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What Ukraine needs from the EU is a balancing act

February 25, 2014 12:01 PM
By Misha Glenny in The Guardian - Comment is Free
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

Europe needs to treat both the protesters and Russia with respect, and talk to the oligarchs, if it is to avert catastrophe in Ukraine

Ukraine looks like a Greatest Hits of East European Revolutions. The storming of the citadels of power recalls the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in October 2000. The indiscriminate terror created by sniping from roofs and buildings is a reprise of the assault on Romanian protesters in Bucharest, in the Christmas of 1989. Oligarchs and secret police working tirelessly behind the scenes recalls Lampedusa's maxim from The Leopard, his novel of Sicily's risorgimento: "For things to remain the same, everything must change."

Of course, this is 25 years on from the great wave of east European revolutions and some things have changed, in quantitative terms at least. The bling of Ceausescu and his wife was dowdy compared with the oligarch chic of Viktor Yanukovych's monster mansion.

But there is one towering difference between what is happening in Ukraine and all other revolutionary experiences (with the muted exception of Georgia in 2008). Ukraine is a cockpit of great power rivalry. Broadly the EU and the US think the same. But matters are complicated by important tactical differences between them. This was made clear by the recently leaked phone call between Victoria Nuland, the US assistant secretary of state, and the US ambassador to Kiev. "Fuck the EU," as Nuland said, is a sentiment never far from policymakers across the board in Washington.

Whatever one may think of Russia's role, any assessment of policy relating to Ukraine in its current neuralgic flux has to take this into account as a central issue. This is practical as much as anything. A couple of years ago, in Ukraine's Black Sea port of Odessa, a senior member of a local oligarch's entourage told me "in an area like eastern Ukraine, the concept of the border between Russia and Ukraine is entirely fluid, especially when it comes to links between intelligence agencies and the military".

Failure to look at the situation without a hard edge of realism would be nothing short of criminal given that, if things go wrong, Russian armed intervention is perfectly conceivable. That would spell big trouble. Crimea, with its predominantly Russian cultural and political sensibilities - not to mention the Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol - is the region most likely to trigger a downward spiral that could end in a return of Russian troops. So how might that be avoided?

Putin appears oversensitive to diplomatic slights, in part because he feels that since the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia has not been given sufficient respect in the international arena His longing for respect partly explains his nostalgia for Soviet times and regret at the break-up of the Soviet empire.

Respect goes some way to explaining why Russia leaked the Nuland call. The west habitually wags fingers at Russia about not interfering in the politics of an independent Ukraine. But on tape Nuland is heard stating baldly of the opposition leaders that Vitali Klitschko should be excluded from any new government and Arseny Yatsenyuk should be the one calling the shots.

Russia's irritation at this perceived hypocrisy is accentuated by its own mistakes, above all Putin's poor judgment when it comes to Ukrainian politics. In foreign policy, he was on a roll in Syria, completely outmanoeuvring the Americans last summer. From Putin's perspective, Sochi has also been a big hit. But Ukraine threatens to blot his copybook; he has stuck by President Yanukovych for years despite the latter's lamentable performance in the elections of 2004, the year of the Orange revolution, and more recently despite his appalling corrupt practices since he won the presidency in 2010.

There has been more than a hint of Putin's advisers not wishing to deliver bad news about the real situation in Ukraine. Furthermore, in a society like Russia dominated by oligarchs and spies, it is perhaps less easy to observe a global trend of popular resistance to corrupt political practices - the Arab spring, Turkey, Brazil and now Ukraine.

However, if the EU is to end up helping Ukraine and not sending it further down the road to hell, it must explore avenues of co-operation with Russia.

The protesters' focus on the EU trade agreement as a political platform is largely metaphorical. It is a way of making concrete their disgust at the venality of Ukraine's entire political and economic elite. What they are perhaps less aware of is how the EU's processes of integration take many years to demonstrate real economic fruits.

And this would all take place during a period of unprecedented turmoil in the EU. How would an EU strategy deal with Ukraine's toxic combination of debt and disappearing strategic currency reserves? The fashionable ideology of austerity won't go down well with Ukraine's masses, whether from the west or the east of the country.

Furthermore, for economic and political reasons the EU must engage with eastern Ukraine and especially the Donbass mining region. One factor sometimes overlooked in the patchwork of cultural and political differences in Ukraine is that eastern Ukraine is more productive economically than western Ukraine and living standards there are notably higher.

That leads us to a figure that nobody dare avoid in their negotiations to steer Ukraine away from escalating violence - Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man and the uber-oligarch of Donetsk (not a Russian, but from the Tartar minority of southern Ukraine). We are back to the earlier observation about the behind-the-scenes activities of spies and oligarchs.

Akhmetov has been Yanukovych's biggest backer for years and is likely to have played an important role in persuading the Kremlin that Yanukovych was worth a punt. But he also maintains contacts in Washington and individual European capitals, understanding that even in eastern Ukraine it is unwise to keep all one's eggs in a single basket.

Akhmetov will be a key interlocutor in what is an unenviable dilemma for EU policy. In the short term, the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and its foreign policy community are having to nudge Ukraine away from catastrophic and violent collapse. In the long term, they have to find a way of treating both the protesters and Russia with respect. Challenges don't come much tougher than this.