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A Voice From France’s Past Speaks to Europe’s Future

Journalists know that authors with a book to sell often provide the best quotes. That, in part, explains the reappearance of France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy in the news recently, as an interview he gave to promote his memoirs sparked a storm for appearing to support Russia.

The one-term president said Russia was Europe’s neighbor and that “we need them and they need us.” Of the Ukraine invasion, he said Europe needed a clearer strategy, but that Ukraine should ultimately remain neutral and not be admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the European Union.

His most contentious remarks were about Crimea, Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia in 2014. Returning that territory – as some fighting the Ukraine war have suggested ought to be a goal – was illusory, Sarkozy said.

Sarkozy is only one of a handful of voices around the Western world breaking with the general consensus on how the invasion of Ukraine might end. These voices have grown louder as the progress of the Ukrainian counteroffensive has quieted. The reason is that the West’s vision of how this war might end has never looked so fragile.

As the winter of the second year of war fast approaches, and it begins to look like Ukraine policy will be a fixture in European and American elections next year, fatigue, even resentment, is setting in. The unusual proposals put forward by voices like Sarkozy are an expression of this uncertainty, a search not so much for a way forward, as for a way out.

Days before the Sarkozy interview, Stian Jenssen, the director of the private office of the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, suggested that Ukraine might give up land to Russia in exchange for joining NATO.

Across the Atlantic, the little-known Republican presidential contender Vivek Ramaswamy took a hard line on Ukraine in a television debate, saying he would end financial assistance to the country, and has echoed Sarkozy in saying he would block Ukraine’s entry into NATO and trade Ukrainian land for a Russian peace.

His may have been a lone voice on the debate stage, and he is in a minority among mainstream Republican politicians, but his views do have traction with former president Donald Trump’s base, to whom he is obviously appealing. The same applies to Sarkozy, who is not a decision-maker, although he does wield considerable influence on his wing of French politics.

Yet part of why Sarkozy’s comments have had such an airing is that they are echoing in the absence of policy.

Waning support for war

Despite some overenthusiastic reports in the media about the speed of Ukraine’s advance, progress has been plodding. The counteroffensive is about to enter its fourth month, with no major shift in the battle lines.

The maximalist position of retaking the occupied territories in the east of the country and even Crimea is, on current progress, years away; it isn’t even obvious whether Western leaders have the appetite for such a drawn-out conflict, much less their populations.

Yet the minimalist position is obscure, and that is a major reason little diplomatic progress has been made. What would the smallest imaginable Ukrainian victory look like? Giving up the eastern territories? Freezing the conflict into the future? Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly ruled out both these scenarios.

Over the past year, Western leaders have batted away these details, hoping that battlefield victories would change the political calculus. But with no decisive blow yet dealt to Russia, Western capitals are beginning to wonder what might be next. The words “frozen conflict” loom above all, alongside the question of how to explain them to an electorate.

Next year, there will be three major elections for those involved in the Ukraine war.

In June, there will be European elections, and if the Ukraine conflict is still frozen or grinding slowly, and the continent’s cost-of-living crisis continues, the architects of the current policy can expect a hammering.

The US election later that year is more ambiguous, with foreign policy rarely top of the agenda for voters. But already candidates for the Republican nomination are wrapping new views on Ukraine into a broader non-intervention, America-first outlook. Whoever opposes Joe Biden for the presidency, putting American interests first will be a crucial part of the conversation, and the astronomical sums offered to Ukraine an easy line of attack.

Surprisingly, Russia’s presidential election in March may be the one where Ukraine plays the least role. As long as there is no breakthrough for Kiev before then, or a need for a mass mobilization of Russian men, the election can possibly play down the reality of the war, and reiterate the talking points of Moscow fighting its enemies.

But Russian elections also mean that, if the war can’t be resolved by force before then, it won’t be resolved by negotiations until afterward – because it won’t be in President Vladimir Putin’s interests to have a negotiated deal on the table in March. Better to be “in talks,” and remove the issue of Ukraine from the agenda.

In other words, if there is no major change in the war in the next few weeks, it will almost certainly grind on into next spring.

That realization is behind the resurgence of the “realist” position, of which Sarkozy’s ideas are only part.

For months, Western leaders have been hoping to end the war in Ukraine. As that becomes less likely, so a shift is gradually taking place: the realization that if the Ukraine invasion can’t be solved on the Ukrainian battlefield, it will have to be solved on the Western political stage.

Source : Asiatimes

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