GEOMETR.IT dahrendorf-forum.eu 05.04.2016
COULD THE UKRAINE CONFLICT HAVE BEEN AVOIDED?
There are three basic perspectives to the question of whether the Ukraine conflict and particularly the wider confrontation in Russia’s relations with the West could have been avoided.
The first is related to Russia, the second to the EU and the third to Ukraine itself. Was the key problem the EU’s geopolitical expansion, or the threat of it, Russia’s great power ambitions and domestic politics, or political developments in Ukraine independently of both the EU and Russia?
In hindsight, the EU would have probably been better served to wait awhile with these developments. At the same time, it is not clear whether a pause or offering better access to negotiations and symbolic gestures towards Moscow would have been enough to prevent major problems.
Also, it cannot be ruled out that Moscow might have been emboldened by the EU’s timidity and assumed that an implicit Russian droit de regard (right of access) had already been accepted by the West. In any case, it cannot be argued that the EU was overly aggressive with its policies.
- The EU supported Euromaidan, but the support was mainly verbal: for example Ashton issued a statement in Kyiv where she said she was “impressed by the determination of Ukrainians demonstrating for the European perspective of their country” and called for dialogue and negotiations.
- In a similar manner, even the fathers of the EaP, Carld Bildt and Radek Sikorski, who are often criticised as having been overly eager in pushing for their policy, stressed that even though the EU remained prepared to sign the agreement as soon as President Yanukovych was ready to do so, “we will not be drawn into a meaningless bidding war over Ukraine’s future”.
- Turning to Russia, one could argue that the Ukraine crisis and the confrontation in EU–Russia relations could have been avoided if only Moscow had simply accepted the EaP and the conclusion of the AA between Ukraine and the EU, and not seen either as hostile acts or a threat to its key interests. Yet this is far too simplistic.
As a result of these actions, Russia is neither more secure, prosperous nor respected abroad than before; if anything the Kremlin’s domestic support has consolidated, but if the annexation of Crimea was the most rational way of achieving that we face a far bigger problem with Russia than if we suggest that the decision was based on miscalculation. Finally, we may ask to what extent the conflict could have been avoided if Ukraine had been a more consolidated and politically well-functioning country.
- First of all, it was rather clear that before the conflict, the majority of Ukrainians did not want to choose between Russia and the EU. Part of the problem was that Ukraine was put in a position where it had to make choices one way or the other.
- The bigger problem, however, was the rampant corruption and the declining living standards in the country. A more legitimate and capable political leadership could have been able to postpone the choice and, in particular, prevent the protest movement from becoming a revolutionary force.
- To a certain extent, Russia was reacting to the revolutionary situation in Ukraine and wanted to seize the moment by seizing land. This would not have been the case if the country had a more legitimate and better functioning government.
We are faced with a genuine dilemma. As was already mentioned, the narratives concerning the past are diametrically opposite with both parties squarely blaming the other. Therefore, although it would be easy to argue that the EU and the West in general need to reassure Russia that it is not aiming to cause ‘colour revolutions’ in Russia and that it can also support countries that choose to join the Russia-led EEU, it is hard to see how either of these assurances can be effective in the current atmosphere.
At the same time, the EU cannot simply accept the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia, although it could, and probably will have to, compartmentalise the problem to stop it from poisoning relations indefinitely. In the future, some kind of a satisfactory international scheme will need to be found that gives normative legitimation to the transfer of the peninsula from Ukraine to Russia, but this can only take place once Kyiv and Moscow see eye-to-eye on the topic – a very difficult scenario to imagine for the time being.
In the meantime, the EU and the West could concede that Ukraine remains in a category of its own, but this can happen only if Russia shows genuine steps towards stabilising the situation in Ukraine and refrains from using similar tactics elsewhere along its borders. The improvement of ties requires restraint and reciprocity from both sides. Both parties should avoid attribution error and appreciate the fact that not all the negative actions are due to the adversary’s negative character, but should be attributed rather to situational factors
- A big leap in the form of a package deal that would magically restore the relations and sweep the problems away is not realistically possible. Restoration of ties will take time and patience. For that the EU and Russia can not only look at the future cooperation, but they also need to address the past.
- The key challenge ahead is to take baby steps to rebuild trust. The Iran nuclear deal and cooperation against terrorism in the Middle East constitute such areas where common ground can be found and trust built. The parties need to adopt a long-term strategic perspective and be ready to develop their relations and take bigger steps in recreating trust when the first experiences have been sufficiently encouraging.
- In the meantime, the improvement of ties requires restraint and reciprocity from both sides and readiness to take bold steps when the time is ripe.