Western competition with Russia for Ukraine: divisive, destructive and doomed
Since I wrote about Ukraine in my blog post of 2 March, provoking a vigorous and mostly healthy debate, the role of the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine has looked increasingly significant. The UK media – those parts of them that I see and hear, anyway – have been curiously reticent about this agreement and what it says about the west’s intentions as regards relations with Ukraine. I wrote to the Guardian about it.
[Letter to the Guardian letters editor, 21 March 2014:]
The EU has reportedly carried out its threat [on 21 March 2014] to sign the ‘political parts’ of its inflammatory and divisive association agreement with Ukraine’s interim (and dubiously legal) government, as forecast in [the Guardian’s] report under the sadly inappropriate heading “EU showing reluctance to escalate Crimea backlash” (p2, 20 March). This deserves much more attention and indeed alarm than it has so far received. It was the then elected Ukrainian president Yanukovych’s refusal to sign this agreement that triggered his unconstitutional deposition and the installation of the current western-backed interim régime in Kiev.
The agreement requires Ukraine steadily to “approximate” its legislation to that of the EU, a process to be monitored and even enforced by the EU, and sets up a political dialogue designed explicitly to “promote gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of Ukraine’s ever-deeper involvement in the European security area”. It’s difficult for Moscow or anyone else to interpret these proposed commitments otherwise than as steps leading to eventual Ukrainian membership of the EU and subsequently of NATO (“the European security area”). For the EU now to sign such an agreement with the unelected interim Kiev régime, months ahead of the election of a new government and president, is bound to escalate the crisis. It will intensify Russia’s understandable suspicions of western intentions and fears of encirclement. If the EU genuinely wants de-escalation, it should seek to allay, not intensify, Russia’s suspicions by declaring that Ukrainian membership of either the EU or NATO is not on the cards and never will be, leaving the political elements of the ill-conceived association agreement permanently in the Pending tray. We hear plenty about the stick, but where’s the carrot?
A sharp western response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea is plainly required, but we need much more clarity about whether current and proposed sanctions are meant to be a punishment or a deterrent (quite different things), and about the exit strategy that western governments have in mind, given that annexation of Crimea now seems a fait accompli.
21 March, 2014
My letter was not published. No complaint: it was rather dry.
Ten days later the following Parliamentary Question and (written) Reply appeared in Hansard:
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion, Green)
To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether the commitment in the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement signed by the EU and the interim Ukraine administration on 21 March 2014 to a political dialogue designed to promote gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of Ukraine’s ever-deeper involvement in the European security area reflects an EU policy objective of Ukraine eventually joining NATO; and if he will make a statement.
David Lidington (The Minister for Europe; Aylesbury, Conservative)
While NATO and the EU play complementary and mutually reinforcing roles in supporting international peace and security, they are separate organisations. There is no connection between the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and NATO membership.
Ukraine, has a long standing relationship with NATO and is a valued contributor to a number of NATO operations. The UK Government continues to support defence reform in Ukraine and hopes that its Government will continue to work with NATO in the future.
Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 31 March 2014, c433W)
Caroline Lucas MP (Green) asked an excellent question. The minister’s reply is not however satisfactory, because it doesn’t answer the question (does the passage quoted from the EU-Ukraine agreement reflect an EU objective of Ukraine eventually joining NATO?), and the Russians will have their work cut out parsing the carefully worded statement that “There is no connection between the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and NATO membership.”
Why did Russia act with such blatant disregard for international law and with such haste to annex Crimea? It’s no excuse for President Putin to say, as he does, that the west has behaved with far more contempt for international law with their bloody attacks on or military interventions in Yugoslavia (over Kosovo), Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya (in the last two there was UN authority for a limited intervention but the limitations imposed by the Security Council’s mandate were ignored). As for Russia’s unseemly haste to grab back Crimea, why was the EU in such a hurry to sign the EU Association Agreement with an unelected interim administration in Kiev, headed by an unelected interim President and blatantly unrepresentative of the Ukrainian people, when the previous democratically elected President had been deposed, with western encouragement, for refusing to sign the agreement and when democratic elections for a new President and a new government of Ukraine are to take place in just a few weeks’ time?
Perhaps the Russian policy analysts in Moscow had taken the trouble to read the EU-Ukraine agreement signed on 21 March (unlike most of the commentariat servicing the UK media, apparently). Perhaps they had spotted the passages in the agreement highlighted in my unpublished letter to the Guardian and in Caroline Lucas’s parliamentary question. Perhaps they, like some of us in the west, wondered whether the EU was in such a hurry to get the agreement signed because they planned to act quickly to link the whole of Ukraine, including Crimea with its vital Russian naval base, so tightly to the EU and then to NATO that it would become impossible for Crimea to continue to act as host to a major Russian naval base. Immediate action by Russia to re-detach Crimea from Ukraine and re-integrate it with Russia might have seemed a prudent way to pre-empt any such western intention with a minimum of bloodshed and international fuss. From Moscow’s point of view a policy of wait-and-see may have seemed simply too risky, with so much at stake.
And perhaps, after Crimea had been unceremoniously re-attached to Russia, those Moscow policy wonks might have read the British government’s non-reply to Ms Lucas’s pointed question, and concluded that they were probably right to interpret the EU agreement in the way they did, and right to recommend securing Crimea and the vital base in Sevastopol for Russia in the way the Russian government did, before it was too late.
It’s time for the west – the EU and NATO – to decide what it wants in its future relations with Ukraine, and whether to treat Russia as a competitor or an associate in those relations. The west currently adopts a nakedly adversarial attitude towards Moscow, apparently aiming to subvert Russia’s influence with its near neighbour and to replace it with Ukraine’s “gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of … ever-deeper involvement in the European security area” – in the words of the EU-Ukraine agreement. Such a policy risks widening the divisions within Ukraine in a way that can only destabilise the country to the point where Russian intervention may become inevitable. Ukraine is far more important to Russia, both psychologically and in terms of security, than it is to the EU or NATO: so if competition for influence becomes a game of chicken, the west is bound to blink first. But the consequences of a competition culminating in Russian physical intervention in Ukraine would be disastrous, both for Russia and for the west. Such a crisis could well wreck any chance of a constructive relationship between Russia and the west for a generation. Russia would be driven back into xenophobic autocracy; any lingering hopes of a recognisable Russian liberal democracy would be crushed.
There’s an obvious alternative: instead of seeking to supplant Russian interests in Ukraine, the west could actively seek Russian cooperation in stabilising the area and jointly promoting its economic and political recovery. Two acts in particular would signal a constructive change of course. First, the west should declare that Ukrainian membership of the EU and NATO is not on the cards, since Ukraine’s geography and history alike point to the need for its neutrality between east and west. Since neither the US, the UK or France would in any conceivable circumstances go to war with Russia over Ukraine, its admission to NATO would constitute a betrayal in waiting, so ruling it out in advance would cost nothing and could potentially represent a major advance as a reassurance to Russia, as well as forcing the Ukrainians to face up to the reality of their geography. Secondly, the west should endorse Russia’s proposal for a federal system within Ukraine and offer its practical help, in collaboration with Moscow, in bringing it about. Greater autonomy for eastern Ukraine within a federal state would satisfy the ambitions of many Russian-speaking Ukrainians. It’s hard to understand why the west has so far ignored this constructive proposal from Moscow.
Time is short. Small pro-Russian groups are occupying government buildings in eastern Ukraine and declaring themselves independent, arousing suspicions that Russia is encouraging them to create a pretext for intervention, when the reality might be that these groups are acting independently of Moscow in the hope of forcing the Russians to step in. Current four-power talks at official level have a great deal hanging on them: not just the future of Ukraine, which is important enough, but also the future of Russia and its role in the world, which is incomparably more so.
[Footnote: Much of this blog post goes over ground partly covered by an earlier post at http://www.barder.com/4126. That attracted a good many comments, some hostile and vigorously expressed, some strongly supportive. The authors of all such comments on that earlier post can take it that their comments apply equally to this one, and that there is no need to repeat them here, unless of course they have something new to say or new information to supply.]