Wrote by: Vladimir Milov, Research Associate, Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies
Much focus of Western leaders at the moment is oriented around diplomacy as the primary tool to resolve the Russia-Ukraine crisis. However, as history confirms, Western politicians should remain clear-eyed about the limitations of diplomacy when dealing with Vladimir Putin's government.
After 20 years in power, Putin has developed a track record for disregarding Russia's international formal commitments. In the case of Ukraine, the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 and the subsequent Minsk Agreements were de facto thrown into the dustbin, at times in a mocking manner, with Russian representatives labeling the Budapest Memorandum as "non-binding".
With regard to Minsk II, Russia was able to deceive the West into non-recognition of Russia's role as a part of the conflict, and never actually tried to seriously implement the security and border control part, cherry-picking on the parts of Minsk II that it liked, and preferring to insist that Ukraine guarantees the special status of Donbas before any other action was taken. Let's be clear: Minsk II was partially effective as a cease-fire agreement, but its framework is too controversial and open to different interpretations to serve as a roadmap for the resolution of the Donbas conflict.
There are numerous examples of Putin's disregard of various international commitments on all fronts - to begin with, the Chemical Weapons Convention, as became clear with the 2020 poisoning of Alexei Navalny. Therefore, any commitments that Russia may take during 'diplomatic' negotiations should be ascribed a very low value. Putin may easily withdraw from any of these commitments and will continue to only cherry-pick on the specific provisions which he prefers (as the current Minsk process confirms), and may easily create new crises out of the blue to advance his policy goals.
There is a major difference between Putin’s regime and to the leadership of the USSR, which was a tough negotiator but maintained a credible record of generally sticking to international commitments they made. Putin's signature is worth a lot less. Therefore, while diplomacy may serve as a short-term tool for de-escalation of tensions, with Putin, it can't create a solid base for any future framework of relationships - given Putin's strong disobedience record. There can be no ‘new Helsinki’ with him. Moreover, he is encouraged by the West's inaction regarding his past broken commitments and views diplomacy as a tool of achieving his own selfish goals, well aware that any of his commitments are worth very little, and he can easily exit if he so chooses.
The hopes and emphasis on diplomacy as a long-term solution of the problems with Putin are, therefore, naive. More emphasis should be put on deterrence instead - to make sure that Putin learns the hard lesson that Russia's commitments should be respected. Only then can diplomacy become a more effective tool of dealing with Putin, not the other way around.