No relief in sight.

Photographer: ZAC BAILLIE/AFP/Getty Images

Ukraine and Syria Are in U.S. Election Limbo

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The U.S. presidential election isn’t just cause for American anxiety: Ukraine and Syria are two countries where only the Nov. 8 vote can lead to significant changes -- even, if they’re lucky, to ending bloodshed.

Both the end of the war in eastern Ukraine and the resolution of the Syrian conflict should concern Europe more than they do the U.S. Ukraine’s Russian-backed rebellion is a direct result of the Kiev authorities’ decision to move toward membership in the European Union. The Syrian crisis has flooded Europe with refugees. And yet European leaders are either incapable of defusing both situations or unwilling to do anything until they figure out which way the U.S. is going to move. A Wednesday meeting in Berlin of the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine and a subsequent EU summit on Thursday, both inconclusive, prove that both Ukraine and Syria are now in U.S. election-induced limbo.

The Berlin meeting was the first summit of the four key countries in a year. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko have only met in person when they had serious decisions to make -- or at least hoped it would be possible. By that standard, the outcome of the meeting was disappointing. 

QuickTake Standoff in Ukraine

After the five-hour talks were over, no documents were signed and it appeared that the parties had emerged with a different understanding of what was agreed. Putin said the four leaders would "continue joint work on the political track" and expand the eastern Ukraine mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Poroshenko’s vision of the outcome was more specific: a road map for the full implementation of the shaky 2015 Minsk ceasefire agreement by the end of November and an OSCE "police mission" -- an armed contingent to ensure the security and fairness of local elections. Merkel and Hollande mentioned the road map but no specific deadline for its creation, and cited the OSCE mission but not its "police" function. 

It appears that Merkel and Hollande refrained from pressing Putin and Poroshenko to follow the rather detailed provisions of the Minsk deal. Talk of a road map means these terms, and the order in which they are to be met, will now be renegotiated. The French and German leaders know perfectly well where that will lead. Poroshenko's government won't allow local elections in eastern Ukraine until Russia allows Ukraine to reassume control of its eastern border. Russia won't cede control of the border until the elections are held.

Germany and France "continue to ignore Ukraine's main demand -- first restore control over the border and only then talk about Donbass elections," Mikheil Saakashvili, governor of Ukraine's Odessa region, wrote on Facebook. "In any case, half-measures leading to the legalization of the occupation won’t pass in parliament, and even if they do pass, the Ukrainian public will not accept them."

That's why no one except Poroshenko, perennially looking for reasons to accuse Putin of not following agreements, is willing to name a specific deadline. Drawing up the road map without a breakthrough in high-level talks leads to a dead end. 

President Barack Obama's administration has largely outsourced the Ukraine crisis to Merkel and Hollande. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland has traveled to Kiev to push for the European vision of elections before the border issue has been resolved, and Vice President Joe Biden has commiserated with Poroshenko while calling on him to fight corruption.

The next U.S. administration can break down this pattern, for example by siding with Ukraine on the order in which the political process should unfold, supplying Kiev with lethal weapons and slapping harsher economic sanctions on Russia. It could also side with Russia on elections first and withhold economic and technical assistance from Ukraine until it concedes.

Neither is possible until the next president is in office, so there is no reason for the sides to agree on anything now.

QuickTake Syria’s Civil War

On Wednesday, Merkel and Hollande also spoke to Putin about Syria, accusing Russia of being a party to war crimes in Aleppo. They got nowhere: Putin told them that his course of action depended on the U.S. "We’re hoping that our partners, primarily our American partners, will do everything they’ve promised so far, including separating Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists and their ilk from the so-called healthy part of the opposition," he said after the talks. 

The European leaders swallowed this unsubtle hint. On Thursday, an EU summit condemned Russia’s actions in Syria, but the EU leaders failed to call for any specific sanctions on Russia, only threatening "further restrictive measures targeting individuals and entities supporting the regime, should the atrocities continue" -- a reference to the ineffective sanctions regime that already exists for Russia because of Ukraine. 

The U.S. will need to take the lead on this matter. Europe, which has more to lose than the U.S. from sanctioning Russia economically, won’t make the first move, nor is it sufficiently involved in the Syrian war to discuss political solutions with Putin. The new U.S. administration will have to decide quickly whether it’s taking the hard line, ratcheting up anti-Russian sanctions and perhaps even taking the battle to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s troops, or working out a deal with Putin that will leave Assad in power.

Russia, Europe, Ukraine, the Assad regime and the Syrian rebels could have had some clarity about the U.S. course of action by now. After all, three debates between the two top presidential candidates have come and gone, and each of the candidates had an opportunity to take a stand. Instead, the campaign has evolved into a mud-slinging match that is set to continue for another three weeks. Then the winner will be busy forming an administration and figuring out how to work with the newly elected Congress. Many Ukrainians and Syrians won’t live to find out how the U.S. will weigh in.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net