Twenty-five years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West’s perspective on Eastern Europe is too often overshadowed by its view of Russia. The European peoples of the post-Soviet space, whose geography has led to geopolitical tragedy, are often of only secondary importance for some within the political establishments of Rome, Madrid, Berlin, and elsewhere – and so are these peoples’ opinions on their own future.
The hollowness of “strategic partnerships” with Russia
Whenever there is a crisis with Russia, many policymakers’ default choice is to defend their country’s or the European Union’s “strategic partnership” with Russia. The need to hold on tightly to the “strategic partnership” has become a commonplace and unassailable line of argument, whatever its actual merits and without due regard for Russia’s troublemaking in the neighbourhood. But this sort of thinking ignores the Kremlin’s actual strategy and foreign policy-making, which is often at odds with European efforts at partnership. Russia tries to undermine European interests and counter-balance the West (for example, in the Balkans, in the MENA region, or at the United Nations), while at the same time playing a skilful game of divide-and-conquer with EU member states through its “special relationships of friendship and fraternity”.
Whenever there is a crisis with Russia, the default choice is to defend their country’s or the European Union’s “strategic partnership” with Russia.
The more mischief that Russia creates to jeopardise European interests and principles, the more these policymakers insist on weakening already inadequate Western red lines. Somewhere behind all this is a bad conscience about the West’s alleged disregard for Russian interests since the fall of the Soviet Union, from NATO enlargement to Kosovo’s independence, and some policymakers are also influenced by anti-Americanism and anti-Western attitudes. Russia has brazenly violated the basic tenets of the European security order created in Helsinki almost 40 years ago, by abandoning the prohibition on the use of force, ignoring the inviolability of states’ borders, and subverting the right to choose alliances. And yet, even as Russia escalates, some continue to emphasise a new European security order that would include a peaceful, cooperation-driven Russia in its midst.
These policymakers believe that their perspective is geopolitically realist. In fact, it borders on normative naivety. As Russia forcefully pursues a classic interest-based approach to its partnership with the EU and with specific member states, these geopolitical “understanders” of Russia overlook the lessons of history. Unchecked and assertive great powers, at least when guided by the revisionism that presently permeates Moscow’s narrative, are not amenable to real compromise. They instead try to capitalise on other powers’ weaknesses.
Even so, for many, good relations with Russia take precedence over the fate of Ukraine or of the other non-EU East European countries that want a European perspective. In a way, this way of thinking legitimises the argument that Eastern Europe is still the private domain of the few men who run the Kremlin.
Reform or risk Maidan redux
What is more, framing Ukraine’s crisis solely as a clash between Russia and the West is both reductive and potentially damaging. European policy risks neglecting key challenges that will shape the outcome of this crisis. One such challenge was at the root of both the failed Orange Revolution and the Maidan protests. It is Ukraine’s need to undergo a real democratic and economic transformation, from a post-Soviet state held back by illiberal elites, oligarchs, and factional infighting to a reasonably functional democratic polity governed by the rule of law and with a working economy. This remains an unresolved issue in spite of the symbolic signing of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU.
What is more, framing Ukraine’s crisis solely as a clash between Russia and the West is both reductive and potentially damaging.
The factors that led to the Maidan protests – bad governance and public exasperation with the ruling class’s corruption and impunity – still exist in Ukraine. In these times of political mobilisation all around the world at the speed of Twitter, whether in Kyiv, Hong Kong, or Sarajevo (what Zbigniew Brzezinski has called the global political awakening), an even more fragmented and unpredictable Maidan II cannot be ruled out. And if it did take place, it would happen in a worsened context of war, patriotic mobilisation, and dashed expectations.
Within a very brief timeframe by historical standards, Ukraine needs to carry out a major reform of the state and its political culture – and it must do so while it is in a state of insecurity. It must neutralise and eventually change the underlying structure of entrenched interests, present in most post-Soviet countries, that obstructs transformation. Ukraine also needs massive economic aid to prevent the state from going bankrupt and to help generate a minimal level of political stability.
However, as in all transformative processes, the EU’s dilemma lies in the fact that as an external actor, it must rely on the same political elites who have so far resisted the idea of opening up the system. And it is not clear that the parliamentary elections have changed that underlying power and resource structure. The good results obtained by Maidan candidates on the “Self Help” list may give some reason for hope of change from the bottom up. Even so, as Andrew Wilson notes, the somewhat low turnout evidences a dangerous degree of alienation because of the persistence of “politics as usual” and the results speak to the continued vitality of the “old guard”.
Instead of simplistically labelling political forces as either “pro-European” or “pro-Russian”, Europe must focus urgently on the daunting task of honouring its grand promises and truly transforming Ukraine. This will entail a number of difficult dilemmas, since some core European reforms such as judicial independence are not palatable to vested interests and others such as socio-economic reforms will not sit well with the public. But the success or failure of the struggle to implement reform in Ukraine will have an impact on the outcome of the crisis – and on the future of Eastern Europe as a whole.
A second Bosnia?
Ukraine also needs to guarantee its security. Therefore, another big challenge is to prevent Ukraine from turning into a new Bosnia. Even if a stable political agreement were to be reached in the east, Ukraine at the moment is heading towards a frozen or latent conflict, which would undermine its national coherence and territorial integrity – as is still the case in Bosnia almost twenty years after the Dayton Accord was signed.
EU’s dilemma lies in the fact that as an external actor, it must rely on the same political elites who have so far resisted the idea of opening up the system.
The Kremlin’s agenda bears some resemblance to that of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade in the 1990s, at least when it comes to its actual strategy and the ways in which it sows instability. Moscow tries to inflame ethnic-nationalist divisions, reinforcing non-essential differences in origin (just as in the multi-ethnic Bosnia of 1992), so that ethnic conflict eventually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and an entrenched fact of life. Russia’s military strategy combines direct and indirect action; the Kremlin supports irregular forces that are not part of the chain of command, which means it can keep its distance from these groups and deny any responsibility for their actions and wrongdoings (as Belgrade did in the 1990s with its delinking of Serbian Yugoslav People’s Army Units and its support for the irregular, nationalist “cetnik” militias and security personnel). And, lastly, the Kremlin employs propaganda that negates facts, stifles dissent, blames disorder on shady external actors, and fans fears of ethnic assimilation by the centre (in this case, a “Nazi Kyiv”; back then, an “Islamist Sarajevo”).
All of these elements are designed to retain Russian influence in Ukraine and destabilise Ukraine. In this context, Vladimir Putin’s candid remarks at the Valdai International Discussion Club recently were telling: he described Ukraine as “a complex, multi-component state formation”, referencing shared Russian and Ukrainian history such as the concept of Novorossiya and Nikita Khrushchev’s 1954 “illegal” transfer of Crimea to Ukraine.
The EU today is short on solidarity, but other Europeans still aspire to join it. The question now is whether it can rise to the occasion. Whatever the way forward in this crisis, as a society, will Europe reject spheres of influence à la Molotov-Ribbentrop and the revisionism of history to alter international borders? Or will Europeans, as Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage already have, succumb to the charming nationalism of a strong leader and a system that challenges (in fact rejects) modern Europe’s founding values? Does EU-Europe care about the wellbeing of those peoples from that other Europe, who, at times, wave EU flags in defiance of both their own tsars and foreign ones, even when the odds are stacked against them?
A version of this article appeared as an op-ed for El Mundo newspaper on 26 October 2014.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.