Ukraine's last days of peace: How Europe was deceived at Putin's long table

France's Emmanuel Macron claimed success in last-ditch peace talks — but to no avail

Powered by automated translation

A year ago on Wednesday, France’s President Emmanuel Macron was flying from Moscow to Kyiv and telling fellow passengers he had won the mind games at Vladimir Putin’s long table.

It was 16 days before the invasion of Ukraine and Mr Macron was on a last-ditch mission to avert war, as more than 100,000 Russian troops massed on the border.

The long Kremlin table was the image that summed up both the gulf between Russia and the West, and the isolation and paranoia that many believe drove Mr Putin to war.

Yet Mr Macron came away believing he had “frozen the game”, as he put it on the plane, and obtained a guarantee from Mr Putin that “there will be no degradation and no escalation”.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was sceptical when he met Mr Macron in Kyiv, saying he did “not really trust words”, while urging Ukrainians to remain calm.

Germany’s Olaf Scholz received the distant treatment too in Moscow — the official reason was Kremlin coronavirus rules — when he joined the diplomatic flurry, but he also came back with optimism that his warnings had been heard.

But on February 24, as tanks rolled into Ukraine, hopes and illusions about Russia that stretched back not only days but decades lay in tatters.

At the Elysee Palace, Mr Macron sat deep in thought that morning as he spoke to Mr Zelenskyy, his diplomatic sprint coming too late to change Mr Putin’s mind.

“My take is that we were many years too late at that stage,” Sir Adam Thomson, a former British ambassador to Nato, told The National.

“Looking at the evidence now, I think it is clear that Putin had made up his mind to go for this unless he got the most extraordinary concessions from the West, ones that were simply unavailable.”

Clouds of war

Alarm bells had been ringing for months. As early as April 2021, diplomats had formally asked Russia to explain an unusual military build-up in Crimea and the Black Sea.

Mr Putin published a 7,000-word essay glorifying Russia’s historical kinship with Ukraine, seen by Kremlin watchers as a sign he was stewing in grievance.

At a meeting with US President Joe Biden in Geneva, Mr Putin “made very clear his belief that Ukraine should be subjugated under Russia”, Derek Chollet, a diplomatic aide in Washington, told a BBC documentary.

Although some troops returned to base for a time, Mr Zelenskyy was telling allies that only 10,000 had been withdrawn, and by November 2021 Nato was again crying foul about Russia’s movements.

At the same time, worried letters were changing hands about European energy supplies. Were wildfires in Siberia really decimating imports from Russia, or was Moscow playing games with the energy market?

Still, many were willing to give Russia the benefit of the doubt. Although US diplomats were briefing that Mr Putin was deadly serious about an invasion, others were not so sure.

An EU agency told to investigate Russia’s energy antics reported back that constraints on supply could be genuine, which reassured Mr Scholz’s new government in Germany as it considered opening the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

“We can’t seriously ask more from our suppliers than that they fulfil their contracts,” one German official said at the time.

On the brink

In mid-December, Russia made a move, proposing a pair of treaties that would bar Ukraine from joining Nato, limit US missile deployment in Europe and address a range of Kremlin security grievances.

Was this Mr Putin’s ransom demand? While many analysts doubted the proposals were serious, others hoped the military build-up might merely be a bluff.

American intelligence had been wrong in the past, notably about Iraq’s chemical weapons programme in 2003, and there were divisions in Europe over whether to seek dialogue with Moscow or threaten it with sanctions.

“Nato is vastly more diverse than it was during the Cold War. It has former Warsaw Pact states who’ve lived under Russian occupation, and that creates a certain point of view about geopolitics that is not easy to reconcile with the western European one,” Sir Adam said.

“We can see very clearly with hindsight that US and perhaps British intelligence may have got it wrong about Ukrainian responses and capabilities, but got it dead right on what the Kremlin was up to. I think they deserve real credit.”

By the time Mr Macron went to Moscow, concern about Russia’s plans was at its height. It was not only the 100,000 troops and joint exercises with Belarus: the tanks, artillery and field hospitals being readied all suggested this was more than a bargaining chip, even as Russia denied it would invade.

Yet hope remained that diplomacy would prevail. Nato and the US sent replies to Moscow’s treaties, refusing to budge on the open-door policy to Ukraine, but offering talks on arms control.

The UK’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, another visitor to Moscow, recalled he had caught Russian officials by surprise by making a human appeal: “I’ve seen too many of my own soldiers buried to want people to do this.”

Britain’s then-foreign secretary Liz Truss made little headway with Russia’s Sergey Lavrov, who described their joint press conference as “a conversation between a mute person and a deaf person”.

But Mr Macron left Moscow with hope, while Mr Scholz’s aides saw faint signs of de-escalation, and a February 16 date identified as a possible invasion day passed without incident.

Briefed the following day on the long-table discussions, EU leaders were told that Mr Putin had heard the western warnings.

Then in the fourth week of February, Russia recognised the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states, in a dramatic escalation of tensions.

That triggered the first round of EU sanctions and Mr Scholz finally relented to pressure from Washington by announcing Nord Stream 2 would be suspended.

Still, as late as February 23, with diplomats already preparing further sanctions if the worst should happen, Mr Scholz’s spokesman Steffen Hebestreit clung to hope that peace would prevail.

“If it was up to me, we would never need this sanctions package,” he said, before closing his press conference with a wry smile: “But I don’t know if it will be up to me.”

That very night, Mr Putin sat down at another Kremlin table and, cameras rolling, crossed the point of no return.

Updated: February 08, 2023, 6:35 AM