2. Ukraine. An Unnecessary War
The US Position
In the 1990s, the Clinton administration treated Russia as an emerging democracy, a friend and partner of the United States. Yeltsin was offered economic assistance to help with the painful transition to a market economy and, in 1998, Russia joined the G7 group of advanced industrial nations (which became the G8). However, Washington saw a security vacuum opening up in Eastern Europe in the wake of the Soviet collapse. It seemed logical to plug the gap by offering membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – a defensive alliance – to the newly democratic Central and East European countries that were eager to join.
After the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that led to the denuclearisation of Ukraine, US policy towards Ukraine was mostly subordinate to US policy towards Russia. Ukraine’s transition to democracy and a market economy suffered from the same ills as neighbouring Russia: the rise of a wealthy oligarch class who stifled competition, while colluding with a deeply corrupt political elite.
There was a surge of optimism after the Orange Revolution in 2004, but that soon dissipated as the Yushchenko administration fell prey to the same kind of corruption and infighting that had dogged its predecessor. With the victory of the pro-Russian Yanukovych in more or less free elections in 2010, US strategy seemed to have reached a dead end. Washington effectively sub-contracted Western policy towards Ukraine to its partners in Brussels.
The European Union’s Position
The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe caught the European Union – and everyone else – by surprise. The EU itself was in the process of introducing deepening social and economic integration under the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which renamed the European Community the European Union. The 1995 Schengen agreement saw the abolition of border controls between participating countries, and a common currency, the Euro, was introduced in 1999.
In 1998, Brussels began accession talks with Central and East European applicant countries. Applicants had to be functioning democracies (‘Copenhagen criteria’) and harmonise their domestic legislation with the body of EU law (the 108,000 documents of the acquis communautaire). These conditions were more stringent than those for NATO membership; as a result, Central-East Europeans started joining NATO five to ten years before they joined the EU.
The decision to enlarge the EU was controversial. The living standard in the former communist countries was less than half that of the EU, and massive investment would be needed to bring their infrastructure up to EU levels. Existing EU members feared an influx of cheap labour from the new states, and that all the regional development funds would be diverted to the East. Nevertheless, a political consensus for enlargement did emerge. Germany pushed for enlargement as a way to stabilise its relationship with neighbouring Poland – which accounted for 40 of the 76 million citizens in the new states. Britain and Denmark supported enlargement as an alternative to ‘deepening’ EU integration, figuring that it would be harder to agree on the creation of stronger federal institutions if there were 28 members instead of 15.
In the meantime, in 2003, the EU launched a new European Neighbourhood Policy to provide a framework for cooperation with countries that were not going to be put on the membership track. The policy included 10 countries of North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean (the ‘Southern Neighbourhood’), in addition to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
The relationship with the post-Soviet states was formalised as the ‘Eastern Partnership’ at a summit in Prague in May 2009 (Korosteleva, 2012; Korosteleva, 2013). Russia was invited to join, but declined, preferring to keep its more privileged bilateral relationship with Brussels. The EU signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia in 1994, followed up with an agreement on four ‘Common Spaces’ in 2003. Since 1997, Russian and EU leaders have held biannual summits (suspended since January 2014).
The carrot offered to the Eastern partners was ‘association status,’ which carries some of the benefits of membership such as the lowering of trade barriers and possibly the lifting of visa requirements. The granting of such benefits was conditional on partner countries respecting democratic values and the rule of law, and bringing their policies into line with EU procedures. With the Schengen visa-free zone challenged by a flood of refugees from North Africa, Brussels urgently needed to maintain secure borders to the east. Visa waivers would be offered in return for cooperation in tighter border controls and agreement on the return of refugees to the country from which they entered the EU.
The EU spent 7 billion Euro ($10 billion) on the ENP for 2011-13, but two-thirds of the money went to the Mediterranean countries. Optimists argued that association status would stimulate states to improve their domestic governance. Cynics saw it as an empty gesture that had no real political or financial commitment from Brussels. One crucial factor that was largely ignored was Moscow’s determination to disrupt and prevent the efforts of its neighbours to reach association agreement status with the EU. While the EU insisted that its Eastern partnership policy was just about establishing good relations with neighbouring states, Russia viewed it through a geopolitical lens (Gretsky, 2014). Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov complained, ‘What is the Eastern Partnership, if not an attempt to extend the EU’s sphere of influence?’ (Pop, 2009).
The 2013 Crisis
The EU’s plan to open up the Ukrainian economy brought it into conflict with Putin’s efforts to create a deeper economic union in the post-Soviet space. This was a priority for Putin, who was determined to forestall the expansion of EU influence and the presumed democratisation that would accompany it. In January 2010, Russia launched a Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, introducing tariff-free trade between the three countries. This was the precursor to the Eurasian Economic Union, launched on 1 January 2015. In September and December 2013, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan agreed to join the Union. Putin hoped to persuade Ukraine to join as well, but this would not be possible if Ukraine signed the free trade agreement with the EU.
The EU pressed ahead with its plans for Ukraine, despite misgivings over the state of democracy and the rule of law there. The association and free trade agreements were initialled in Brussels in July 2012, and were due to be signed at a summit in Vilnius on 29 November 2013. However, European parliamentarians were insisting on Tymoshenko’s release as a condition for final approval. In the course of the summer, Putin increased the pressure on Ukraine – for example, in July, Russia banned the imports of Ukrainian chocolates from the Roshen company (owned by the man who would later become Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko). On 21 November, Yanukovych abruptly announced that he would not, after all, sign the association agreement in Vilnius, and the parliament rejected the EU’s demand to release Tymoshenko. Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the agreement triggered the Euromaidan protests, which spiralled out of control over the winter.
- International players (Russia, the EU, and the US) were heavily involved in the unfolding political conflict. Ironically, each accused the other of interference in Ukrainian affairs. The EU’s Catherine Ashton and the US Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, encouraged Yanukovych and the protestors to reach a compromise – while Russia was pushing Yanukovych to hold firm.
- Russian propaganda portrayed Nuland as the architect of the protests, playing video of her giving out food on the Maidan square, boasting that the US had spent $5 billion on democracy promotion in Ukraine, and playing tapes of an intercepted 6 February phone conversation in which she discussed the composition of the future Ukrainian government.
- Putin’s advisor, Sergei Glazyev, opined that ‘the entire crisis in Ukraine was orchestrated, provoked, and financed by American institutions in cooperation with their European partners’ (Simes, 2014). The collapse of the 21 February agreement in the face of insurgent demonstrators and the flight of Yanukovych was seen by Moscow as the point of no return.
The political association agreement with the EU was signed on 21 March 2014, and the economic chapters on 21 June. Implementation of the economic dimension was postponed for a year as an incentive to Russia to help bring peace to East Ukraine. Negotiations in Minsk, under the auspices of the OSCE, resulted in a shaky ceasefire on 26 August, but agreement on a permanent solution remained out of reach. Kiev refused to yield to Russian demands that Ukraine would abjure from NATO membership and would grant full autonomy to the secessionists in Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia had suspended gas deliveries through Ukraine in June, which was not an immediate problem since demand is low in summer and Ukraine had ample reserves. Negotiations continued over supplies for the next winter. On 31 October, Ukraine agreed to pay Russia $3 billion in arrears and $1.5 billion as prepayment for 2015 gas at a price of $378 per 1000 cubic metres.
Ukraine is a struggling, fragile, and poorly governed state that found itself torn apart by the forces of shifting tectonic plates. On one side was the shrinking ‘plate’ of the Russian state, and on the other side the expanding ‘plate’ of the Euro-Atlantic community. Cooperation between the rival parties was complicated by the fact that Russia was looking at the world through a military-strategic lens, focusing on issues such as NATO enlargement, missile defence, and protection of its hard power assets such as the Sevastopol base. In contrast, the EU is a post-modern entity that builds long-term relationships based on human rights and the free movement of goods and services.
The chances for miscommunication were high. The Western players underestimated the importance of Ukraine to Putin and his willingness to break the rules of the post-1991 international system in order to prevent what he saw as threats to Russia’s national interests. There was a mismatch between the incremental carrots being offered by Brussels and the big sticks being wielded by Moscow. As Andrew Wilson put it, the EU ‘took a baguette to a knife fight’ (Wilson, 2014).
Nevertheless, the US and EU stood their ground, and deployed economic sanctions to counter Putin’s use of not-so-covert military force. At the G20 meeting in Brisbane in November 2014, Merkel said that ‘old thinking in spheres of influence together with the trampling of international law must not be allowed to succeed’ (Lough, 2014). The collapse in the oil price in the second half of 2014 (it fell from $115 a barrel in June to $60 at year’s end) multiplied the impact of the financial sanctions, and plunged Russia into a currency crisis and recession. The baguette may yet prevail over the knife.
Geopolitics Nations Parties Person Crisis Euroskeptic Society Youtube
*YOUTUBE – What Does ‘Peace Through Strength’ Mean Today? Rodger Baker Responds. Readers have asked some thoughtful questions about “Understanding America’s Global Role in the Age of Trump,” the most recent column from VP of Strategic Analysis Rodger Baker.
*YOUTUBE – Lionel Barber, editor of the FT, and Gideon Rachman discuss the major political events of 2016, including the election of Donald Trump in the US, and how they will affect the global order in 2017.