Just before his election, Ukraine’s President Poroshenko remarked: “Russia is our biggest neighbor and taking into account that we have to stop the war and bring peace to Ukraine and stability to the eastern part of the country, it is impossible to do without Russian officials, without meeting with the Russian leadership in the first half of June.”
So, whether or not President Poroshenko makes an early visit to Moscow, his election could bring a resolution of the Ukraine crisis – provided he has the full backing of the EU and an end to United States intervention. For Russian foreign policy has always had two strands – isolationist and nationalist; and pan-European. And President Putin’s is no exception. The West has done much to get Russia – not just Mr. Putin – to act on the former, despite an overall preference for the latter, which is now on “life support.” There was real regret in the remark on May 23 of Russia’s exceptionally able Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov: “Our Western partners rejected a truly historic chance to build a greater Europe.”
The importance of crisis resolution
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This lamentable confrontation over the Ukraine is in the interests neither of the EU nor of Russia. And this is certainly not the time for the Putin-bashing which is so fashionable right now – even (as Prince Charles appears to have done) comparing him to Hitler! For, as President Obama has observed in his attempt to “reset” US/Russia relations, very little can be done in today’s world without Russia. And the world needs Europe, east and west, to speak with one voice on the important issues where the interests of both coincide, particularly on the existential challenges mankind is now facing.
The West’s contribution to the crisis
The Ukraine (“the border”) is Russia’s Near West and the EU’s Near East – of Europe, whose culture and history both share. Sadly, the West has offered nothing but confrontation to Russia since then-US Secretary of State James Baker on 9 February 1989 famously declared in the Kremlin that there would be “no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east” (of a reunited Germany). Poland and the other East European countries – including the Baltics – did join NATO in 1999, but by then, Russia’s concern had largely been met by the formation of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council in 1998.
After Russia’s recovery from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and four years after the US “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq, President Putin made a remarkably conciliatory speech on 10 February 2007 at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy. He offered Russia’s cooperation over world affairs provided the US reined in its “hyper use of military power in international relations which is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts.” NATO described this perfectly reasonable warning as “unhelpful.” Mr. Putin was snubbed (as was Foreign Minister Lavrov whose views these were). The full speech deserves reading.
Barely a year later (2008), ignoring Russia altogether, President G W Bush pushed for the Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO. So it was no surprise that Russia reacted forcefully when Georgian President Saakashvili imprudently attacked South Ossetia that same year. A US military mission and of course, the CIA, were in Georgia, but the US made no attempt to stop Saakashvili. What is surprising is that the West failed to learn this lesson. For it obviously applied even more to Russia’s far greater interests in the Ukraine – not only for security, but culturally and historically, Kiev being Russia’s “birthplace.”
Lack of consultation and US intervention
Clearly the European Union should have acted in consultation with Russia when the western Ukrainians sought close association with it. But no. Even when the Maidan demonstrations gathered force, the EU had no concrete proposals to make both to the protesters and to the then-embattled east Ukraine-leaning Kiev government to allay the legitimate concerns of east Ukrainians – and indeed Russia. (Mr. Putin is as much to blame, for he made no positive suggestions from the Russian side when closer EU/Ukraine relations were being negotiated).
It was into this vacuum that the US intervened – the neo-conservatives in the lead. US Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland – who is married to Robert Kagan, a top neo-conservative in the tradition of G. W. Bush’s Vice President Cheney – was among those confirming this with her notorious “epithet deleted” open line phone call disparaging the EU. This less than competent American involvement by both State and CIA taking on Russia’s “special services” on their home ground under their ex-KGB President’s direct control, has greatly exacerbated the crisis and done great harm to resolving what is a pan-European, not an American, problem.
Failure to guide the interim government
After the ouster of President Yanukovych, who comes from Ukraine’s east, neither the EU nor the US reined in the interim take-over pro-EU government in Kiev to make sure it demonstrated full respect for the east. On the contrary, neither appealed to this temporary government not to pass, as it did on 22 February, a disastrous law repealing the 2012 law which permitted Russian to be widely used for official business. More than anything else, that was taken as signaling total disregard for the interests of Russian-speaking east Ukraine – it aroused both fear and resentment, and alienated many.
From all this anyone in the Kremlin would have deduced that the US was bidding for dominance in the Ukraine, taking advantage of both EU impotence and Russian weakness – even perhaps aiming at regime change in Moscow. It was in these circumstances that Mr. Putin seized the opportunity to ride this wave of fear and uncertainty to annex the Crimea, whipping up Russian nationalism with the apparent aim of re-establishing Russian hegemony over the whole Ukraine. Mr. Putin’s isolationist nationalism is – from what he himself has said – dominated by his own antipathy and resentment towards, and even fear of, the US.
The pressures on Putin
But, just as the EU is loath to lose much financially from this confrontation, so President Putin, like the czar autocrats before him, must take account the financial interests of Russia’s élite, now the oligarchs – and indeed the attachment to Europe of the bulk of Russia’s best educated classes. A large proportion of the Russian people look on askance at Putin’s crowd of chauvinists and the West should not assume that those alone represent Russian opinion.
Even in Soviet times, as those who visited discovered, educated Russians were not ignorant of what was going on in the world. Today, now helped by social media, they know even more of what they aren’t supposed to know, let alone express. Russians have a lifetime behind them of reading between the lines and the most important elements want to rejoin Europe and the world – not be a pariah nation as in Soviet days.
Still not too late to find a solution
If, before Mr. Poroshenko’s talks with the Kremlin, the EU (distinct from the US) were to take up Mr. Lavrov’s regret at the confrontation that has come about, no matter how, and instead offer cooperation starting with the Ukraine, this would greatly help the new Ukrainian president in any talks with Mr. Putin and others in the Kremlin. The Lavrov Europeans could be listened to again and the SVR and “special services” might no longer hold such sway. Some positive ideas were floated before the annexation of the Crimea – such as inviting Mr. Putin to renew his offer of $15bn to the Ukraine and the EU matching this, $30bn being the amount assessed as needed to rebuild the Ukraine’s economy; this Marshall-type plan to be administered by a joint EU/Russian commission in consultation with the elected Ukrainian government. Now there would also have to be some “give” by Russia over its governance of the Ukraine before any such solution guaranteeing the economic and military neutrality would be politically possible.