French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel travelled to Moscow Friday in the latest diplomatic push to end the fighting in Ukraine amid signs of division among Western allies over giving arms to Kiev.
Experts say Europe’s diplomatic efforts have acquired a new sense of urgency amid fears that the US will start arming Ukrainian forces, leading to an escalation of the conflict.
“There’s a fear that if you send in Western weaponry and sophisticated systems then the Russians will up the ante on their part,” said James Nixey, the head of the Russia and Eurasia programme at UK-based think tank Chatham House.
Nixey says increasing disagreement between the US and Europe over the Ukraine question threatens to drive a wedge between Western powers, and give Russia the upper hand.
President Hollande continues to push for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, announcing a surprise visit to Moscow at a press conference Thursday, with hopes of securing a peace agreement.
“If we don’t try to reach a diplomatic agreement we will never know if such an option will work,” said Hollande.
Joachim Bitterlich, former German ambassador to NATO, said in an interview with FRANCE 24 Thursday that Merkel and Hollande were giving their best, and potentially last, diplomatic efforts for peace.
“Angela Merkel and François Hollande tried to play the last political card in this conflict,” said Bitterlich, adding that “Kiev is becoming weaker and weaker".
Bitterlich said he agreed with Hollande’s reluctance to supply Ukraine with arms.
“To whom do you give weapons in this conflict? To an army that is less and less existing on the ground? Then weapons will be in the hands of separatists or of militia.”
Bitterlich suggested tackling the problem from the other side, saying that Russian support for the separatists must be stopped.
Echoes of the 1930s
So far, not everybody agrees. Nixey says that it makes sense to respond to Russia’s military force by giving arms to Ukraine, as many US leaders want to do.
“If you don’t, people will die because they have no protection against Russian weaponry,” he said.
“If you think that the only solution is a diplomatic solution while Russia is trying to impose a military solution then you’re going to lose.”
In a show of bipartisanship, both Republican and Democratic leaders in the US have been encouraging increased military aid in Ukraine, and criticizing Europe’s response to a conflict that has caused more than 5,000 deaths in the last ten months.
On Thursday, Republican Senator John McCain expressed his disappointment with Germany’s response to the situation.
“It’s been a huge disappointment to me. Their actions recently have been reminiscent of the 1930s, but we will continue to hope,” said McCain, alluding to the policies of appeasement that allowed the rise of Nazi Germany.
Last December, Congress authorized $350 million (€307 million) in weaponry to Ukraine, including anti-artillery radar, surveillance drones and communications equipment. But it is ultimately up to President Obama to make the decision to send the equipment.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Obama will “soon” decide whether to send arms to Ukraine. If the US doesn’t send arms, it could very well decide to impose stiffer sanctions on Russia, further hurting Russia’s already weak economy.
“Putin will only stop when he realizes it’s not in the national interest, that he needs to maintain his economy and maintain a relationship with the West,” said Sir Andrew Wood, former British ambassador to Russia and fellow researcher at Chatham House.
But Nixey is sceptical about the chances of forcing Putin to back down through more sanctions.
“Neither arms nor diplomacy nor sanctions will stop Putin. But we can make his life more difficult.”