Notes on the Ukrainian Battlefield

Posted by / 10th March 2014 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , , , , / -

The Russian military is in control of Ukraine’s autonomous region of Crimea. Three months ago, at the Vilnius summit, now ousted president Viktor Yanukovich decided not to sign an Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union and postponed further negotiations. We know that these two events are linked, but often fail to understand the way the situation developed into a full-fledged crisis. There are a number of lessons to be learnt as to how and why the situation unfolded the way it did. The European approach to Ukraine has been flawed from the start, and Brussels did not sufficiently realise how it would impact Ukraine in socio-political terms. As the country spiralled into chaos, European elites assumed a mediating role they could not properly handle. Ultimately, the West has entered into a great, uncertain and dangerous geopolitical confrontation with Russia that nobody wanted and that endangers future cooperation. It all stems from a fundamental lack of awareness about the main features of today’s international system. The West is living in the past and, unfortunately, this is being understood the hard way.

The spark

By itself, the AA had the potential to upset regional relations, but not to the stark geopolitical heights we are witnessing at the moment. The problem became apparent when the Ukrainian political system processed all the elements surrounding the AA, including the practical step of accepting or rejecting it, in a way that amplified existing latent tensions.
Before the AA made it to the headlines, the issue was framed by Moscow in economic terms. With global multilateral channels experiencing exhaustion, the world is veering towards both the regionalization of trade and attempts to establish biregional trade blocks. The former comes in the shape of the Customs Union binding together Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, itself part of a bigger integration project called the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEc), while the latter is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a free-trade agreement being negotiated by the United States and the EU.

The TTIP, if negotiations prosper, would be a game changer in terms of trade, and European economy’s improvement in no small part depends on it. In this scheme of things, Ukraine’s role in EU’s future is secondary. Thus, the recent importance of Ukraine is only due to the European Eastern Partnership (EEP), Brussels attempt to revitalize its approach to the East. Launched in 2009, the aim of this policy is to support political change along the lines of democracy, the rule of law and market economy. However, the EEP is flawed at its core, because it is not adjusted to current realities. Its implementation relies upon a set of economic incentives, much like the EU did in the nineties, when its economic might was on the rise and its integration model run more or less smoothly. Nowadays, this is simply not the case, and the pitfalls of this policy have had an impact on what was offered to Kiev under the AA.

On the other hand, Ukraine is truly important to Moscow. Economic considerations weigh heavily in how Russia relates to its neighbour, with whom it is often said to maintain a ‘fraternal rivalry’.

Global Trade Alert, a think tank monitoring global trade, ranked the Russian economy as the most protectionist of 2013. This protectionism is partly in tune with the failure of multilateral attempts of boosting trade worldwide, but also is instrumental to the privileges of sectors of Russian oligarchy. However, now that players are shifting towards further integration along regional and biregional lines, Russia risks being marginalized. Focusing on the customs union within EurAsEc is Russia’s answer to these changes.

Naturally, Moscow is not only pursuing an economic agenda by creating and leading an Eurasian trade block. There are wider geopolitical issues at play, not the least of which is the Kremlin’s quest to maintain its political influence in its periphery and its own country under tight control. Economic regionalism competes with global dynamics, and thus prevents the usual subtle influences that might generate internal pressure towards regime change.

However, this regional development strategy is also a way for Russia to improve its industrial capabilities and prevent overdependence on exports of primary resources, mostly oil and gas. Without Ukraine, the EurAsEc would be much more Asian than European, and that would run against Russia’s desire to remain close to Europe, with whom it wishes to relate, but from a more robust economic position. The Russian economy would struggle if Ukrainian trade flows- now equally distributed between East and West- start leaning more heavily towards the EU. Ukraine is simply too important for Russia, and the correct functioning of a customs union, by definition, would demand that Ukraine did not enter a free-trade agreement with the EU.

Because of its potential effect on Russia’s development, the AA was bound to generate disputes between Brussels and Moscow. However, these by themselves would have been limited. The current crisis is a failure of the Ukrainian political system and the result of highly questionable behaviour by foreign actors, mainly European political elites and the Kremlin.

Ukraine is a politically, economically and culturally divided country. What seems best for its western regions (or, perhaps, what is positively perceived by its population), is often rejected by the more industrialized and Russia-dependent Ukrainian east, and vice versa. This was precisely one of the problems of the AA. Its free-trade agreement did not account for the complexity of economic conditions within the country because it had not been tailored to Ukrainian needs. Certainly, in a “one-size-fits-all” fashion, the free-trade provisions under the AA with Ukraine were very similar to those also planned for Moldova and Georgia. In other words, the EEP approach to the region is excessively general. A critical question is how the free flow of European goods can pose a threat to local production, but, especially, much more consideration should have been given to Ukraine’s own territorial economic imbalances and their relation with historical differences and sources of political animosity. Also, Ukraine is facing bankruptcy and in need of urgent financial aid, something the EU at the time of the Vilnius summit was not offering and that Putin was keen on giving.

Last but not least, Yanukovich is obviously a factor to be considered. Seen by many as a corrupt politician and the ultimate responsible for the government’s mismanagement of the country, Yanukovich had his own concerns about the AA. While it should not be disregarded that the agreement might have meant a dubious benefit for the Ukrainian economy and that this might have been a factor in Yanukovich’s decision, it is certain that he did not fancy its political conditionality: allowing imprisoned political rival Yulia Timoshenko to receive medical treatment abroad and undertaking political and judicial reforms. Thus, facing an agreement that was not so shiny on economic grounds and that threatened his political position, Yanukovich chose the less costly partner, Putin’s Russia. Looking beyond Ukraine, this seems to be the sign of times for the EU: Europe has lost much of its attractiveness and economic might, so it should come as no surprise that it loses ground to competitors that, like Russia, are less ‘virtuous’ but happier to use their wealth for geopolitical objectives.

The rest of the story is well known and takes us to the beginning of the crisis: the anti-government protests at Kiev’s Maidan square, the so-called ‘Euromaidan’.

The crisis: Phase I

What started as a dispute over policy quickly turned into demands for Yanukovich’s resignation, which created a dangerous political conflict that dragged in regional players with interests at stake. While Russia was working more in the shadows, European political elites were visible, rather outspoken and certainly supportive of the street protests, with EU’s High Representative Catherine Ashton and other European officials visiting Euromaidan. Brussels ruled out the possibility of three-party talks to try to reformulate the AA to account for Yanukovich’s and Putin’s concerns; the Kremlin, on its part, had repeatedly stated that the customs union was not compatible with a free-trade agreement between Ukraine and the EU, which is true. Because of this, the situation has been increasingly portrayed as a ‘civilizational choice’ for Ukraine and a zero-sum game for the rest.

Up until the tragic face-off on 18th and 20th February, there were timid and failed attempts to bridge gaps and stabilize the situation. For example, on 28th January prime minister Nikolay Azarov resigned, and later government posts were offered to opposition leaders, who rejected them. It is also worth noting that on 17th February, a day before the bloody events of that week, an amnesty for all those imprisoned during protests was granted and it was being discussed some meaningful political changes, like a return to 2004 constitution, which would have meant a reduction of presidential powers. At the beginning, this seemed to defuse tensions – several public buildings were abandoned. However, on 18th February clashes erupted in front of the Ukrainian parliament after opposition leaders accused rivals of not being committed to reforms, and eventually the police moved in for a total crackdown on Maidan.

The political climate in Ukraine grew so bitter over time that the spiral of tension and violence stemmed fundamentally from internal political polarization. Nevertheless, external players did not promote stability. Any efforts of international mediation cannot prosper if the mediator is also a stakeholder. This is particularly true if the mediator- the EU in this case- has been very vocal in expressing its alignments.

An analogy from the Cold War might illustrate that conflict resolution is at odds with the intervention of external stakeholders. In the civil conflict that devastated Central America during the eighties, there was no room for dialogue until the US retired its support for Nicaragua’s ‘contras’, which ultimately led to the disentanglement of the conflict from East-West competitive dynamics. It was precisely then when an external actor unrelated to the conflict could mediate to ease the peace. That mediator was the European Community. Bearing this in mind, the question is who can mediate in a European crisis where the EU is part of the problem. The answer is simply that there is not an actor with a profile high enough to take on this task.

In the absence of such a heavy-weight state, the only solution would be a multilateral organization, which brings to mind the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE). Unfortunately the problem is that this organization, almost since its inception, has been rendered irrelevant.

OSCE, established in 1995 as the institutionalization of the spirit of 1975 Helsinki’s Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe, was former French president François Mitterrand and Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev bet to create a genuinely European, neutral and multilateral space for security cooperation in the “greater Europe” area, which includes Russia. However, although OSCE might have suitably filled the gap of security governance in Europe and, judging from current events, it hinted at a considerable sense of forward thinking, the times were that OSCE could not gain enough traction. In a true ‘end-of-history’ fashion, in much of Western Europe and in the US there was the feeling that the international power struggles of the past had gone for good, so Western organizations were all Europe needed to be a peaceful region. Accordingly, NATO added to its military nature a political profile in 1994 with its ‘Partnership for Peace’ programme (PfP). PfP’s objective was to manage the profound transformations in the East and the potential risk of regional stability through a network of NATO-centered political and military contacts with the ex socialist states. Thus, NATO displaced other embryonic regional mechanisms for security cooperation, dealing a blow to OSCE’s aspirations, which since then has had its considerable structure mainly devoted to electoral monitoring, overlapping with the Council of Europe.

Europe does not have a genuinely multilateral institution for security cooperation, and this lack of governance mechanisms has implications. A hypothetically robust OSCE might have had a positive impact on the Ukrainian crisis, provided, of course, it would have been allowed to intervene by local parts. While ex prime minister Azarov said his government would not reject OSCE’s assistance in normalizing the situation, opposition’s Arseniy Yatseniuk, now prime minister, stated the following on 1st February at the Munich Security Conference:

“We believe that at this point we should try to solve the problem in Ukraine via our direct contacts – contacts between Ukraine and our western partners. There are, of course, options such as the OSCE mission and the UN, but those are options that should be used if the situation is completely hopeless. [There should be] bilateral [attempts to settle the crisis], namely with the involvement of our European and American partners.”

Last call

On 21st February a deal between the government and opposition was signed after days of bloodshed. The deal was brokered by the foreign affairs ministers of Germany, France and Poland –the EU, as such, lost protagonism as the violence escalated. The text called for the withdrawal by protesters from public spaces, the formation of an unity government by all the signatories, the restoration of 2004 constitution, political reforms to reduce presidential powers, an investigation into acts of violence and, importantly, presidential elections to be conducted not later than December 2014 (they were scheduled for February 2015).

The agreement, whose terms were favorable to the opposition, signaled the moment for compromise. There was hope for progressive normalization through institutionalized politics and, ultimately, elections. However, the agreement did not last a day. For reasons still unknown, on 22nd February Yanukovich disappeared from Kiev, leaving the governmental district completely unguarded. Days later, at a press conference in Russia, he would say that he did it because he feared for his safety under the threats of “hooligans”. After protesters took control of the presidential administration buildings without resistance, the parliament set presidential elections even earlier, on 25th of May, and voted to oust Yanukovich. With the votes of the opposition and of a number of members or parliament from Yanukovich’s party (probably seeking their political survival) the president was removed from power. With this, the opposition leaders satisfied the demands of protesters, still camped at Euromaidan, who had booed them the day before after they announced an agreement with the president had been reached.

Yanukovich’s removal was a breaking point. Regardless of the quality of democracy in Ukraine, Yanukovich was a democratically elected president with whom an agreement for early elections had been reached. After he vanished from Kiev, the opposition could have acted with more restraint simply giving more time to the situation to become clear, but they chose not to. Western governments, on their part, quickly declared their support for the interim government formed by opposition figures, sanctioning their uncompromising behaviour.

Without time for proper normalization through elections, the inevitable result of this was political disintegration. If democratic politics are devoid of a minimum level of compromise, the situations boils down to a pure political struggle, which, in Ukraine, is built along geographical and ethnic lines. Because democracy was not given time to create a source of legitimacy for any political outcome, the warring parties have come to a point where they simply do not recognize each other. Parts of the Ukrainian population with closer ties with Russia felt threatened. This anxiety was reinforced by the interim government’s decision to ban Russian as an official language, a manoeuver that is as symbolic as harmful and that spurred concerns by the same European officials that, now taken aback by the hectic pace of developments, had brokered the agreement.

This turn of events, of course, infuriated Putin.

The crisis: Phase II

Crimean secessionism is steadily advancing its objectives and, thanks to Russia’s military occupation preventing Kiev from reining in, they might just achieve it. There are many reasons why the Kremlin is so determined to bring about this outcome, and include securing the strategic post of Sevastopol by creating a protectorate over Crimea, gaining additional leverage over Kiev’s new government, sending a message to the West and playing the nationalist card at home. Russian intervention will no doubt affect Kiev’s new government, adding a new factor of political instability to an already troubled situation. Ukraine is facing bankruptcy. Although Western support came along promises of financial assistance, emerging figures are not even close to the amount of money Kiev says it needs. It should also be pointed out that the EU’s decision to financially support Ukraine is a reversal of the position held at the Vilnius summit and before, so its likely motivation is the consolidation of European political gains stemming from Euromaidan.

Kiev does not recognize Crimea’s self-declared referendum to reincorporate to the Russian Federation, scheduled for 16th March, deeming it “illegal” according to Ukrainian constitution. The West, of course, also parallels this criticism. However, before legality it comes, inevitably, the issue of legitimacy or, more precisely, whether the conflicting parties regard each other as legitimate. As we have seen, Kiev’s and Crimean’s authorities simply do not recognize each other. Similarly, the Russian intervention in Crimea is clearly against international law, but this is not a legal problem, but one of politics or, in other words, of a fight of wills. It is in that realm where analysis is urgently needed.

The discussion about law might be more fruitful from a political perspective. As it can be easily seen, in a situation like this international law is nothing more than a discursive weapon of little practical use. Law does not work as a deterrent against big players because its enforcement is highly problematic. For obvious reasons we cannot expect the Security Council to do anything, and those who might take measures against Russia are having second thoughts about it –humiliating themselves given their previous stance. It seems the use of force is out of discussion, economic measures to punish Russia are extremely inconvenient for the likes of Germany, France or the United Kingdom, and the freeze of personal financial assets and travel bans are, at best, cosmetic and face-saving actions; the boycott to Russian membership of the G8 is also a symbolic measure. The EU, that went to Ukraine in a quite bombastic fashion is now showing fractures; in the US, both the White House and much of Congress are reinforcing the recently assumed view that the European periphery is an European business – Obama calling for OSCE involvement speaks volumes about this.

When great powers are not willing, international law is a limited catalyst of cooperation and conflict resolution. However, law is not the only tool to facilitate that. As it has been explained here, there is a need for better governance mechanisms. And again, the OSCE pops into the picture, but if it could not do anything before when the situation was less complex, what can be expected from it now?

Whether the West likes it or not, the concept of ‘sphere of influence’ has returned not only to political discourse, but also to analysis. It was about time. Post-Cold War triumphalism blinded the West to the fact that the nineties and the beginning of the past decade were a historic abnormality: never before there was a sole global superpower running unchallenged, and today we are witnessing a return to the normalcy of the past. Accordingly, Europeans and others have to develop institutions adjusted to this reality. The need for it is acute: NATO’s decision to suspend military-political cooperation with Russia, which was part of the PfP’s philisophy, shows that the cooperation avenues of the immediate post-Cold War tend to break under pressure, turning into fields to stage retaliatory measures –which, in this case, complicates NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, that now would not be conducted through Russia, but hostile Pakistani soil.

By asking Kiev to show restraint and by signaling that it has no appetite for intervention, perhaps the West is starting to show some evolved awareness about its own role. One can only hope the interim government grasps the message and refrain from acting militarily against Crimea, since without NATO support that would be suicidal. Ukrainian new leadership should remember what happened to Saakashvili’s Georgia in 2008. Too bad this sensible behaviour on the part of the West comes now, and not much earlier, when it was time to invest in meaningful and sustainable mechanisms for regional cooperation to accommodate a resurgent Russia.


You might also want to read:

BBC’s Ukrainian Crisis Timeline
Carl Bildt, “Ukraine Has Postponed and Opportunity to Prosper”, Financial Times
Oleg Popadiuk, “Ukraine In Between the Unions: the Customs Union and the EU”, Russian International Affairs Council
Alexey Fenenko, “Russia’s Near Abroad, still Too Far Away”, Russia Direct
Pavel Koshkin, “Ukraine: Battlefield between Russia and the West?”, Russia Direct


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About the author
Alberto Perez Vadillo is a core team member at ReSeT. He specialises in global security and international relations.

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