Key in finding peace is for NATO and Russia to give one-another reliable security guarantees relating to Ukraine, and to agree these things without reference to Ukraine
By Matthew Parish
Relations between Russia and the West were civilized until 2014. Then came the Maidan revolution, to replace a pro-Moscow government in Kiev with a pro-European government; Moscow’s pre-arranged annexation of Crimea; war in Donbas; sanctions; a fall in the value of the Ruble; increased hostile propaganda between Russia and the West; and the ushering in of a new era of Cold War. The fate of Ukraine, throughout history having the misfortune to serve as a buffer state between Russia and central Europe, is central to this monumental breakdown in geopolitical relations.
While Ukraine is now at peace, its position is unstable. Crimea has been permanently lost to Russia. Donbas remains occupied by a paramilitary government structure, faintly loyal to Moscow but that Moscow does not much care about. The Donbas region is rotting politically and economically. Ukrainian politics has shifted towards Europe; Moscow views have been banished from Kiev-controlled territory. The European Union now engages with Kiev to pursue a regime of capacity-building and alignment with European institutions, but the scale of the problem is massive. Ukraine is very corrupt and its government highly dysfunctional. Most of its wealth is controlled by a small group of people. Central government is propped up only by international credits. The country remains highly unattractive to foreign investment, while price inflation is driving a wave of emigrants westward.
Insofar as it is possible to be objective about the politics of a sensitive buffer state in the early stages of a new Cold War, it is clear what would be in the best interests of Ukraine and her people. Ukraine needs the external perception of political stability in order to attract foreign trade and investment, particularly from the European Union which is its only natural non-Russian trading partner. The first ingredient for such a perception is certainly over the country’s borders. Any country with substantial border disputes appears at risk of renewed civil conflict and this is a colossal deterrent to international commercial activity.
Crimea has been lost. It was occupied by Russia without a bullet being fired (at least so the legend goes), apparently with the acquiescence of the population who subsequently ratified the annexation in an admittedly contested referendum. Russia’s Black Sea fleet is in Crimea. Russia has been constructing an enormous bridge across the Kerch straits to connect Crimea with Russia. The idea of either Ukrainian or international military intervention to wrest Crimea back from Russia, one of the world’s top two nuclear powers, is inconceivable.
Donbas should be returned to Ukrainian government control. The sloppy autonomous government structures currently in control of the region have minimal capacity to run anything. Having suffered from conflict, Donbas needs reconstructing and the only source of funds to do that will come from the EU once Donbas is restored to Kiev’s control. Moscow has no interest in an occupation of Donbas, or it would have occupied the region directly and not via proxy militias. Moscow has sent feelers proposing quasi-internationalization of Donbas as a precursor to its return to Kiev.
The next ingredient for improvement of Kiev’s political-economic position is improvement of Ukraine’s poor-quality, Soviet-era institutions. This is a colossal exercise in state-building that the EU must finance, using the EU accession process as conditionality to incentivize cooperation. The EU has not yet started to contemplate the scale of the undertaking for a country of this size with so dysfunctional a history of public administration. But if the EU wants Kiev within its orbit rather than within that of Moscow, then it must pay. With public administration reform, Ukraine’s notoriously dirty politics would begin to transform themselves. This process has not yet even begun.
The third ingredient for Ukraine’s success is peace with Russia, its eastern neighbor. There is no objective reason why this cannot take place, consistent with Ukrainian aspirations for ever-closer connections with the EU. Ukraine, sharing some common linguistic and cultural characteristics with Russia, can serve as an entry state for hydrocarbons. This requires several moderate steps. The Ukraine/Russia travel and trade embargo, introduced since the 2014 Maidan revolution, must be abolished. Russian sanctions must be removed by the EU. Ukraine must become permanently accustomed to purchasing Russian hydrocarbons, in particular gas, at full market price (perhaps with a phased regime of reducing price subsidies over time), linked to compliance by Moscow with troop withdrawal and reciprocal trade measures in phases. Ukraine must adjust its economy accordingly. Russian subsidies on hydrocarbon supplies to Ukraine entail the status of Ukraine as a perennial Russian client state, and they must be abolished.
Demilitarization of the border on both sides, built upon since the Donbas conflict, would be a useful confidence-building measure. Casual immigration harassment of one-another’s citizens on both sides would be unhelpful. It would also be useful for each state to permit dual nationality with the other.
If the foregoing represents the optimal solution on the part of the peacemaker and state-builder for Ukraine, now we must consider why it is so difficult to make it happen. There are four perspectives we must consider: that of the EU/Berlin; that of Washington, DC; that of Kiev; and that of Moscow. To appreciate the EU’s perspective, we must ask why they decided to intervene in the events surrounding the Maidan revolution in the first place. The answer is that Ukraine has been eyed by Europe as a strategic asset in preventing Russian overstretches in Europe for some time. The UN Development Programme, operating under European funding, was one of the first capacity-building programs in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The idea of removing Ukraine from the Russian orbit has been a central goal of European foreign policy in Ukraine ever since.
In this context, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was perceived as Moscow’s representative, even though by reason of his monumental levels of corruption he was unloved by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In early 2014 it was anticipated that his government would soon be coming to a natural end at the ballot box, but under lobbying by pro-EU politicians in Kiev Europe feared the dying Yanukovich regime would engineer a massive exercise in theft of state assets, much of which consisted of credits or grants from Europe/international institutions, or the proceeds of these credits/grants. Europe was persuaded that there was popular support for a swift revolution to remove Yanukovich early, so they supported the notion.
Europe would like to draw Ukraine further into the EU, but it is frustrated by the perennial high levels of external subsidy the Ukrainian government requires to continue functioning. The motive for drawing Ukraine into European institutions is to prevent a resurgent Russia from engaging in the expansionism for which it is noted historically. Just as the Baltic States had been absorbed into the EU and NATO, Ukraine would be so as well. Although Ukraine is much larger than the Baltic States, in principle it should be subject to European reform and integration in the same way because it had suffered from the scourge of communism for the same period. For Europe the problem with Russian annexation of Crime is one of international law, and the distinctive European view of it.
In 1994 Europe had facilitated negotiation of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, whereby Russia would guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine submitting to peaceful denuclearisation. With the benefit of hindsight that treaty now seemed absurd, because Ukraine had been deprived of part of its territory arguably precisely because it no longer possessed a nuclear deterrent to prevent Russia from doing such a thing. The Russian-sponsored invasion of Donbas threatened a direct military confrontation between Russia and European troops, drawing in the United States that sent special forces/intelligence agents to Southern Ukraine. The risk of losing Ukraine entirely to a Russian military invasion confirmed Europe’s worst fears about the Russian Federation: it was liable to expansionism at any opportunity, which is why it is so important to support Ukraine not just politically and economically but also militarily. NATO troops were therefore deployed to the Baltic States to deter further Russian expansionism. Rigid sanctions were imposed upon Russia to deter the actions it had taken in Ukraine. Indefinite further political, financial and military support to Kiev would be required.
A few comments are appropriate about the US approach towards Ukraine. Put aside for one moment contemporary issues of domestic US politics, surrounding a legal investigation into whether there was improper Russian interference in the 2016 US elections. For the United States, Ukraine is an ally but not one in which there is strong strategic interest. Russian expansionism is not a direct threat to the United States, save insofar as it creates European political disquiet in which America subsequently has to intervene. The American view of international law, under the Obama administration, objected to repudiation of the treaty guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Nevertheless the United States was not prepared to invade Crimea and engage in open military confrontation with its Cold War adversary. It was only, and with a hard heart, that the US reluctantly committed military resources to southern Ukraine after the Donbas invasion in order to deter further conflagration. The Trump administration wants peace between Europe and Russia, to prevent the United States being pulled any further into European problems.
The Kiev perspectives complex and much misunderstood. Post-communist Ukraine has involved government through a balance of competing oligarchs who dominated ownership of Ukraine’s economic assets after state control of the economy was dismantled. The system is and always has been so corrupt that the central government in Kiev is barely functional. Ukraine’s institutional structure is particularly decrepit by reason of the country’s tragic twentieth century history. Ukraine wants European money, because as a buffer state Ukraine rightly considers European dominance relatively benign as compared with Russian dominance. But the actual institutional reforms the EU requires of Kiev are painful.
Ukraine has a history of being run by foreign powers, and this invites a lazy approach to government: let the foreign power do it. The confederation of states in the European Union does not really want a colony; they want each member state itself to operate to high institutional standards and it is particularly sensitive about the issue given the widespread criticism that Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU before having reached the requisite international standards of self-government. A large country with plenty of diverse and concentrated political and economic interests, institutional reform is incredibly difficult for Ukraine because Kiev is not really in a position to impose anything upon Ukraine’s oligarchs.
Nevertheless Kiev is desperate for European money, misallocation of which through the government’s budget is an essential premise of any Ukrainian governing coalition. Kiev does not care about Crimea, except in a romantic sense as a vacation destination. Crimea was always effectively controlled by the Russian military and with a majority Russian-speaking population. Nevertheless Crimea as a component of Ukrainian territorial integrity under threat from Russia is a powerful way of maintaining division between Moscow and Kiev.
For as long as Kiev can maintain that hostility, a sense of crisis can prevail relating to Ukraine which makes it easier for Kiev to extract the European money necessary to keep its coalition afloat without making the institution concessions to Brussels that it is not in Kiev’s power to deliver upon. Although Kiev might like to encourage the EU directly to liaise with the oligarchs, as a practical matter they are not going to do this and Kiev must grind the oligarchs down gradually without the central government going bankrupt before Europe, frustrated at seeing its subsidies achieve few visible results, ceases its funding.
A perennial sense of crisis over Crimea facilitates this. For Donbas, the principal benefit of continuing the conflict is to encourage military participation in Ukraine by the EU and the USA, as well as weakening one of the oligarchs whose assets are located there.
The Russian perspective upon Ukraine is its desire to achieve the lifting of European sanctions, that have damaged the Russian economy badly, at any cost except disengagement from Crimea that would involve an unacceptable loss of face. Crimea was always part of Russia until Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was Ukrainian, transferred Crimea to Ukraine apparently on a personal whim in 1954. More fundamentally the Russia military base in Crimea must be preserved to Russia at all costs. Russia would be willing to walk away from Donbas, which is now just a drain upon Russia’s resources.
From the foregoing observations, the challenges facing a peace agreement for Ukraine are the following. Firstly, such an agreement would cause short-term pain for Kiev because the current stand-off over Ukraine’s territorial integrity releases to a degree the need for the Ukrainian government to take on the country’s oligarchs. Secondly, Russia is ready for peace but cannot give up Crimea. Thirdly, Europe and the United States are reluctant to let Russia keep Crimea without continuation of sanctions and diplomatic isolation, because they fear a domino effect for Russian foreign policy in Europe. Russia is also nervous about NATO troops in Ukraine, on its border, by reason of a historical fear of a German advance eastwards.
A joint sovereignty agreement, that changes little about the administration of Crimea as a matter of practice, might be a face-saving solution for the Crimean peninsula. Permitting free movement of both Ukrainian and Russian citizens in and out of Crimea, together with re-commencing flights between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine, and direct flights between Russian and Ukraine (another transport artery that was cut in consequence of the Russia/Ukraine crisis), might sweeten that bitter pill.
(Author is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. Views expressed above are completely personal)