Ukraine was already falling off the West’s radar last summer. In east Ukraine, major military offensives were prepared and trip-wires almost crossed; but there was no major outbreak of fighting comparable to the bloodshed of 2014. Something resembling a ceasefire was in place from September, albeit one with frequent violations and casualties. And while it may be in danger of collapsing once again, the migration crisis has increasingly preoccupied European leaders, even before the Paris atrocities in November led to a radical shift in focus.
But even if the West now has other priorities, Ukraine is still part of the bigger picture. It cannot be pushed into the background or left on the back-burner. Here are three reasons why.
Trading with Russia over Islamic State won’t work
The temptation, especially for France, to flirt with Putin over Syria will only work in the shortest of short-terms. Putin is Yin to Hollande’s Yang. Putin was able to provide the tough talk and illusion of rapid response that Western leaders might crave, but which their systems and political cultures constrain them from delivering. Even in terms of simple vocabulary, Hollande talked of “war”, but not of “revenge”; while Putin had no such compunctions. Putin could provide the instant bombing that is slow to arrange in the West – the TV version, at least – and plugged the gap between immediate symbolic sorties and the UK joining in by December.
But several Western politicians, especially in France, have rushed further ahead to endorse the idea of Russia as a global partner, putting to one side its actions in Ukraine. In October Nicolas Sarkozy declared in Moscow that “the world needs Russia” and reversed Barack Obama’s famous put-down that “Russia is [only] a regional power” to say “the destiny of Russia is to be a great global power and not just a regional power”. Two days before the Paris attacks, Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that “We need Russia to be at the table of global political responsibility in order to be in a position to master the challenges facing us in other regions of the world. I say this with a view to Syria, the fight against international terrorism and the security architecture of the Middle East. We can only make progress here with, and not without, Russia.”
But there is nothing at play for Russia in Syria other than a short-term PR boost and a strengthened idea of Russia a “great global player”. And in this it has partly succeeded. It has renewed its global ambitions and already succeeded in changing the story at home, even if only temporarily, away from its misadventure in Ukraine. But on the ground, analysis showsRussia has mainly been bombing Assad’s enemies, not Islamic State. Moreover, for all Putin’s talk of revenge, the pattern barely changed after the shooting down of Flight 9268. Even more significantly, Russia has not shifted its targeting decisively after the Paris atrocities on 13 November, apart from a few PR-driven sorties. Russia even has a short-term interest in keeping Islamic State going in Syria – it puts additional pressure on the anti-Assad opposition and diverts militants from the North Caucasus.
Russia is therefore not likely to join any anti-IS coalition in any meaningful way. Its priority is still to assist the Assad regime and its Iranian allies in stabilising their rule in the west and the north. And Russia is seeking to limit American influence as much as expand its own. It is enjoying showing off the fruits of its post-2008 military reform in Syria. But is also showing its limits. According to ECFR expert Gustav Gressel; ‘the Syrian deployment does not draw on the core strengths of the armed forces, or on Moscow’s military vision’ and Russian public opinion is wary of any involvement on the ground.
And finally, Russia does not have a very nuanced view of diplomatic trading. It wants to buy a free pass in Ukraine and shift the West towards its position on Assad’s survival. It is not prepared to sacrifice the latter to get the former, or vice-versa. Russia will only really cooperate on Syria, if we accept Moscow's vision and policy for the region, which doesn’t require any horse-trading. The talk about needing Russia for Syria has been a convenient excuse, an opportunity to blame Russia for the lack of workable western policy. Had we had the latter in place, Russia could have done very little to obstruct it.
Consigning Ukraine to a Russian ‘sphere of influence’ won’t work
And if the trade in mind is to forget about Ukraine, then that won’t work either.
Significant parts of the European left have bought the myth that the US-led expansion of NATO was the key cause of the crisis over Ukraine. Significant parts of the European right have bought the myth that a “militarist and expansionist” EU was the key cause, over-extending its flawed project to weak east European states without the capacity or desire to adopt the acquis, when the EU had neither the capacity nor the desire to protect them from Russia’s reaction. Logically but absurdly, both extremes therefore assume that the situation will be more stable without the Western interference that caused the problem in the first place, and would either de facto confine Ukraine to a Russian sphere of influence, or tell Ukraine that, even if it is nominally independent, it is forced to live with Putin.
So the West must change itself: it does not have the responsibility, the capacity or the desire to force Putin to change. Putin is not being told to live with Ukraine. But a Russian ‘sphere of influence’ is not a recipe for peace or stability. Too many Ukrainians would resist it; both for patriotic reasons and for the renewed corruption and loss of European perspective it would bring. And Russia wouldn’t understand why it was resisted and resented; because it doesn’t understand the animus of a new nation-state in the making, which has been the underlying force of the revolution in Ukraine since 2013. The Kremlin would assume that any acts of rebellion were being covertly supported by the West. So we would be back to confrontation. The problem could not be quietly consigned to a remoter part of Europe.
Weak states don’t just bleed away quietly in a corner. Granting Russia what it wants in Ukraine and elsewhere in the eastern neighbourhood would amount to acquiescing in the campaign of what Russia openly calls ‘de-sovereignisation’. The West is partly complicit for not taking the full sovereignty of states like Ukraine seriously enough; but Russia is not complaining about weak or even failing states on its borders – it is actively creating them. Pushed to its logical conclusion, full ‘de-sovereignisation’ would hollow out the OSCE framework (after the 22nd OSCE Ministerial meeting in Belgrade on 4 December ended acrimoniously), WTO and even Bretton Woods; from which everybody in the West would suffer. And if Russia is able to interpret its intervention as a ‘success’, then it will resort to the same means again elsewhere.
Disorder in Ukraine was not a problem when Putin intervened to “protect” local Russians in 2014. But it is more likely to become so in an isolated or Russia-dominated Ukraine. There have been many premature forecasts that Ukraine was developing a toxic mix of nationalists, militias, and oligarchs who sponsored militias to protect their own interests. And such forecasts may remain premature – Ukrainians still have an admirable sense of self-restraint embodied in the popular phrase “You can get rid of [sitting President] Poroshenko, but your next President would be Putin”. But add in the elements of a weak state and desperate opportunistic politicians who have tried to win popularity by jumping on the bandwagon of the recent Crimean blockade ex post facto, and you have a dangerous mixture, and potential gift to Russian propaganda. The major factor currently restraining potential disorder is the links these same politicians and oligarchs to the West.
A good example would be the Crimean Tatars, who previously had the longest history of non-violent protest in the former Soviet Union, dating back to the 1960s.Despite twenty three years of frustration under an independent Ukraine, when the authorities in Kyiv never backed their cause as they should have done, constant predictions of radicalisation and violent protest were proven wrong. But now the Crimean Tatars are at the forefront of the blockade of Crimea. Whether their activists blew up the electricity supply or not, they certainly prevented the authorities from restoring it quickly. Again, the best solution to the Crimean Tatar problem is its internationalisation.
It’s too early for ‘Ukraine fatigue 2.0’
The first iteration of the term ‘Ukraine fatigue’ was caused by the disappointment after the ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004. By 2008-10, European and American leaders were personally weary of the broken promises and machinations of Ukrainian politicians, and the Ukrainian electorate was sufficiently disillusioned to actually elect Yanukovych.
But the echoes of ‘Ukraine fatigue’ are being heard once again. Patience and attention spans are shorter in the West; but complacency on the domestic front in Ukraine is not helping either. Reforms are progressing painfully slowly. Accusations of corruption, increasingly coming from former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, now the governor of Odesa, include many in the current government. For some, Ukraine is in danger of becoming a failed state.
But the internal dynamic this time is totally different. During the Orange Revolution in 2004 the protests aimed to ensure the right person was elected. Viktor Yushchenko duly took office and the protestors went home, placing their faith in a small number of leaders that proved fractious, incompetent and corrupt. The Euromaidan protests in 2013-14 were about much more than who ran the country. Civil society is much stronger and isn’t going to go away.
It may be a depressing reality that the Ukrainian system is capable of re-consolidating itself after a second attempted revolution. But the system is much weaker than it was, and it would still face opposition from a newly energetic, powerful and self-organised civic sector that knowsthat faith in leaders alone is an unaffordable luxury – you need to work at running the country, or the revolution will be stolen. Ukraine cannot stabilise as anything but a democracy – authoritarian stabilisation was tried, but resulted in revolution. The likely result of leaving Ukraine to Russia or to its own devices will only be to deepen dysfunctionality and conflict, creating a mess that we will still be forced to deal with. So it is better to be engaged from the beginning. Pro-reform forces are strong enough to keep opposing and weakening a non-reformist state. But they are not strong enough to succeed without international help.
Why you should care about Ukraine
Two years after Ukrainians took to the street to fight for their independence and European choice, Ukraine has proven remarkably resilient in the face of Russian aggression and massive reform challenges. But the country’s trajectory is far from certain. It could end fatally damaged externally by Russian aggression and internally if reform drivers remain in the wrong place. But Ukraine could also be a success story – and the EU has every interest in seeing this happen.
An open market of 45 million people would provide a tremendous boost to growth in the EU. The long-delayed Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement between the EU and Ukraine will finally come into force in January 2016. Russian arguments about the damage to Russo-Ukrainian trade can be dismissed, as Russia’s trade war against Ukraine has already reduced its share of Ukrainian exports from near 30 per cent to less than 10 per cent. If Ukraine gets its economic reforms right, Ukraine could take off as a low-cost manufacturing and IT hub for a European economy badly in need of new sources of dynamism. The boost to pan-European trade could rival that from the accession of central European and Baltic States economies in 2004.
A successful Ukraine would also bring much needed stability to the neighbourhood at a time when the EU is under pressure from a breakdown of order all around. Ukraine is a vital flank in controlling migration processes into Europe – both its own IDPs and migrants likely to be displaced north of Turkey if the EU-Turkey agreement holds. Cooperation over Ukraine ought to bring the EU and USA closer together.
The New Ukraine is struggling to be born; Old Ukraine is resisting and Russia is trying to strangle it at birth. Europe cannot afford to let New Ukraine die, and the élan of a people fighting to join Europe should be an inspiration to Europe’s old guard to build a New Europe too.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.