Ukraine: A war to end all wars in Europe

What complicates matters is an emerging divide in Europe over how to end the war. While Old Europeans, including Scholz, are urging peace talks now, the Russophobic East European and Baltic leaderships are clamoring for Russia’s defeat and a regime change in Moscow

March 06, 2023 by M.K. Bhadrakumar
US President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Photo: POTUS/Twitter

The dash for the White House in Washington on Friday by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery. Scholz landed in DC, drove to the White House and was received by President Biden in Oval Office for a conversation that lasted over an hour. No aides were present. And he flew back to Berlin.

Associated Press reported cryptically, “If any agreements were reached or plans made, the White House wasn’t saying.” Scholz had insisted while leaving Berlin that he and Biden “want to talk directly with each other.” Scholz mentioned “a global situation where things have become very difficult”. He said, “It is important that such close friends can talk about all of these questions together, continually.”

The official readout of the meeting mentioned that the two leaders discussed the war in Ukraine and “exchanged perspectives on other global issues.”

In remarks before the meeting, Biden effusively welcomed Scholz and paid tribute to the latter’s “strong and steady leadership.” Scholz briefly responded that “this is a very, very important year because of the very dangerous threat to peace that comes from Russia invading Ukraine.” The optics of the White House readout is that the two leaders “reiterated their commitment to impose costs on Russia for its aggression for as long as necessary”.

Scholz’s dash to the Oval Office came at a defining moment in the Ukraine conflict. Russia has seized the initiative in the Donbass campaign and its spring offensive may start in the coming weeks. Ukraine’s military took a heavy battering and the country depends almost entirely on western financial handouts and military aid for survival.

Most important, Kiev’s western backers are no longer sure of its ability to reclaim all the territory under Russian control — roughly, one-fifth of erstwhile Ukraine. An inchoate belief is also gaining ground in the western mind, behind all rhetoric, that the burden of the war effort is not going to be sustainable for long if the conflict extends into an indeterminate future.

Support for Ukraine is waning in the Western public opinion. A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research shows that while 19% of Americans repose confidence in Biden’s ability to handle the situation in Ukraine, 37% say they have only some confidence and 43% have hardly any.

A vast majority of adults, including most Democrats, do not want Biden to run for president in 2024. Many also express little confidence in his abilities.

Scholz’s one-on-one with Biden took place only a week after the latter’s triumphant secret trip to Kiev to mark the first anniversary of the war. In reality, the display of Western unity with Ukraine that Biden claims is wearing thin against a backdrop of strains within the trans-Atlantic alliance and a growing sense of despondency that the war has no end in sight.

The heart of the matter is that the Ukraine conflict has shattered the existing security architecture of Europe. Germany, Europe’s powerhouse, is hit badly. The German electorate is increasingly skeptical about the West’s approach to the war. There has been animated discussion in Germany over the findings of the renowned American journalist Seymour Hersh regarding the sabotage of the Nord Stream.

After Scholz’s return to Berlin, on Saturday, Sevim Dagdelen, leader of the Left Party — a four-term MP since 2005 — labelled the sabotage of the Nord Stream as a terrorist attack, adding that the German government is obligated to look into the case and find the culprit.

If Scholz was privy to Biden’s plan to destroy Nord Stream, it signifies an act of collusion. A major German national strategic asset owned in a joint venture with Russia was destroyed, seriously damaging the country’s economy and impacting tens of millions of jobs, putting many lives at risk.

Germany has had to pay 10 times the market price for gas to bolster its reserves. Europe has fallen into the trap of becoming highly dependent on US energy imports. The US is the main beneficiary of Europe’s energy crisis and its ensuing “deindustrialization” and “industrial hollowing-out.” A deep recession appears inevitable in Germany. This climate forebodes dire consequences for the German government, as the election to the Bundestag in 2025 draws closer.

Two days after Russia’s special operation in Ukraine began, Scholz had vowed in his famous “Zeitenwende” speech in the Bundestag that Germany, long wary of militarization, would take steps to boost defense spending. But Wolfgang Schmidt, Scholz’s chief of staff and longtime friend, acknowledged this week that a budget crunch was likely to prevent Berlin from fulfilling the promise of increased defense spending. “We must be honest about this,” he told Wall Street Journal. “Ambition and reality are diverging.”

What complicates matters further is an emerging divide in Europe over how to end the war. While Old Europeans, including Scholz, are urging peace talks now, the Russophobic East European and Baltic leaderships are clamoring for Russia’s defeat and a regime change in Moscow. According to Politico, Biden had to deliver a reminder to the Bucharest Nine with whom he had a meeting in Warsaw after his trip to Kiev that the goal of the war is not to remove the regime under Putin.

Meanwhile, there is frustration building up in Europe that the continent finds itself in a cul-de-sac. So far, the lack of European cohesion provided policy space for the US to divide and rule. However, if Europe finds itself today in a subordinate position, it must also own part of the blame for it. Europe’s inability to define its own core interests so far weakened its internal cohesion, while the lack of internal cohesion condemned it to a subaltern role.

Thus, European strategic autonomy has become meaningless talk. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said last week that the most important realization of the war is that “Europe has retired from the debate.”

“In the decisions adopted in Brussels, I recognize American interests more frequently than European ones,” he added, also pointing out that today in a war that is taking place in Europe, “the Americans have the final word”.

Belling the cat 

Enter Rishi Sunak. In the prevailing complex situation, there is no one better than the UK Prime Minister Sunak to bell the cat, as it were. Britain has impeccable credentials as a trusted friend of Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky and Sunak inherits the legacy left behind by his discredited predecessors Boris Johnson and Lis Truss.

More importantly, Sunak is raring to go. Sunak was never an ardent believer in Brexit — nor is he a mindless Russophobe. He has set his compass navigating Britain toward calmer waters, which requires making up with the EU that helps the UK’s economic recovery, and he hopes to lead the Conservatives in next year’s general election with a solid record in office. An overreach in Ukraine he cannot risk. Period.

Thus, it is that Sunak floated the tantalizing idea last month to put Ukraine on the NATO summit’s agenda in June in Madrid with an offer to Zelensky to discuss a package of incentives that would give Kiev much broader access to advanced military equipment and convince the Ukrainian leader to pursue peace talks with Moscow realistically, given the deepening private doubts among politicians in London, Paris and Berlin about the trajectory of the war and the gut-wrenching belief that the West can only help sustain the war effort for so long.

The French President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Scholz are on the same page as Sunak. The Biden Administration is in the loop but Zelensky is not a pushover and a NATO security pact may be needed, apart from bringing on board the fiery “New Europeans” of Eastern Europe and the Baltic.

The good part is that the UK, France and Germany are in this together. Yet, the road ahead is long and winding. For Putin, the bottomline will be that no NATO membership for Ukraine and  the ground realities must be heeded. But, fundamentally, peace talks would vindicate the raison d’être of Russia’s special military operation, which aimed to force the West to negotiate regarding NATO expansion.

AP reported that when the one-on-one meeting in Oval Office ended, Biden and Scholz walked across the hall to the Roosevelt Room, where the American and German officials had been mingling. Biden apparently joked that the two leaders had solved all the world’s problems by themselves. That gives a positive spin.

MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey. The views are personal.