Diplomatic blame game begins after failure of Ukraine peace talks

French President Emmanuel Macron accused of 'immense weakness' after peacemaking efforts stalled

High-stakes talks between the leaders of Germany, France and Russia did not succeed in preventing an invasion. EPA

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After weeks of summits and strongly worded statements failed to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine, the diplomatic finger-pointing has begun.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who admitted on Friday that he was deceived by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, is under fire less than two months before an election after his peacemaking mission to the Kremlin came to nothing.

One challenger to Mr Macron, Valerie Pecresse, said the Russian president had “rolled him in flour”, while a spokesman for another, Eric Zemmour, described his diplomatic efforts as a show of “immense weakness”.

Germany is also facing awkward questions after years of efforts to maintain cordial relations with Russia did not give it enough leverage to dissuade Mr Putin from war.

“I’m so angry at us for our historical failure,” said Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s defence minister from 2019 to 2021, who said Europe had failed to learn the lessons from previous episodes of Russian aggression.

“We did not prepare anything that would really have deterred Putin. We have to be militarily strong enough so that non-negotiation cannot be an option for the other side.”

Since the alarm was raised about a Russian troop build-up late last year, western diplomats had scurried across Europe and faced off with Russia’s leading officials at a series of summits in Brussels, Geneva and Moscow in a bid to make peace.

The threat of “massive consequences and severe costs” became a catchphrase for European leaders. Although they refused to contemplate Mr Putin’s proposals to curb the expansion of Nato, they were heartened by Russia’s offer of talks on secondary issues such as arms control.

Mr Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz reported some progress from talks around Mr Putin's famous long table at the Kremlin.

But those negotiations were seemingly killed off when Mr Putin ordered troops into Ukraine and the long-feared invasion began by air, land and sea early on Thursday. Nato and EU leaders meeting in Brussels hours later were challenged to explain why nothing they did had worked.

“There was duplicity,” said Mr Macron of his discussions with Russia. “There was a deliberate, conscious choice to launch war when we could still negotiate peace.”

Talks around Mr Putin's long Kremlin table had brought hope of keeping diplomacy alive. AFP

Czech President Milos Zeman, usually friendly towards Russia, admitted that he too had been blindsided by what he said was an “unprovoked act of aggression”. Russia's stated commitment to the Minsk peace process was also seemingly torpedoed by the invasion.

From left and right, some politicians suggested Nato’s intransigence on the question of its future expansion was partly to blame, although European leaders were quick to counter that the responsibility for war was Mr Putin’s and that his reasons for invading were spurious.

Francois Fillon, a conservative former prime minister of France with business links to Russian energy, said the West had failed to take on board the Kremlin’s concerns about Nato troops moving closer to its borders.

On the left, Greece’s former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said Mr Putin was to blame for the invasion but said Nato “must be condemned for creating the circumstances” in which Russia attacked.

Nato, in turn, has repeatedly said it is a defensive alliance only and that if Mr Putin wants fewer US-allied troops on his borders then he should pull back his own forces from Ukraine.

In Britain, meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there were two main reasons for the West’s weakness towards Russia: oil and gas.

Russia is the main gas exporter to Europe and, with coal out of favour and opinion divided on nuclear power, the continent expects to rely on gas plants for the foreseeable future until renewable energy can keep the lights on.

Mr Scholz moved this week to suspend the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, a project which his predecessor Angela Merkel had long defended, but this did not prove a deterrent to a Russian invasion.

In a statement, Mrs Merkel said the invasion was unjustified and a "profound turning point" in modern European history but did not address criticism of her own policies towards Russia.

Mr Johnson said the West had "learnt a bitter lesson about how to deal with Vladimir Putin" as he chided Europe for failing to learn the lessons from previous Russian ventures in Georgia and Crimea.

While Mr Johnson believes Britain is ahead of the game on the energy front, he is under pressure to go further in chasing questionable Russian money out of London after decades of relative hospitality for Kremlin-friendly oligarchs.

Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer went further than Mr Johnson in saying there would be “economic pain” involved in ridding Britain of Russian money and energy.

But he agreed with the prime minister that a “failed approach” to deterring Russia had led Mr Putin to believe that the benefits of aggression would outweigh the costs.

“For too long, our country has been a safe haven for the money that Putin and his fellow bandits stole from the Russian people,” Mr Starmer said. “It must now change.”

Updated: February 25, 2022, 12:21 PM