Solemn British commentators on the Ukraine crisis are wringing their hands over the west’s alleged inability to do anything to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine in the face of alarming Russian military activity, including powerlessness to persuade the Russians to pull back from their militaristic moves before the tension breaks out into war. They are wrong. There is one move that the west can and should make that would help to undo the consequences of recent western policy blunders, reassure Moscow about Russia’s legitimate strategic and security interests in its own region, and compel Ukraine’s leaders of all communities to adopt a more realistic attitude to its geopolitical situation and the limits which that imposes on its options. The west needs urgently to give a clear and unconditional assurance that there can be no question of Ukraine, or any part of Ukraine, ever becoming a member of either the EU or NATO.
This would be no more than a recognition of reality. Russia’s interests in Ukraine – strategic, cultural and historical, and personal (a third of Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language, nearly a fifth are Russian citizens) – are such that no government in Moscow could passively stand by while the closest of its neighbours is being drawn into the west’s orbit. The west’s reckless dangling of an unfulfillable promise of EU and even NATO membership in front of successive incompetent and corrupt Ukrainian regimes, contemptuously ignoring Russian concerns, bears a large part of the responsibility for the mess we’re all now in.
The dangerous crisis in Ukraine, and especially in Crimea, will not be resolved by pompous condemnation of Russia’s aggression or by unconvincing warnings of high but undefined costs for Russia if it continues to violate Ukraine’s integrity – warnings that sound especially hypocritical coming from politicians (not, incidentally, including Barack Obama) who vociferously supported western illegal aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999 and against Iraq in 2003. The grandstanding rush by our foreign secretary, William Hague, to Kiev today is misconceived. It will be interpreted as implying a renewed commitment of some kind to UK support for the revolutionaries in Kiev, many of whom are still dreaming of eventual membership of the EU, if not also of NATO. Is that interpretation what Mr Hague intends? If so, he should not be in charge of UK foreign policy.
If anyone should be rushing overseas in search of de-escalation, it should be to Brussels to agree without more delay on declarations by the EU and NATO of the impossibility of Ukrainian membership of either. Meanwhile western leaders should be telling the Russians that we are working towards such a declaration; that it is no part of EU or NATO policies to threaten Russia’s legitimate interests in Crimea or the rest of Ukraine: that it is in Russia’s, the west’s, and Ukraine’s interests that stability, prosperity and uncorrupt government should be promoted in Ukraine; and that the EU and the US wish to discuss with Moscow institutional arrangements for cooperation in economic support for Ukraine once a stable, representative and democratically legitimate régime has been installed in Kiev.
The basis for such a peacemaking initiative by the west as an alternative to the spear-waving bluster advocated by, for example, Sir Malcolm Rifkind (among many others), is set out in eloquent and scholarly terms by one of the greatest British diplomats of our time, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Moscow, in an article in today’s Independent on Sunday which should be required reading for all those who are indulging their out-dated cold war prejudices by sanctimoniously denouncing Mr Putin for doing what any great power leader in his position would be bound to do. Selectively quoting Sir Rodric, —
Much recent comment on Ukraine in the British press has been marked by a barely forgivable ignorance about its history and politics, an overhasty willingness to put the blame for all its troubles on Vladimir Putin, and an almost total inability to suggest practical ways of bringing effective Western influence to bear on a solution….
Today 77 per cent of the country’s population is Ukrainian. But 17 per cent is Russian, a third of the population speak Russian and many of these people have strong family ties with Russia. Only the Ukrainians from Galicia look unequivocally to the West.
Meanwhile, most Russians feel strong emotional links to Ukraine as the cradle of their civilisation. Even the most open minded feel its loss like an amputated limb. …
… Putin arrived in 2000, ambitious to strengthen Russia’s influence with its neighbours. And the West began its ill-judged attempts to draw Ukraine into its orbit regardless of Russian sensitivities.
… The first is respectable but merely rhetorical: Ukraine is entitled to decide its future for itself, and Russia has no legitimate claim to a voice. The second is a piece of old-fashioned geopolitics: Russia can never again become an imperial threat if Ukraine is incorporated into Nato and the European Union. This part of the policy is impractical to the point of irresponsibility. It ignores four things. The members of Nato and the EU have lost their appetite for further enlargement. Most Ukrainians do not want their country to join Nato, though they would be happy to join the EU. A majority want to remain on good terms with Russia. Above all, the West does not have the instruments to impose its will. …
The alternative is for the West to talk to the Russians and to whoever can speak with authority for Ukraine. So far the Americans have been ineffective on the sidelines, the British seem to have given up doing foreign policy altogether, and only the Germans, the Poles and the French have shown any capacity for action.
An eventual deal would doubtless have to include verifiable agreement by the West as well as the Russians to abandon meddling in Ukrainian affairs, a credible assurance that Nato will not try to recruit Ukraine and arrangements for the both the Russians and the West to prop up Ukraine’s disastrous economy….
Further obligatory background reading is a piece for Chatham House by another distinguished former British diplomat, former British ambassador in Moscow, and current member of the Chilcot Iraq Inquiry, the Rt Hon Sir Roderic Lyne.
And, finally, a comment by yet another equally distinguished British diplomat and former ambassador to Moscow, Sir Bryan Cartledge:
The key point, I believe, which the media largely overlook, is that the revolution in the Ukraine is primarily a protest against domestic corruption and misrule, not a vote for the EU or against Russia. The EU issue provided the occasion but was not the cause. In converting an internal protest into an East-West issue, the EU is making a huge mistake — Putin, of course, has been bound to follow suit. And quite apart from all this, the last thing the EU needs now is responsibility for an almost bankrupt and almost failed state.
These three know whereof they speak. Our noisy and belligerent political leaders and their media cheer-leaders with their crude and counter-productive posturing would do well to listen to them.
[Full disclosure: both Bryan Cartledge and Roderic Lyne are friends and my former Diplomatic Service colleagues. All three of us served together many years ago in the British embassy in Moscow.]
 Postscript and correction: as Roland Smith has helpfully pointed out in his comment below, I should not have written that nearly a fifth of the Ukrainian population are Russian “citizens”: i should have written “ethnic Russians” or “Russian speakers”. Of course the Russian habit of issuing passports to Russian speakers in neighbouring countries and then claiming the right to intervene to protect their ‘citizens’ across the border tends to blur the distinction between ‘Russians’ living abroad who are citizens of Russia, and those who are not.