14 Mar 2014

Kerry and Lavrov meet, but omens on Ukraine are not good

I suspect that the real achievement of today’s meeting in London between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov is that it is happening at all.

The lines of communication are staying open at least, despite no sign of a Russian troop withdrawal from Crimea. But the omens for a resolution of this crisis remain very poor.

For the diplomatic chill is set to deepen again this weekend, when Crimea is planning to vote on joining Russia, and when Europe will draw up a list of visa restrictions and asset freezes as part of a first round of sanctions against Moscow.

European sanctions matter more than American ones, because the trade between Russia and Europe is so many times greater – though the prospect of America eventually leading a boycott of this summer’s G8 summit in Sochi would be quite some snub and probably be taken very personally by Vladimir Putin himself.

Russia's Foreign Minister Lavrov and U.S.Secretary of State Kerry meet in Rome

The idea this week is for the west to punish in order to persuade; to make it clear that if there is no troop withdrawal, or at least no admission of European monitors, or no beginning to talks between Moscow and Kiev on what is fast becoming a territorial dispute, then more sanctions will follow.

Angela Merkel, who urged caution last week, is sounding much tougher on this now. Her patience is wearing thin, despite the mutual damage to Germany and Russia that economic sanctions would cause.

But the irony is that the tougher the west becomes, the more intransigent the Russians are likely to become.

The siege mentality, the years of frustration at Nato‘s and the EU’s eastward expansion, Russia’s need to define its traditional backyard in 19th century military terms, will surely only intensify.

Military confrontation seems unlikely, but if it happened would likely be caused by one of three things: either the Russians provoking violence in eastern Ukraine to justify and possibly expand their troop presence; or the Ukrainians provoking violence out of frustration at the deadlock over their territorial occupation; or a clash between hotheads on both sides with unintended consequences.

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