West’s Tactical Blunders on Ukraine Go Unquestioned

West’s Tactical Blunders on Ukraine Go Unquestioned
Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Washington D.C., March 12, 2014 (U.S. State Department photo).
Petro Symonenko, the Communist Party deputy who was attacked earlier this week as he addressed the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, raised some uncomfortable points that Western policymakers need to consider about their response to the crisis in Ukraine. Symonenko aroused the ire of deputies from the nationalist Svoboda party by noting that some of those protesting the government of now-deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, including Svoboda activists, had used what might be termed improper methods—including storming buildings and breaking into armories—that are now being utilized by those who in turn do not recognize the authority of the interim government. By driving Yanukovych out of office, they created the conditions both for other aggrieved parties in Ukraine—namely, Russian-speakers in the south and east—to adopt similar tactics to advance their interests, and for Moscow to intervene in Ukrainian affairs and detach Crimea from Ukraine’s control. It is easy, at first glance, to dismiss Symonenko. The Communists, after all, were close allies of Yanukovych, have opposed Ukraine’s membership in Euro-Atlantic organizations and have advocated for closer relations with Russia. And Symonenko’s accusation—that the manner in which Yanukovych was overthrown is what triggered the crisis—goes against the preferred narrative, which sees Yanukovych as a budding dictator who received his just political rewards and Russian President Vladimir Putin as the unprovoked aggressor against Ukraine. Yet while some Ukrainian politicians answered Symonenko’s words with their fists, Western statesmen might want to use his charges to re-evaluate their own positions—and their complicity in Ukraine’s plight. The first question they should ask is why Brussels and Washington ignored clear warnings emanating from Russia prior to the beginning of the protest movement against Yanukovych last November. The Kremlin made it consistently clear that, while it would not object to Ukraine having somewhat closer economic ties to Europe, it would vigorously oppose any effort to bring Ukraine in as a full member of the Euro-Atlantic community. And while the level of Ukraine’s membership in Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union was still apparently negotiable, the Russian government signaled that, at minimum, it expected Ukraine to have some degree of association with any Eurasian economic entity. In rhetorical terms, the West has made it clear that it will never recognize any sort of zone of privileged Russian interests in Ukraine, and it has emphasized as a point of principle that Ukraine should be free to choose its alliances and orientations. Yet it did nothing, over the past year, to back up those lofty assertions. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso’s public statements at the end of the 2013 European Union-Russia summit, for instance, referred to partnership and a strategic energy dialogue but did not indicate that the subject of Ukraine was officially discussed. These matters may have come up in private, of course, but no mechanism seems to have been put into place to anticipate possible disruptions in the relationship precisely over the question of the EU’s role in its “eastern neighborhood.” The EU’s organizational behavior also took over; the union has a standard template for handling association agreements, and apparently no effort was made to tailor a version for Ukraine that might have alleviated Moscow’s concerns. And Washington, focused on its own problems, signaled that Europe would have the lead on this issue. Yanukovych was extremely corrupt, as the tour of his villa indicates, and embraced both cronyism and authoritarianism, but he was also a realist. While maneuvering for bargaining room with Russia, he, unlike his “pro-Western” Orange Revolution predecessor governments, was clearing the way for Western energy companies to invest in and develop Ukraine’s indigenous energy resources as a way to eventually ease Ukraine off of its addiction to Russian energy. He recognized that Ukraine could only move forward with its plans for closer ties to Europe if Europe was prepared to help mitigate the shock of Russian economic retaliation. But when his prime minister, Mykola Azarov, indicated that Ukraine would need billions in assistance from the West, Kiev was rebuffed, with a number of Western commentators charging that this was merely an attempt by Ukraine’s corrupt oligarchs to line their own pockets. With the West appearing unprepared to assist Ukraine, the Russians seized the opportunity, first by offering their own bailout program for Ukraine, and then, after Yanukovych was overthrown, seizing Crimea. Russia was gambling, correctly as it seems, that there would be protests and some symbolic actions, but no damaging penalty for Russia once again rewriting the borders of the post-Soviet space. The second area where the West will need to re-examine its stance is the fate of the Feb. 21 agreement negotiated between the troika of EU foreign ministers and Yanukovych, which called for early presidential elections and the creation of a government of national unity. This was not dissimilar to the plan that U.S. special envoy Frank Wisner had crafted to engineer a soft landing for Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt after the Tahrir Square protests erupted. While the Russian envoy did not sign the EU plan for Ukraine, Moscow signaled it would accept the outcome, believing that any real government of national unity would keep Ukraine in a “neutral” space between the West and Russia. The agreement, however, was not acceptable to the protesters on Kiev’s Maidan—and the speed at which Western governments proclaimed the deal dead and no longer binding was interpreted in Moscow as further confirmation that Europe and the United States were engaged in a zero-sum game in Ukraine. As in Egypt, where the shift from regime evolution to Mubarak’s deposition has not, ultimately, produced a more stable or democratic state, the manner in which Yanukovych was removed from office has opened the door to copycat attempts by other disaffected Ukrainian groups to seize power. It also gave Russia the pretext to ignore its own commitments to respect Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty on the grounds that the interim government was illegitimate: If Yanukovych was removed from office by an extra-legal process, so too Crimea’s secession—also not provided for by the Ukrainian constitution—could be justified by a supposed appeal to the “will of the people.” So far, while Ukraine has signed the symbolic “political” portions of the EU accession agreement, what it has to show for its move Westward is the loss of Crimea and destabilization of its eastern regions by Russia—turmoil that will only expand as IMF-mandated hikes in domestic energy bills and cuts in social spending take hold. President Barack Obama has said that NATO membership is off the table, at least for now. Europe has set up a “Support Group” to ease the stress of the transition, but there are no clear dates as to when Ukrainians can expect some of the most critical benefits, such as visa-free travel in Europe. Meanwhile, the Kremlin is poised to pour money into Crimea to, at least in the short term, highlight the differences in living standards between Russian-controlled territory and the rest of Ukraine. Europe and the United States seem unprepared to offer any sort of equivalent mini-Marshall Plan for the rest of Ukraine. It is too early to tell, but in a year’s time, will Ukrainians, like Egyptians before them, consider the results of the protests to have been a mistake? Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the former editor of the National Interest and a frequent foreign policy commentator in both the print and broadcast media. He is currently on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government. His weekly WPR column, The Realist Prism, appears every Friday.

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