Poland is preparing to raise the diplomatic stakes significantly against Russian President Vladimir Putin by calling for the removal of the Black Sea Fleet from Ukraine as a condition for easing crushing economic sanctions imposed on Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
The new demand for the withdrawal of all Russian troops came during an interview of Poland’s ambassador to the United States, Marek Magierowski, by Carlyle co-founder and co-chairman David Rubenstein of the Economic Club of Washington on April 20.
“I will give you some very specific conditions. These are not yet official, and this is my personal view. If we want to even start thinking about easing up those restrictions or lifting part of the sanctions, there are some obvious conditions,” Magierowski told Rubenstein, adding: “First of all, Russia has to withdraw all its troops, not just from Ukraine proper, but also from Crimea and all those territories that were annexed in 2014.”
Magierowski’s demand for complete withdrawal of the Russian military from Crimea, including the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, is a major diplomatic escalation on the part of Poland, as it would mark a Russian military defeat even surpassing that of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, a defeat that led to the eventual downfall and execution of Czar Nicholas II.
Notwithstanding his statement as “not yet official,” Magierowski, who served as Poland’s deputy foreign minister prior to his appointment to Washington, leaves no doubt that there is any light between himself and Polish President Andrzej Duda.
Kremlin watchers deemed reliable, including the former US ambassador to Moscow and current CIA director, Bill Burns, believe that Putin’s impulsive decision to annex Crimea in 2014 stemmed from disinformation from his inner cabinet. The United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization wanted to kick the Black Sea Fleet out of Crimea after the Euromaidan protest ousted kleptocratic Russian ally Viktor Yanukovych from power.
The main goal of the current military invasion of Ukraine is to secure a defensible land bridge between Crimea and mainland Russia so water and other resources cannot be blocked by Ukraine.
The new hardline demand by Poland, which will most probably be joined by Baltic NATO members, will never be acceptable to Russia, with or without Putin, as Sevastopol is one of Russia’s most important naval bases, a warm-water port created by Czarina Catherine the Great in 1784 after the Russo-Turkish war.
The person to bridge the gap between hawkish NATO members such as Poland and doves such as Germany, Bulgaria and Greece will be Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
In a news conference with the Foreign Press Association of Italy held on March 31, Draghi said that both Russia and Ukraine had accepted Italy as a mediator in any peace talks and that he continued to seek to arrange a bilateral meeting between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Putin.
Draghi’s role as the peacemaker between Russia and Ukraine will come to the forefront when he holds his first White House meeting with President Joe Biden around May 10. Draghi is also expected to travel to Kiev for a face-to-face meeting with President Zelensky in Kiev.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Draghi confirmed the Oval Office meeting with Biden around May 10 but said a meeting between Draghi and Zelensky in Kiev is still in the planning stages.
At the same time Poland is upping the stakes on any future peace talks, Russia is threatening to annex all of southern Ukraine by connecting the breakaway republic of Transnistria of Moldova to the Donbas and Russia proper.
Dmitry Suslov, the director of the Kremlin-funded and approved Center for Comprehensive European and the International Studies think-tank, told Milan’s Corriere della Sera newspaper that Russia could accept a peace deal in which Ukraine recognizes the annexation of Crimea and the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk along with neutrality and demilitarization.
Otherwise, Suslov says citing Kremlin officials, Russia will continue to seek more Ukrainian territory such as the port city of Odessa.
“From our point of view, if the Russian victory in Donbas is unequivocable, it would be easier for Kiev to accept an agreement,” Suslov said.
While Suslov said such a peace agreement would basically cement the post-2014 status quo, it is highly unlikely Ukraine would, or even could, accept such a deal, considering the massive civilian casualties and destruction estimated in the hundred of billions of dollars.
Suslov also revealed that Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov never imagined that the United States would freeze Russia’s central bank foreign-currency reserves and oust Russian banks from the SWIFT interbank payment system.
Draghi, a former Bank of Italy governor and European Central Bank president, is also negotiating a delicate line between Ukraine’s demand that the European Union immediately boycott Russian gas and countries such as Italy and Germany that are dependent on Russia’s Gazprom for between 40-55% of their energy consumption.
Germany’s Bundesbank just released a report estimating that a total embargo of Russian oil and gas imports would lead to a 5% decline in German GDP and a lost of output of €165 billion (nearly US$178 billion), while inflation would rise to 8.8% from 7.3% in 2022.
It is hoped that Prime Minister Draghi can re-earn his “Super Mario” moniker from saving the world from the 2008 financial meltdown by pioneering a new path to overcome the apparently irreconcilable differences between Russia and Ukraine and divergent interests within the Atlantic alliance.
Peter K Semler is the chief executive editor and founder of Capitol Intelligence. Previously, he was the Washington, DC, bureau chief for Mergermarket (Dealreporter/Debtwire) of the Financial Times and headed political and economic coverage of the US House of Representatives and Senate.