1. Perspectives On Ukraine Crisis And The Road Ahead
Vladimir Putin’s supposed orchestration of events in Ukraine has been taken by many as ominous evidence of his power and cunning. In actuality, however, his handling of Ukraine is a disaster for Russia’s interests.
An important question– What will he do next? No need to ask. At a July session of Russia’s national security council, Putin “emphasized the need for a buffer zone with the western alliance [i.e. NATO],” according to a semi-official account, which then explained: “Moscow views Ukraine as critical to its geo-strategic posture to maintain a buffer zone between the Russian Federation and countries bordering Russia that belong to NATO”.
In this crisis, both the US and the European Union bear their share of responsibilities. The U.S. pushed too hard to impose NATO too close to Russia. The EU did not have a clear Ukrainian policy for years. It initiated association agreements with a firm intention to avoid Ukrainian membership in the E.U. and supported the Ukrainian revolution without planning to bear the costs of its follow up. In the continuing confrontation, however, Europe has far more leverage than many credit.
Beyond a compromise, what to expect next? Aside from Ukraine, the European States bordering Russia are Finland (neutral but impregnable), Belarus (safely under Moscow’s thumb) and three small states along the Baltic shore: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. To Putin, bent on expelling western contagion from Russia’s borders, the three Balts (in analysts’ shorthand) are logical targets.
So Europe faces a new challenge: There are early warnings that Putin, accepting that for the moment he has been checked in Ukraine, has started to move against two of the Baltic states. The struggle for Estonia and Latvia has likely begun
I– MISCALCULATIONS IN UKRAINE : HOW PUTIN AND THE EU TRAPPED THEMSELVES INTO CRISIS
Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader of the Soviet empire, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for liberating Eastern Europe by pulling out Soviet occupation forces through 1989-1992. To borrow Humphrey Bogart’s classic line, he was misinformed. Gorbachev was responding to one imperative and one series of intelligence analyses. The imperative was that by the late 1980s the Soviet economy was being eaten alive by military spending. (Russian economists at the time reckoned at least one-third of Soviet GDP was going to its military — the bleakest of their estimates said forty percent.) Gorbachev saw only one way to lighten this crippling burden. KGB intelligence estimates were that Moscow had, over the generations since 1945, installed such reliable Communist elites in its European satellites that Moscow would hold sway even if its tanks withdrew. That, at any rate, was what Gorbachev claimed some years later. There is no reason to doubt him. CIA analysts circulated the same prediction in Washington. Both capitals were stunned by the precipitate collapse of Soviet power across eastern Europe after its forces pulled out.
No escape from the Soviet orbit was more wounding to Moscow than Ukraine’s, emotionally and strategically. History explains both.
- Assertions that Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, was long ago the first city of what became Russia owe more to romantic Russian nationalism than to rigorous history. But from the late 1600s Ukraine was gradually — and largely peaceably — absorbed into Russia.
- “Little Russia” the Russians fondly called it. Tchaikovsky gave his second symphony that name because he incorporated Ukrainian folk-songs. Mussorgsky had as the climax of his masterpiece, “Pictures at an Exhibition”, a majestic evocation of the Great Gate of Kiev.
- Prokofiev, celebrated as another great Russian composer, was actually born in Donetsk in south-eastern Ukraine (now a center of pro-Russian resistance). Russian poets rhapsodized about Ukraine’s hectares of grain glowing to the horizon. Ukraine was a beloved part of Russia, also its bread-basket, far longer than Texas has been part of the United States. Imagine American public reaction if Texans were to vote overwhelmingly to return to Mexico.
So Ukraine’s 93 percent referendum vote in December 1991 in favor of independence stunned Moscow. Ukraine was, after Russia itself, economically and politically the most important state in the Soviet Union. Ancestral emotions aside, the vote doomed Gorbachev’s dream that some semblance of Russian condominium could yet be rebuilt from the wreckage of the Soviet empire. Congratulating Ukraine on its independence, Gorbachev hoped wistfully that Ukraine would assist in this “formation of a union of sovereign states”.
That never happened. But Moscow did retain sway over Ukraine through the next twenty years, propping up unfailingly corrupt and mostly ineffectual governments: most relevant to the current imbroglio, by heavily subsidizing Ukraine’s imports of gas from Russia’s vast fields.
Three trends collided to explode that compliant relationship.
Freed from Soviet domination, Ukrainian nationalism — suppressed but very far from extinct — has steadily reasserted itself. Haltingly, Ukraine has erected the scaffolding of a democratic state. Propelling this progress are an increasingly sophisticated middle class and a parliament increasingly voicing their aspirations. This middle class sees Ukraine’s future with Europe, not with Russia.
Integration into the European Union has been Ukraine’s primary foreign policy goal almost since independence. Negotiations with the European Union were glacially slow. Shamefully slow, actually, dogged by Ukrainian recalcitrance to institute meaningful democratic reforms and the rule of law, and crack down on rampant corruption which has hollowed the nation’s economy. In addition the EU was wary of Russia’s reaction.
Entry into the EU of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and the three Baltic states was one thing. Those were independent nations overrun by Soviet forces in World War Two. Ukraine was different: a part of Russia’s patrimony. Only in 2012 did European officials — then only under pressure from some western governments — finally nerve themselves to initial with Ukraine an agreement conferring free-trade and political association.
Even then, the EU refused to ratify the deal unless and until Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych pushed through requisite governance and democratic reforms, most notably the release from prison of his predecessor, Yulia Tymoshenko. He was given twelve months. The historic EU/Ukraine agreement would be ratified at last at a summit in November 2013.
The EU would have been so much wiser to do as NATO did. “Bring them into the tent; polish the reforms once they’re inside,” Javier Solana used to say of former Warsaw Pact nations. Solana, a canny Spanish politician who was then NATO’s secretary general, organized the entry into NATO in 1999 of the first trio of former Soviet satellites: Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic. (Two further batches of east European recruits joined NATO in 2004 and 2009.) Solana saw the issue strategically. Construct an alliance of democratic states stretching down central Europe against the inevitable day when a resurgent Russia would seek to reclaim sway — certainly political, possibly more — over its lost dominions.
EU officials, in fatal contrast, adopted a far more cautious approach. Association agreements have always been seen by Brussels as a Good Housekeeping medal for sound civic practices. But the EU negotiators demanded more of Ukraine that they had from other candidates, even moving the goalposts as occasion demanded. Additionally, concern about Russia’s reaction dogged their approach. “We mustn’t prod the sleeping bear,” a senior European official remarked at an off-the-record briefing in 2004. The obvious response — follow NATO and pull Ukraine into the EU before the bear wakes — never surfaced in the EU’s negotiating stance.
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