With Crimea’s referendum a few days away, the crisis in Ukraine is reaching a critical inflection point after which it is quite conceivable that Russia and the West will be at loggerheads for decades to come. The reckless abandon with which Russia has been pursuing maximalist goals in Crimea means that much of the burden for what comes after the crisis will rest on Vladimir Putin’s shoulders.
Up until the focus shifted from the Maidan to Crimea, and contra many newspaper pundits, Europe’s performance thus far has not been unforgivably bad. Anyone who claims to have been able to foretell just how quickly the situation would disintegrate in Kyiv, or even how far Russia would dare to go in the aftermath of Yanukovych’s ouster, is not being very honest. This has been a difficult crisis to get right, and it has caught both the Russians and the Europeans unawares to various degrees.
But whereas Russia has acted aggressively and pointedly, Europe now struggles to get its footing. This is tragic, as Europe has a historic responsibility to get this crisis right. The EU has more leverage over the situation than many policymakers seem to think they do. The sooner European leaders wake up to this reality, the better for all concerned.
Oversimplifying the obvious
As the conflict in Ukraine came to the forefront of international attention, many major press outlets started bandying about unhelpful just-so stories about how we got into this mess in the first place. Newspapers printed maps showing Ukraine’s linguistic and ethnic divide juxtaposed with election results. Several narratives accompanied these maps. One was about the Western half of the country embracing the idea and ideal of “European identity”—a concept that was always left appropriately vague by journalists across Europe. Another talked about a country cut in half and prone to conflict: once one side was in charge, the other would soon be up in arms—yet another example of East Europeans who just cannot keep their primordial ethnic hatreds in check. But before one buys into such romantic, over-simplified explanations, it’s worth taking a closer look at what actually happened.
President Yanukovych’s decision to walk away from the EU Association Agreement undoubtedly triggered the uprising—yet this was not the only, nor even the most important factor at play. The real story is that Ukraine has been miserably managed and betrayed by its leaders over the past twenty-three years. Ukraine’s economic performance has not only trailed all Central and East European (CEE) countries. It has also fared worse than other former Soviet republics. Since 1992, Ukraine has had the lowest average annual growth in GDP per capita on purchasing power parity in the entire region. It took Ukraine until 2004 to get back to the level where it was at the time the country became independent. This all happened in spite of the fact that it had a more diversified economy than many other ex-Soviet states, that it can rely on ample natural resources, and that it is strategically located as the most important transit country between Russia and the West. Ukraine’s crisis has more to do with popular dissatisfaction than any sort of simplistic ethnic cleavage. Commentators who miss this fact could easily miss the entirety of the story.
Another favorite way of simplifying complex happenings is equating them to past events. This exercise seems to provide us with some reassurance amid the unfolding chaos—even in cases when the evoked past event is something that we do not completely understand, like Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. One does not have to be a lover of conspiracy theories to believe that the color revolutions (Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, and Kyrgzystan in 2005) happened with, or even due to, considerable external assistance. But one has to be paranoid to believe that the U.S. was willing or the EU was capable of orchestrating the events of the last several months in Ukraine. In other words: this revolution was agony-driven, not agency-driven.
It will probably take us a while to truly appreciate the significance of Ukrainians defying the clichés of East European pessimistic fatalism and standing up against their elite in nonviolent protests. Moreover, though to our elitist world of foreign relations experts it might seem like a marginal point, the lack of looting and out-of-control revanchism so far has been astonishing—and frankly speaking even somewhat perplexing.
Another favorite comparison is to other frozen conflicts—Europe’s Eastern neighborhood already has three such festering messes: Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet, we should be careful with analogies, as even these three conflicts have fewer things in common than most people think. And anyway, while the latest events in Crimea stand a good chance of turning into another unresolved frozen conflict, the scenario in Crimea might also lead to a hot war in the short term or even result in a Russia-takes-all endgame.
The worst of all possible outcomes in this crisis is if Ukraine comes apart as a state. However, the idea that certain developments are not in the interest of any of the parties involved—internal or external—has not prevented the great tragedies in history from coming to pass. The World War I centenary should stand as a reminder. Theoretically, there is no reason why Crimea’s integration into Ukraine, with a constitutionally guaranteed autonomy from Kyiv, cannot continue to work for everyone involved. But we should keep in mind that for Moscow, creating a mess on and within Ukraine’s borders is the perfect way of stalling Ukraine’s European integration. If “Plan A” was to pressure the country’s pro-Russian leader into abandoning EU integration, “Plan B” is to drag the country into territorial disputes.
Europe’s responsibility in Ukraine
There is no question that Europe—in close cooperation with the United States—has a unique responsibility to help Ukraine get back on its feet. It is acceptable that Ukraine has resumed negotiations about the Association Agreement with the EU. However, dramatic statements about NATO membership should be held back for now. The next significant goal must be to have clean elections and to have a legitimate government emerge from them. After that comes the handholding through more and substantial financial aid and other forms of assistance.
We have to be realistic about the extent of this commitment from the beginning: it will last for decades. There are no shortcuts, as we have seen from watching the transition of other CEE countries and from the recent democratization attempts in the Maghreb and the Middle East. My fellow countrymen will not be happy to hear this, but Germany will have to play a core role in this process. After all, Germany has more experience with Europe’s transition countries than probably anyone else: former East Germany went through that very transition itself and German investments also started pouring into CEE countries at a very early stage.
Europe’s responsibility in handling Russia
Currently all efforts should be directed at preventing an escalation of events and thus at taming Russia. This does not mean letting the Kremlin get away with interfering in its neighbors’ internal affairs or taking Putin’s feigned paranoia about the West plotting against him at face value. What it does mean is that we must demonstrate unity when it comes to a sanctions regime, but also the willingness to re-establish ties with Russia in case of compliance.
Any steps taken by the U.S. and the EU need to be coordinated and both sides need to resist the typical reflex of mutual finger-pointing on the rocky path to coherence. Diplomatic efforts and economic pressure are the priority, and NATO should surely avoid direct military confrontation. However, our military alliance has to include contingency plans for all options and thus NATO should continue working on preparations for the (hopefully unlikely) case of Russian aggression towards allies.
Germany’s role in handling Russia is once again paramount. Germany has a special, though complex relationship with Russia. In Germany, strong voices from the private sector (and subsequently within the government and parliament) have been grumbling about sanctions. Nonetheless, it would be shortsighted and damaging to demand no or only weak sanctions: Germany’s trade volume with Russia (3.5 per cent of its exports) is smaller than that with Poland. It should be clear to any noisy lobby group from the German business community that the undoubtedly negative consequences of sanctions could be dwarfed by the consequences of further Russian aggression towards other neighboring countries.
Fortunately, the latest language coming from Angela Merkel’s office seems to indicate that the Chancellor is taming the voices that would like to arrive at a separate arrangement with Putin. Separate opinions within Germany and Europe would only dilute the European position, and thus run against our shared long-term interests.
Europe’s room for maneuver
Moscow very well knows that its economy would falter without European investments. With up to 75 percent of Foreign Direct Investment stocks in Russia, the EU is its most important investor. Still, Europe and Russia are mutually dependent on each other, especially in the energy trade arena. But energy dependence does not mean Europe is the weak partner in the dynamic.
For one thing, this crisis has fortunately broken out towards the end of the winter rather than the beginning. Secondly, reinforced efforts to diversify pipelines and to expand storage facilities following the Russia-Ukraine gas disputes made the EU better prepared for supply disruptions like those in 2006 and 2009. The “cold snap” of 2012 was a good test case for this. When Russia had to decrease its supply—not due to a political conflict, but record demand at home—it resulted in sharp price hikes, but did not lead to serious shortages in any of the nine countries affected. The gas and oil reserves in European countries are at high-enough levels to provide supplies for at least a few months. One might argue that sanctions would hurt Russia’s economy severely enough to force it to resolve a conflict quicker than that.
The mid-term solution to further alleviate the European exposure to Moscow would be stronger EU-U.S. energy cooperation. Due to its shale gas revolution and to the improvements in transportation methods, the U.S. could now supply liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe. However, the energy industry has often insisted that the cumbersome process for obtaining permits to export LNG from the U.S. results in a de facto export ban. The current crisis will probably make the Americans rethink their stance on this. It will hopefully also make parties on both sides of the Atlantic recognize the true significance of the U.S./EU trade negotiations (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). It should now be crystal clear that the stakes are too high for any one of the parties to jeopardize the outcome of the trade talks based on their individual, and often merely symbolic, special interests.
Having established what Europe should do and what it could do, it is worth looking at how it has done in this crisis so far. While we are all eager to demonstrate our love for the EU by criticizing it, we should give Brussels credit when it finally gets a few things right. In the days when the events of the Maidan threatened to spin out of control completely, both the EU and its member states (in a cooperation where the division becomes increasingly blurry) acted as if they were serious foreign policy players. At this point, Europe had started to fulfill the long-standing U.S. request to take responsibility for its own backyard. (If shaking up the Europeans requires wiretapped cursing from high-level US diplomats, I would personally encourage the Russians to publish similar tapes whenever the transatlantic relationship seems to be running out of steam!) But since Russia’s invasion in Crimea, we have seen the Europeans return to poor form. The travel plans of numerous ministers to Kyiv and to Moscow don’t give the impression of proper coordination, and only true optimists may call the growing list of crisis-resolution proposals an elaborate “good cop/bad cop” strategy.
Brussels and the member states should get back to highly disciplined coordination very quickly. The European Union lacks established mechanisms to deal with situations like the near-outbreak of a war on its borders. Instead, it is largely up to the ability of its political leaders of the day if the EU is to be capable of doing anything beyond issuing stern reprimands. With the European elections in May, we might see an even greater-than-usual leadership vacuum in the EU as the whole bureaucracy prepares for a changing of the guard. The seemingly endless carpet-dealer rounds for EU and NATO leadership positions must not become too big of a distraction among the potential top candidates, who also tend to be the most important figures involved in handling the Ukraine crisis. Here again, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s influence and Germany’s strategy are going to be key factors.
As we start drawing up long-term plans in a still very fluid situation, we might start with practicing a certain degree of humility. It is useful to remind ourselves that practically no one predicted the collapse of the talks between the EU and Ukraine, or the extent of the backlash when it happened, and that there are still way too many developments that can and will surprise us about the unfolding events to claim that we can make reliable predictions. However, this does not relieve us from the responsibility of staying involved.
Putin’s reckless foreign policy and ruthless authoritarianism at home should not be mistaken for his country’s strength—let alone Russia’s renaissance as an empire. The real story of what we are seeing is a crude realpolitiker’s fight for survival amid the crumbling of the country he is supposed to be leading. Nevertheless, this does not make Vladimir Putin’s gamble any less dangerous. His unwarranted saber-rattling can set a whole cascade of events in motion that has the potential to lead to a much wider and completely out-of-control conflict very soon.
Europe and the U.S. have an enormous responsibility to steer the events towards a positive outcome in Ukraine. But however frustrating this reality is, we need to keep in mind that here it will take three to tango: the world desperately needs responsible leaders in Ukraine, an honest broker in Russia, and a potent EU-US alliance.