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Ukraine crisis tests Europe’s foreign policy mettle

by Ana Palacio

Powerful images have been pouring out of Ukraine lately: Kiev’s Maidan protesters bravely enduring months of bitter cold, withering police attacks, and sniper bullets; the gilded bathroom fixtures of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych’s opulent personal residence; a wheelchair-bound Yuliya Tymoshenko emerging from prison to address her countrymen. And now Russian troops in Crimea’s cities.

At a time when Europe’s self-confidence is at low ebb, Ukrainians’ courageous struggle to topple a rotten political system is a powerful reminder of Europe’s core values. The question now is what Europeans will do about it.

With the Russian Duma’s approval of President Vladimir Putin’s request to use Russian military forces in Ukraine (not restricted to Crimea), the mirage that Yanukovych’s ouster signals the start a new era, in which Ukraine moves inexorably away from Russia and into the European democratic fold, has now evaporated. Confronted with a reality that they should have foreseen, Europe’s leaders must recognize that Ukraine is subject to deep internal cleavages and conflicting geopolitical forces.

For starters, Ukraine is riven by deep-seated cultural tensions, stemming from its history of occupation by competing foreign powers. In the 17th century, the struggle among the Cossacks, Russia, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for control of Ukraine resulted in a split along the Dnieper River. The division was formally eliminated after the Second Partition of Poland in 1793, but its legacy remains.

Ukraine’s geography has exacerbated its disunity. Following the devastating famine of 1932-33, 2 million to 3 million Russians repopulated deserted farming areas in southern and eastern Ukraine, contributing to ethno-linguistic divisions that endure. Add to that endemic corruption, unscrupulous and powerful oligarchs and fractious political parties, and it is easy to see why Ukraine’s efforts to consolidate a more democratic system will be difficult.

And the challenges do not end at Ukraine’s borders. On the contrary, the country’s internal discords operate within the context of a broader, ever-mutable geopolitical rift that many assumed had been buried with the end of the Cold War.

Since the beginning of the Maidan protests, Russia had signaled that its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad was not an isolated phenomenon, highlighting America’s lack of strategic vision and declining global influence. Russian leaders certainly had a point: the United States, preoccupied with domestic challenges, is no longer setting the international agenda.

Indeed, U.S. President Barack Obama’s response to Putin’s decision to send in Russian troops pales in comparison even with the proposals made a week ago by former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Whereas Brzezinski advocated threatening financial sanctions or a review of Russia’s World Trade Organization status should Putin take military action, Obama warned only that the June Group of Eight summit in Sochi might be canceled.

Further complicating matters is the shifting nature of trans-Atlantic security arrangements. The good news is that Europe finally seems to have recognized the need to assume greater strategic responsibility, exemplified in the recent French-led missions in Mali and the Central African Republic. But the process of building a common and relevant EU security strategy has only just begun — and progress will undoubtedly be slow.

As it stands, the EU lacks the experience and savvy that the U.S. accumulated over decades as an international hegemon. This deficiency was on full display last November, when the EU offered Ukraine an Association Agreement that failed to account for the country’s financial vulnerabilities. That enabled Putin to swoop in and compel Yanukovych to scuttle the deal in exchange for a promise of $15 billion in loans and energy subsidies.

Making matters worse, Germany, the reluctant leader of the EU, has traditionally acted in support of its own economic and energy interests, maintaining a strong bilateral relationship with Russia. Today, German leaders are sending mixed and confusing signals. While Germany has increasingly emphasized values — from the rule of law to human rights — in its dealings with Russia over the last year, it remains unclear whether it will go so far as to lead the tough EU-wide initiative that is needed.

The fact that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was joined by his French and Polish counterparts in brokering last week’s agreement in Kiev could confirm that Germany is not planning to go it alone. However, in the aftermath of German President Joachim Gauck’s recent announcement that his country is prepared to embrace a larger role in global affairs, it is far from certain whether Germany is willing to align its foreign policy more closely with that of the EU.

The West’s uncertainty over Ukraine contrasts sharply with Russia’s clear vision. Putin knows that a pro-Western, pro-NATO Ukraine would present a major obstacle to Russian dominance in Eurasia, potentially cutting off Russia’s access to the Black Sea and, most important, providing a model to his opponents at home. His acts over the last days confirm that he is willing to play hardball, leveraging the discontent (real or provoked) of Ukraine’s ethnic Russian population, particularly in Crimea, the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Against this background, if we let old conflicts and rivalries persist, the images that emerge from Ukraine will progressively contrast with the hopes of Maidan and echo those seen in 2008, 1979, 1968 and 1956.

The international community must balance the need to ensure that Ukraine does not become the site of a proxy battle with the necessity of stopping Putin’s destructive ambitions. The Atlantic Community and Russia need each other. It is therefore urgent and essential that the U.S. and Europe do not leave Putin with a free hand in the Ukraine conflict.

Ana Palacio is a former Spanish foreign minister. © 2014 Project Syndicate

  • SuchindranathAiyer

    Russia is impervious to economic and military coercion over the Crimea which is strategically vital to Russian interests and which, logically, has always been part of Russia, except nominally since Kruschev handed it over to Ukraine (a vassal state at that time). Russia’s response is understandable as NATO has been pushing the envelope consistently ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia, Georgia, and now Ukraine. More by the absurd, obsolete reflexes built up through the Cold War that are now finding a reflective resonance in Russia. Russia is unlikely to give an inch from here on. The US has been playing Poker while Putin has been playing chess. While Ukraine continues to spook the World’s markets. Russia is immune to Western “Economic” Pressure and Crimea is strategically vital to Russia. In addition, the “West” has no moral standing over “Rule of Law”. (Unctuous Cameron!) Remember those two “Smash and Grab” artists, UK and US, at work in Yugoslavia and Iraq? The US was defanged by the Saudis when it went into secular Iraq, which with Syria, was the sole counter poise to Hezbollah Iran and Wahabi Arabia instead of putting that Islamic Bomb wielding Wahabi Sword Arm, Pakistan in its place after 9/11 and Afghanistan. The US stands exposed for what it really is. It can bomb unprotected and weak nations back to the stone ages and foster chaos where chaos already is. And, skirt all Nations that may hit back such as North Korea, China or Pakistan. That’s about it. As for Russia, it does not have the wherewithal to take Ukraine militarily against wide spread civil resistance. (NATO knows this and so does Putin). At best Russia will stamp its imprimatur on parts of Ukraine that are ethnically Russian to begin with such as the Crimea which is a good thing. It is high time that Kosovo (Yugoslavia is where the US (Clinton and Albright) began its adventures as a mercenary military force of Islam) was returned to Belgrade. The tragedy is that Ukraine and their Western ilk are taking Putin’s eye off the Islamic ball that is hovering on Russia’s “D”. Any “West”-Russia “confrontation” can only be posturing on both sides and is heading rapidly back to a cold war via detente from a “detente cordiale” which could never become “entente” with the basic “Boston” Witch trial mind set and the Mc Carthy and Hoover hang over of the US establishment. The Islamic Caliphate, the emerging post civilizational empire, is the real beneficiary of this sort of “confrontation”. Not just in Syria. While the Saudi-Wahabis bled Russia with US and Pakistani help in Afghanistan, they bled the US and its “coalition of the willing” in Iraq. While the US is over extended, Russia is consolidated with it hackles up over Sevastapol. (And, yes, Russia should return the Kuriles to Japan)

    • zer0_0zor0

      The US has been playing Poker while Putin has been playing chess.

      That’s a good one, I may have to borrow that sometime…

      I share your opinion on the Crimea, basically, which has been Russian since the 18th century and at other times in the more distant and bloody past.

      The Islamophobia is probably counterproductive though, even though many people are understandably concerned about religious extremists of various creeds.