The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion European leaders still can’t shake the urge to appease Russia

France's President Emmanuel Macron, right, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, left, Prime Minister of Italy Mario Draghi, center, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, second left, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Kyiv on June 16. The European Union leaders vowed to back Kyiv's bid to become an official candidate to join the bloc in a high-profile show of support for the country fending off a Russian invasion. (Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

It felt like a historic occasion when the leaders of Europe’s largest states, Germany, Italy and France, finally visited Kyiv on Thursday. Air raid sirens howled as their night train pulled into the Ukrainian capital. French President Emmanuel Macron spoke of “a message of European unity.” But behind the warm words, there was also plenty of cold calculation as Europe’s leaders push to end the war as soon as possible.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, none of the European Union heavyweights had seen fit to visit Ukraine. Macron, who boasted that he has spent “at least a hundred hours” on the phone with Vladimir Putin, declared that he would travel to Kyiv only if he felt it was “useful.” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke dismissively of not wanting to “join the queue of people who do a quick in-and-out for a photo opportunity.”

But the Thursday visit didn’t turn out to be particularly “useful” to Ukraine, which has been pleading desperately for more weapons; nor was it much more than a photo op. Apart from six additional howitzers from France, all the European leaders offered was support for Ukraine’s bid to become a member of the E.U. at some point in the future.

But how large the Ukrainian state will still be if it joins is anyone’s guess. The visitors made it clear that they want the war to end as soon as possible — and that they expect Kyiv to make concessions to make that happen.

Italy, which gets 40 percent of its imported gas from Russia, had already begun to circulate a peace plan that would implicitly compel Ukraine to give up political control over Crimea and Donbas. Both Italy and Germany have also begun to undermine sanctions against Russia by allowing their energy companies to open ruble accounts to pay for gas and oil, thus helping to fuel Putin’s war machine.

Macron, who had been widely criticized for recently declaring that Russia shouldn’t be “humiliated,” doubled down on that notion. He said that the harsh terms imposed on Germany after its loss in World War I had been “a historic mistake” that “lost the peace because [France] wanted to humiliate Germany.” The implication is that if Russia is not treated with leniency now, it will commit far worse crimes in the future, just as Germany did in World War II.

Macron’s analogy is particularly ill-suited since it assumes that Russia has already lost the war. But this could not be further from the truth. According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Russia controls one-fifth of his country. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace has said that Russia outnumbers Ukraine in artillery fire by 20 to 1 in some areas. By contrast, Germany was defeated in 1918 and forced to accept terms that cost it 13 percent of its territory in Europe. Nobody can or will make such demands on Russia. Macron’s analogy is wrong in every way, and he knows it.

Behind the desire to end the conflict soon lies the false assumption that this will allow Europe to resume business as usual. Russia is a crucial trading partner for Germany. Macron wants an end to the painful side effects of the war that are threatening to unravel his new tenure as president, and his Italian counterpart Mario Draghi, too, is struggling with the fallout from the sanctions. The trio sees a swift end of the war as necessary if they are to form a new axis of economic and political power in continental Europe after Brexit.

But this realpolitik approach is not only morally wrong, it is also shortsighted. Putin has notoriously argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union, of which Ukraine was a constituent republic, was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He has made it clear that he seeks to undo this “catastrophe.”

If Putin is appeased now, as he was in 2014 when Germany and France failed to freeze the conflict in Ukraine, he will simply take the time to regroup. Bowing to economic pressures undermines the entire concept of deterrence. Germany long dismissed warnings that Moscow might try to leverage its deep dependence on Russian natural gas, thereby emboldening the Kremlin. Now Germany, Italy and France seem prepared to make the same mistake again.

With Poland, the Baltic States, Finland and Sweden seriously concerned about their security, the soft Western European approach is also likely to exacerbate tensions within the E.U. The German government, in particular, remains tone-deaf to their concerns.

Russia, meanwhile, shows little sign of concern. During the Kyiv visit, former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev sneered at the European leaders, calling them “fans of frogs, liverwurst and spaghetti.” Yet even as Moscow continues its indiscriminate bombing and shelling of Ukrainian civilians, Russia’s politicians are still treated as rational actors by those who seek peace at all costs.

Putin cannot, and will not, give up his claim on Eastern Europe. The supposed realpolitik of Europe’s most powerful countries is both shameful and ill-considered. France and Germany, of all countries, should know that an ambitious dictator can never be appeased.