How trust is central to peace negotiations between the EU and Putin

Marion is a second-year International Relations student at King’s College London. With strong interests in diplomacy, strategy, and european politics broadly, she is currently the European editor of International Relations today.

While finding how to end the fighting will be an international priority in the coming weeks, the Russo-Ukrainian war reaches levels of violence never seen before.

Since 24th February, missile strikes and shootings have targeted troops and civilians in all major cities of Ukraine, especially Kyiv. Major cities and infrastructures have been destroyed, including the entire city of Mariupol and Dnipro airport, located in Central-East Ukraine. Withdrawing towards the Ukrainian border and leaving Kyiv and Chernobyl on 1st April, Russian troops have temporarily appeased international fear of incident in the Tchernobyl zone, one of the most radioactively contaminated places in the world, closed since 1986. Still, Russian sporadic attacks continue. The cities of Mariupol, where 21.000 civilians have been killed, and Bucha, a Kyiv satellite suburb, are already synonymous with Russian war atrocities, investigated since a recent report revealed that 410 civilians have been killed around the capital. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, and the American President Joe Biden have already labelled atrocities against civilians as genocideTen humanitarian corridors have unanimously been agreed to respond to the international refugee crisis. 

For now, there seems to be very little prospect of ending a conflict that has threatened the peace of Europe more than any other European conflict since the end of the Cold War in 1989.

While Russian troops are stepping up their offensive in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and assailing Mariupol, peace negotiations started, with draft agreements judged as ‘unacceptable’ by Russia on 6th April. Talks indeed make very little progress. On top of political, strategic and military concerns over the status of Ukraine, trust is central to the difficulty of agreeing on a peace deal. 

Zelensky’s public scepticism, ‘Ukrainians are not naive’ shows that conditions for future negotiations will have to increase mutual trust. Playing a pivotal role, issues of trust between Russia and NATO members have long been unfolding a crisis in Europe. Since 1997 and the Treaty of Friendship, cooperation and partnership between Russia and Ukraine that guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereignty, mistrust was seen in multiple instances. First, the treaty expired on 31st March 2019, leaving Europe fearful of a non-respect for the inviolability of existing borders between Ukraine and Russia and an invasion similar to the 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea. Second, since then, Ukraine has progressively built closer ties to the west and set the pre-conditions to its membership to the EU, which Putin has claimed to be a violation of the treaty. Finally, Russian military build-up from November 2021 around Ukraine’s borders announced an invasion denied by Putin until a few hours before the invasion on 24th February, perpetuating a climate of mistrust between the West and Russia.

European manoeuvres for appeasement of tensions, symbolised by the recent calls between Putin and the French President Emmanuel Macron, revealed attempts to meet the conditions of a settlement. Still, Boris Johnson’s difficulties to arrange a call with the Russian President and surprise visit to Kyiv on 9th April, prove that the road to peace depends on successful mediation from European powers. But, as mentioned by the Russian deputy ambassador to the UN, “frankly we don’t trust British diplomacy. I think in recent years British diplomacy has shown that it is absolutely worthless in such issues”, resulting in the perpetuation of distrust and big hurdles in finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict. 

All this suggests collective amnesia in Europe, symptomatic of western political thoughts. The Predictable breakout of war in Ukraine earlier this year had the effects of a shock on Eurocentric leaders who seem to have forgotten the wars in former Yugoslavia. Geopolitical rivalries in the Balkans had led to a confrontation between Russia and the EU’s respective spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, only resolved by NATO’s 1999 Kosovo War and supervision of the detachment and independence of the Serbian province in 2008. Forgetting this, Eurocentrism treats European territory as if it were holy soil consecrated for perpetual peace by European blood, and as if Europe’s bloody history of internecine war makes war less rather than more likely”. Since February, multilateralism in Europe focused on addressing symptoms of war in Europe through sanctions and NATO’s finance of military equipment, instead of addressing its root causes. Ultimately, peaceful multilateral diplomatic practice and cooperation in Europe seem to depend heavily on the insurance of trusting relations. 

One thing is sure, the modern history of Europe seems to repeat itself and poses the same problems of mistrust since the Cold War. Once the conflict is settled, to avoid it being a temporary peace for Europe, profound divisions between Brussels and Moscow will need to be addressed.

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