Ukraine 2014: permanent crisis or a model for new relations?
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PhD in History, Associate Professor, Department of Post-Soviet Countries, Russian State University for the Humanities, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Post-Soviet and Interregional Studies, RIAC expert
The Ukraine crisis has been the main event of the year on the international arena and looks likely to remain on the agenda in the long run. It not only exposed all the difficult points in the establishment and development of post-Soviet Ukrainian statehood but also revealed a whole range of global controversies that have been brewing for quite a long time.
The Ukraine crisis has been the main event of the year on the international arena and looks likely to remain on the agenda in the long run. It not only exposed all the difficult points in the establishment and development of post-Soviet Ukrainian statehood but also revealed a whole range of global controversies that have been brewing for quite a long time. The events in Ukraine have been a kind of a litmus paper and catalyst for these negative trends, which have shown up the severe tensions not only between Moscow and Kiev but also in the Moscow–Brussels–Washington relationship. In this context the security system across the entire European continent also depends to a significant degree on the way in which the situation in Ukraine develops.
Maidan and the Origins of the Conflict
On one hand, the Maidan events, which were the source of the current situation, deserve criticism, above all because the people taking part in them were representatives of nationalist organizations which had a marked influence on the radicalization of Ukrainian society. At the same time, a significant number of those involved in these events were sincerely coming out against corrupt government and in favor of moving closer to Europe, albeit often without understanding the possible repercussions of such a policy, particularly the costs which Ukraine would have to bear if it pursued this too rapidly. The Viktor Yanukovich regime was the main cause of the Maidan events, although in order to find their origins one must look at the general problems associated with the evolution of Ukrainian statehood over the two post-Soviet decades.
A significant number of those involved in these events were sincerely coming out against corrupt government and in favor of moving closer to Europe, albeit often without understanding the possible repercussions of such a policy, particularly the costs which Ukraine would have to bear if it pursued this too rapidly.
Apart from the domestic causes, the protest against the government was also caused by an external factor. The influence which the USA had on the events in Ukraine is virtually undisputed, even by many American experts. For Russia these actions by the USA were a watershed, the last line before open confrontation. In the 1990s it was possible to speak of western, and above all American, influence predominating on the Eurasian continent, including in the post-Soviet area, but the beginning of the 2000s was a time when international relations became more complicated. The unambiguous policy of imposing their “own” regimes, the eastward NATO expansion and the claims to domination in the field of constructing images, ideas and meanings forced a sharp reaction of other actors, who were either only just emerging in prominent roles in international life thanks to rapid economic growth or who, having lost their influence, like Russia after the collapse of the USSR, could not come to terms with this trend that was negative for them. These actors themselves have serious problems characterized by dependence on resources, lagging behind in the area of innovations, a permanent search for their place in the world, as in the case of Russia, catch-up development and exhaustion of the cheap manpower resource, as in the case of the PRC, but nevertheless making their presence felt with increasing force.
Russia, which perceived – and it must be said not without good reason – the post-Soviet area as its sphere of influence, responded to the West’s expansion by creating limitrophe states and implementing the concept of the “Russian world”, in view of the fact that a considerable proportion of Russian-speakers and Russians living in countries in the post-Soviet area had suffered a loss of rights. In 2008 Russia’s sharp response caused a total crisis in relations, but in 2014 it led to a much more serious situation, although both then and now the way Russia acted was essentially a knee-jerk reaction.
The Crimea issue, like the situation in South-East Ukraine, was primarily caused by problems concerning Ukraine’s internal development. For all the shortcomings in Russia’s policy in the post-Soviet area which occurred especially in the 1990s, it was the unwillingness of some citizens to adopt the model of development that Ukraine was pursuing that led to the consequences that we are seeing today. The disagreements became especially intense in terms of the geographical division of Ukraine, which had historical causes. A whole range of regions, such as Donbass, Transcarpathia and Crimea, required a more careful, more subtle policy aimed at integration, strengthening of the status of the Russian, Hungarian and Ruthenian languages, and the establishment of truly autonomous powers for regions rather than powers that are just for show.
In addition, the events in Crimea and in South-East Ukraine were evidence of the citizens’ complete distrust of the government at both the national and regional levels and their desire to escape the diktat of Kiev. On the contrary, in the capital itself and other cities in central and western Ukraine slogans became popular that mocked or harshly criticised Donbass and Crimea and the position of the people living there, who, according to many in Ukraine, were complicit in the coming to power of a corrupt regime. In the final analysis, problems of national identity, the lack of mutual understanding and of a desire to reach agreement on a number of language, cultural and social issues made it difficult for the central authorities to function effectively.
For all the shortcomings in Russia’s policy in the post-Soviet area it was the unwillingness of some citizens to adopt the model of development that Ukraine was pursuing that led to the consequences that we are seeing today.
As a result, today the South-East and to a lesser degree Crimea, whose residents came out unequivocally in favor of joining Russia, have become problems in terms of international relations, but the South-East has become, in the plain sense of the word, a place not just of military actions but also of mass crimes against the civilian population. From the point of view of international law it is possible to find contradictions in the question of how the citizens of Crimea expressed their will, but from the point of view of the essence of the popular will, of the risk that the same situation that is being observed in South-East Ukraine might arise in Crimea, and the military-strategic risks for Russia, the incorporation of Crimea into Russia that has taken place is beyond doubt and is underpinned by a decision of the Crimean people. Europe has already seen similar precedents. The situation in Kosovo, when the unilateral actions of the USA and its allies caused a continuation of the collapse of Yugoslavia and led to the creation of a new de facto state, differs only in the sense that Kosovo did not become part of Albania. This does not, however, alter the essence of the event, the separation of a region where the overwhelming majority of inhabitants did not want to live as part of Serbia, and moreover this separation was made without a referendum.
The Minsk Agreement and the Ways to Settle the Conflict
Presidential Press Service
The Ukrainian Crisis: Russia’s Official Position
and How the Situation Can Be Resolved
A ceasefire agreement has now been signed in Minsk after difficult months of conflict in the South-East. This agreement is obviously necessary, since there was no advantage to either side in continuing armed conflict both from the military point of view, especially for Ukraine, and also from the political point of view, above all for the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR). The question is: can these agreements be the first step on the road to settling the conflict?
Russia, despite all the aid given to the DPR and the LPR, has not recognized these two entities, and while subjected to serious sanctions by the EU and the USA has announced a peace plan which has become the basis for President Poroshenko’s proposals to decentralize Ukraine and give Donbass a special status.
Russia’s position has undergone a fairly complicated evolution from not wishing to recognise the presidential elections in Ukraine and supporting the fugitive president Viktor Yanukovich to systematic telephone talks between the Russian and Ukrainian leaders and their meeting in Minsk. At the same time Moscow, with a variety of points of view being expressed, is apparently beginning to understand with increasing clarity that the unity of Ukraine and the provision of a special status to the eastern regions is considerably more realistic and advantageous than the creation of another limitrophe state on its border which would become a recipient state in economic terms and would not have any influence on Kiev’s policy. Creating such a state would lead to an even greater confrontation with the West, which would hardly be justified in the context of the sanctions which are beginning to have an effect.
Moscow is apparently beginning to understand that the unity of Ukraine and the provision of a special status to the eastern regions is considerably more realistic and advantageous than the creation of another limitrophe state on its border.
In this context Kiev’s agreement to decentralisation, which while not implying federalisation nevertheless envisages a special status for the eastern territories, is a step that could be a starting point for implementing subsequent agreements. If these agreements were made, the question that would arise for Moscow is what to do with the subjectivity of the de facto existence of the DPR and the LPR, how to neutralise the activity of the radically-minded militias and bring to the fore political figures capable of securing agreements with Kiev. In this respect a lot will also depend on the outcome of the parliamentary elections in Ukraine. A victory for the radical forces (the Batkivshchyna party, Lyashko’s Radical Party, etc), if they got more votes together than the presidential bloc, would aggravate the situation. From this point of view, the most favourable outcome would be a victory for the pro-presidential election bloc both under the proportional representation system and in the districts operating the majority system. This is now the most likely scenario.
One of the main problems, and at the same time one of the main hopes for a settlement, is the fact that the Ukraine crisis is now not just the question of Donbass: it also affects a significantly wider range of questions. These include the problems with gas and the issues around signing and ratifying association between Ukraine and the EU, and a whole range of other matters. On the one hand this makes an integrated solution to the crisis complicated, but on the other hand it offers a greater chance of mutual concessions, since discussing issues as a package is always more likely to lead to a compromise than discussing topics out of context.
One way to ensure an end to the crisis is undoubtedly through stable energy supplies to the EU that are to be established via Ukraine, Ukraine needs to pay off its debt to Russia and obtain in exchange discounts on gas, and at the international level all sides should guarantee that Ukraine will have a non-aligned status and will not join NATO, in other words a kind of “Finlandisation” of Ukraine. This term should not be used literally in relation to Ukraine, since the difference between the position of Finland in the 1950s and 1960s and that of Ukraine today is obvious, but nevertheless if Ukraine does not to belong to any bloc and maintains economic relations with the EU and with Russia, this will be the guarantee of its future effective development, which does not deny the general European vector, the essence of which is Petro Poroshenko’s programme for European integration up to 2020. At the same time the timescale for implementing the parameters of this programme are too optimistic.
Use of the non-aligned model should not restrict Ukrainian sovereignty. The current meaning of it is for a smaller country to be able to live in the shadow of a bigger one without finding itself in a subordinate position. If Ukraine were positioned in this way it would be quite favourable for Russia, and then there would be a relaxation in relations with the EU, and Russia would not have to deal with the PRC from a position that was known to be unfavourable. An update of the Bosnian scenario, i.e. effectively turning Ukraine into an incompetent state with several regions that were autonomous in relation to each other, would lead only to the establishment of new demarcation lines in Europe which, although they might run somewhat farther from Moscow than the current Russian–Ukrainian border, would not provide a radical solution to the problem of global security for Russia. Moreover, such an approach would also substantially restrict Moscow’s opportunities to play an active role in Ukrainian internal politics in Central Ukraine.
Use of the non-aligned model should not restrict Ukrainian sovereignty. The current meaning of it is for a smaller country to be able to live in the shadow of a bigger one without finding itself in a subordinate position.
Today it is scarcely possible to hinder the overall movement of Ukraine towards Europe, but clearly neither the USA nor the European Union intends to pay for Ukraine without Russia. Moreover, a whole range of countries in Europe, including those that have recently been providing reverse supplies of gas to Ukraine, are definitely not burning with a desire to have an argument with Russia and break the business and cultural links that have been established with the country.
On the other hand, Russia itself, which sees in Ukraine one of the goals of its geopolitical game, must realise that to have a neutral, non-aligned state, even if it’s one that’s orientated towards Europe, and nevertheless maintain good relations with the West is much better than an isolationist policy and turning into a junior partner and raw materials supplier for China. In this context, linking the issues of lifting reciprocal sanctions with the decentralisation of Ukraine while maintaining its territorial integrity and non-aligned status, abandoning accusatory and insulting rhetoric in the media, signing a new gas agreement and paying for the necessary algorithms to achieve dialogue in the context of Crimea’s entry into Russia will make it possible, albeit in the long term, to get out of the crisis of trust and relationship. It’s no accident that this is the approach to the problem that is being advocated by many well-known politicians and experts in the USA, and Henry Kissinger himself, who are calling for a rejection of unilateral actions and, while not accepting much of Moscow’s foreign policy line, are pointing to the importance and necessity of multilateral dialogue.
Chronicles of the Ukrainian crisis (in russian)
It is only possible to implement dialogue scenarios of this kind, however, if official Washington agrees to it. Washington, bearing in mind the European Atlanticism which is markedly underestimated by certain experts in Moscow and the dependence of the European elites on the USA, is so far acting from the most radical positions. However, in view of the existence of global threats, above all in the form of ISIL and various other forms of radical Islam, the USA cannot fully ignore the role of Russia, for any important issue in contemporary international relations is linked to a whole range of others and forms a complex system whose balance is impossible to maintain without Russia.
In the context of the situation which has been created in Russian–Ukrainian relations, contacts between experts are taking on a special role. This concerns both already established specialists and also young experts and young public leaders. Public diplomacy, which has unfortunately become a hostage of the crisis and is undervalued in the post-Soviet area as a whole, is capable of creating favourable soil for the resumption of contacts through the search for common points of contact and professional non-ideologised discussion of the whole range of problems in Russian–Ukrainian relations.