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Divided West, divided Europe

Bernd Riegert / dcFebruary 10, 2015

If Wednesday's summit in Minsk doesn't result in a compromise on the Ukraine conflict, DW's Bernd Riegert says it will spell bad news for what until now has been the West's biggest strength - its unity.

Ostukraine Krise Kämpfe bei Wuhlehirsk
Image: Reuters/M. Shemetov

It's getting increasingly difficult for the European Union to close ranks when it comes to the Ukraine crisis. The opinions of the EU's foreign ministers are drifting ever further apart, both on the issue of sanctions against Russia and the question of supplying weapons to Ukraine.

A whole row of member states, mainly from Eastern Europe, is now prepared to follow the path determined by the United States. They would support sending modern weapons to the Ukrainian army so that it can defend itself against attacks from rebels and soldiers equipped by Russia. However, the majority of EU states are still against arms shipments, arguing as Germany has done that additional weapons would only make the conflict worse.

One of the few strengths that the West has had against Russian President Vladimir Putin's imperial actions has been its unity on Ukraine. But the US could endanger this if it convinces some EU member states to support arms deliveries and a tougher stance against Moscow.

Arms could spark escalation

Deutsche Welle Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert is based in DW's Brussels bureau

If Wednesday's summit in Minsk should fail and the US decides to supply arms to Kyiv, Moscow could well conclude that the Western diplomatic front has crumbled.

The Kremlin would also have a welcome excuse to officially go to war in eastern Ukraine and give even more supplies to the rebels. In that case, a further escalation would likely be unavoidable. It would be the start of a proxy war, carried out on Ukrainian soil.

Those who supply weapons need to be aware that they must also send advisers and teams of operators if the weapons are to be effectively deployed. In the end, that could mean ground troops from East and West facing off against each other in eastern Ukraine. No one in Europe, or in the US for that matter, could seriously want that scenario.

Purely defensive weapons don't exist. Russia would respond to arms deliveries from NATO states by further stocking its armament. And what happens then?

No, the EU should firmly reject any form of escalation of the conflict. Maybe eastern Ukraine can't be returned to Ukraine proper, but maintained in a loose federation. Putin would partly win. It would hurt, but what's the alternative? Further battles, more deaths? The threat of all-out war between Russia and the West?

Preventing the division of Europe with weapons?

Russia willfully destroyed the previous order in Europe. The EU and also the US have to see that they can only inadequately defend themselves against this if they don't want to take an uncalculated risk.

The red line remains NATO's outer border. Russia can't cross that line. Otherwise, it would mean that (eastern) Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Belarus would fall back into Moscow's sphere of influence. The West can't and shouldn't defend these countries with weapons, but with words. A new division of Europe is imminent.