Fear of Vladimir Putin grows in EU capitals amid spectre of ‘total war’

That Merkel has gone to Moscow is telling in itself and speaks to the sudden gravity of the situation. The Russian-speaking German chancellor has talked to the German-speaking Putin more than 40 times in the past year as the main western mediator on Ukraine. But until Friday she had never gone to Moscow. Only a few weeks ago she vetoed a summit in Kazakhstan with Putin because she believed there was no point negotiating with someone she no longer trusted.

Putin is demanding that a large tract of eastern Ukraine, taken by force by his separatist proxies in recent weeks, be granted internationally licensed autonomy and that a new frontline be recognised as a basis for a putative ceasefire.

The parallel might be 1991 in Croatia when the Serbs took a quarter of the country and then consolidated their grip behind lines patrolled by UN peacekeepers. It crippled and destabilised Croatia.

European policymakers say this is Putin’s aim in Ukraine. In Croatia the land-grab lasted four years until Zagreb, gradually armed by the Americans and Europeans, quickly routed the Serbs militarily.

Arming the Ukrainians, meanwhile, will open up big divisions between the Americans and most Europeans. Putin is playing on those divisions as he plays on splits between the Europeans. He does not need to try very hard. The divisions are ever-present over sanctions.

The sanctions policy has so far held up, but is showing acute strains. Senior diplomats from EU governments regularly say the sanctions are hurting but are not working because they have not changed Putin’s behaviour. The EU is split in two, with Britain leading the pro-sanctions side and a sizeable group complaining that the punishment has cost the EU an estimated 15% of exports to Russia. Germany is the pivot, the swing power.

Putin is increasingly seen as a reckless gambler who calls bluffs and takes risks, and is inscrutable, paranoid and unpredictable. Trying to work out what he wants is guesswork. The Europeans sound scared.

Ukraine is a huge problem for Europe, not least the dawning realisation that fixing it will cost tens of billions and will take a very long time. But for Europe it is becoming clear that the real nightmare is not Ukraine, but Putin’s Russia.

Full article: Fear of Vladimir Putin grows in EU capitals amid spectre of ‘total war’ (The Guardian)

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