Even as European leaders engaged in a diplomatic sprint across the globe to try to prevent the fighting in eastern Ukraine from escalating further, Russian President Vladimir Putin over the weekend would not commit Russia to attending a four-way peace conference scheduled to take place in Belarus on Wednesday.
The effort is being spearheaded by the leaders of Germany and France with the cooperation of the Ukrainian government and is aimed at halting the fighting that has so far cost about 5,350 lives and displaced as many as a million people. Russia supports the separatists in Eastern Ukraine trying to carve out an autonomous region that would align with Moscow, and is widely believed to be supplying both advanced weapons and soldiers to the cause.
Putin said to reporters on Sunday that Russia’s attendance on Wednesday is conditional on agreement “on a number of points which we've been intensely discussing lately.” He did not elaborate on what his requirements for participation are.
Wednesday’s meeting would be the culmination of a round of globetrotting diplomacy by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande who were in Kiev Thursday, Moscow Friday and Munich on Saturday pushing for a non-military solution to the ongoing fighting.
Merkel will be in Washington, DC on Monday to meet with President Obama, where they will no doubt discuss the possibility of providing advanced defensive weapons to the Ukrainian government. Merkel has actively discouraged that strategy, which is loudly backed by members of the U.S. Congress. President Obama and members of his administration have seemed, over the past week, to be losing some of their initial reluctance to provide lethal weapons to Kiev.
The change might be due, in part, to increasing criticism from members of Congress.
“What we are doing in Ukraine makes no sense and it isn’t working,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who was attending the annual Munich Security Conference. “It is long past time for us to step forward and provide defensive weapons so the men and women of Ukraine can defend themselves.”
He said that the bipartisan U.S. Congressional delegation in Munich was “united on the need for us to get serious and provide defensive arms to Ukraine.”
Speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “I have no doubt that additional assistance of an economic kind and other kinds will be going to Ukraine. We do so understanding that there is no military solution. The solution is a political-diplomatic one. But president Putin has to make the decision to take an off ramp and we have to make it clear to him that we are absolutely committed to the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine no matter what.”
Meet the Press host Chuck Todd asked Kerry if Putin can be considered a “rational actor” in light of his decision to continue supporting the separatists in Ukraine despite the enormous political and economic price his country is paying.
“People can draw their own conclusions based on what they see,” Kerry replied. “He is leaving the global community with no choice but to continue to put more sanctions in place or to provide additional assistance to Ukraine and hopefully he will come to the point where he realizes that the damage he is doing is not just to the global order and the process, but he is doing enormous damage to Russia itself. And I am convinced, I think most people are convinced, that each month that goes by that will catch up to him ultimately in Russia itself.
“The nationalistic card is playing for the moment,” he added. “But ultimately, most people want their lives to be better.”
However, at least one expert warned that Putin, while rational, is operating under a very different set of assumptions – and even facts – than Western leaders.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul described Putin as “obsessed” with the capabilities of the U.S. intelligence services, particularly the Central Intelligence Agency. He said the former KGB officer apparently believes that the popular uprising that unseated former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich last February was orchestrated by the CIA, and that he views support for Ukrainian separatists as fighting back against Western imperialism.
McFaul also cautioned that Putin may not actually be interested in an immediate solution to the crisis in Ukraine, but might prefer to let it “fester.”
“He’s paying a long term game here with multiple objectives over a long period of time,” McFaul said. Allowing the problems in Ukraine to create tensions in one part of Europe, he said, might allow him to achieve other goals.
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