of "Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok" benefiting to all European nations, Russia included). But this option can only occur in the longer term as many governments are still in a state of denial of what happened. Survival of EU is at stake and make EU members more introvert. Brexit might be as important as Berlin Wall collapse, but this time leading to regression of EU. We can only expect  more strategic change after French, US and German elections in 2016/2017, leading to the opening of new avenues.