“Crimea is a disputed territory today, but let’s not talk politics,” says Svetlana Adaskina with a charming smile. She is the deputy general manager of the Hermitage. Today, the new Russian Orthodox Spiritual and Cultural Center in Paris built at Kremlin cost is hosting a roundtable, called “The South Coast of Crimea – territory of a global heritage.” The hall is half-full, mostly with Russian émigrés living in France, but also a few Frenchmen interested in business contacts with the Russian Federation. Colorful slides with gorgeous Crimean landscapes, an interesting historical excursion, and the insinuating tones of erudite speakers... “Science beyond politics,” is one of the memes of the information war that has been given new life with the help of Emmanuel Macron’s new Russian policy.
The time is past when Russians quietly waited for the world to get used to “Russian Crimea.” Now they can boldly brag about what they stole while the French Ministry of Culture not only does not react but, on the contrary, posts information about events that just half a year ago would have been called controversial, if not provocative – on its own site. “You yourselves elected a president who promised ‘peace soon’ and is demonstratively ‘ready to compromise,’” is how French colleagues justify it when asked about the new thaw in Franco-Russian relations is mentioned.
“I’m shocked by the open promotion of Russian propaganda from the Ministry of Culture of France, which, as part of its Days of European Heritage sees no problem – even after numerous appeals! – to hold an event under its aegis that effectively legitimizes the occupation of Crimea,” Ukrainian Ambassador to France Oleh Shampur wrote in his Twitter account. “A strange disconnect with the official position.” Indeed, there were quite a few appeals – from the embassy, from community activists, and from Ukrainian organizations. And still. The “new opportunities” that Macron seemed so excited about during President Zelenskiy’s visit appear to refer to a new “flexibility” in Paris’s attitudes to the standards of international law.
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“When will Russia return stolen Crimea to Ukraine?” asks local activist Volodymyr Kohutiak. “Never,” the audience responded in Russian. “Crimea’s ours.” The organizers clearly felt very much at home. Intellectual “non-political” discussions were saturated by insistent references to French investments in the 19thand early 20thcenturies. “Tatar monuments? There are hardly any,” the deputy manager of the Hermitage assured her audience when commenting on her personal photographs of archaeological digs on the southern shore. Unique archeological finds on this illegally taken territory are being removed to the renowned St. Petersburg museum. Without mincing words, this is the documented theft of cultural property. It’s clear that the well-known, erudite, distinguished French art critics who enthusiastically applaud Marian Lacombe’s film “The cultural heritage of the south coast of Crimea and its custodians” clearly don’t care.
“It’s not important to whom Crimea belongs today: Russia, Ukraine or someone else,” is how Russian Ambassador to France Aleksei Myeshkov puts it. “The main thing is for us all preserve and develop this unique corner of human cultural heritage together.”
Unconvincing conversations about a new agreement “à la Budapest memorandum” with the participation of Moscow and a Russian roundtable on Crimea a few steps from the Eiffel Tower may indeed be phenomena of different orders, but their roots are the same. Both of them about Ukraine slipping from a subject of foreign policy to an object. Vague rhetoric, the lack of reference to a victory over the aggressor state on Bankova, direct phone talks between Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the Master of the Kremlin – all these novelties not only are not only chilling the country’s western partners, but also allow them to assume that Kyiv is basically not against capitulating on Moscow’s terms, provided that everything is nicely wrapped and nicely presented.
“Kyiv and Moscow understand the notion of ‘establishing peace’ quite differently,” tweets Kostiantyn Yelyseyev, former ambassador to Brussels and a one-time diplomatic advisor to ex-President Poroshenko. For Ukraine, peace means the restoration of territorial integrity, while for Russia, it’s the slow post-factum legitimization of its theft of Ukrainian territory. According to experts at the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, the compromise in the recent release of hostages was a “tactical retreat” intended to “draw Bankova into a network of informal contacts and shadowy commitments.”
According to French lawyer Bernard Poitou, the biggest danger of such direct negotiations is not even the loss of such a valuable diplomatic resource as the international support of Ukraine’s allies but, more importantly, the establishment of a dangerous precedent: swapping the very clear requirements of international law with verbal agreements. “This kind of acquiescence to authoritarianism will have bad long-term consequences for all of Eastern Europe,” says Poitou. “It strengthens both Putin and all the other authoritarian leaders, who will see that time overcomes principles, and force beats rules.”
Yet another ambiguous precedent that is being very cautiously commented on in human rights circles is Ukraine’s consent to exchange its own citizens, from Volodymyr Tsemakh to supporters of the separatists, at Putin’s whim. No matter how guilty these individuals are before their own country, they should be judged by a Ukrainian court. Where is the guarantee that President Zelenskiy’s next step won’t be to agree to turn over to Russia those who are opposed to his administration, so that Moscow can settle other accounts? Until not long ago, prisoners were exchanged on the basic principle of standing up for our own, whatever the reason might have turned out to be for their imprisonment. Has trading in Ukrainian citizens become the new tactic? And if so, how far is the new administration prepared to go in its desire for easy popularity?
Compromising with the enemy is always, one way or another, capitulation on the part of the victim. All the more so when the victim is the first to declare that it wants peace... Macron can and should be criticized for his shortsighted haste in relations with Russia, but this is unlikely to remove the most painful issue for Ukraine from the agenda: with what and how is its new president prepared to pay for a “quick peace”? After the trilateral group met in Minsk on September 18, Moscow began screaming from all its media outlets that Ukraine had “once again torn up the peace agreement.” You’d think that Ukrainian tanks had entered Kursk and begun shooting. But if the enemy is so interested in the “Steinmeier formula,” whose interests does it serve and who stands to risk the most in following it?
According to estimates by French diplomatic sources, a meeting in Paris in the Normandy format might take place on October 15. Macron can’t wait to become a successful peacemaker. Moscow, meanwhile, will take full advantage of the opportunity to catch some more fish in the muddied waters. Kyiv has supposedly agreed to a mysterious “Zelenskiy formula” whose contents have not been revealed. As experienced diplomat Yelyseyev suggests on his Twitter page, “It makes sense to take the idea of a ‘Zelenskiy formula’ and try to turn it into a real Ukrainian formula for peace in the Donbas and to get together at the Normandy summit with this vision. Three components: no damage to the state structure, no damage to the sovereignty and territorial integrity, including Crimea, and no damage to the rights of Ukrainian citizens.” Whether Bankova takes these ideas to heart remains to be seen.
In general, it’s only in chess that you can start as black and win the game. The inability to promote his own policy initiatives will push the player into the paws of futile objectification. Then others begin to play on his behalf and for him, instead of him. Five years of war finally brought Ukraine, through pain and blood, into its own – imperfect but having accomplished something through its suffering. The risk now is that all this will be lost.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj