The dramatic events in Ukraine this year have in much commentary been portrayed as a struggle between Russia and the EU (with backing from the US) for the country with the EU and US criticized for allegedly acting in a pusillanimous manner while Russia under Putin is acting ruthlessly in pursuit if its interests. Although there is no reason for complacency in what remains a very volatile situation, the reality is that Putin’s ruthlessness has lost him influence in Ukraine outside of the Crimea while the hesitancy and muddle of the EU’s policy stance have not prevented its increased standing in the country.
Russia has lost support in Ukraine except Crimea
Crimea is an important exception but it was not traditionally part of Ukraine having been given to it by Nikita Krushchev in 1954. Although influenced by Russian propaganda, the majority opinion there favours Moscow over Kiev. In this situation Russia might well have pressed for a fair and open referendum with time for both sides to put their case and the outcome would have been a vote in favour of leaving Ukraine and joining Russia. By insisting on a referendum as early as March 16th under the control of Russian troops, it ensured that no independent party could regard the referendum as legitimate.
Ukraine has often been described as a country split between those looking westwards (particularly but not only the territory moved from Poland to the Soviet Union by Stalin at Yalta in 1945) and Russian speakers who look towards Russia. This however was always over-simplistic. If it were that simple then the move to split as in the case of the Czech Republic and Slovakia would have been much stronger.
The pressure that Russia put on former president Yanukovich to crack down on the people occupying central Kiev in protest at Yanukovich’s decision to abandon the offer by the EU of closer links in favour of joining a post-Soviet customs union has led to the discrediting of both Yanukovich and Russia in the opinion of the majority of Ukrainians across the whole country other than Crimea. Although there have been demonstrations by Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine against the new government in Kiev and in favour of closer relations with Russia, they have been relatively small. The majority of Russian speakers seem at the moment to prefer living in an independent Ukraine to being in a client state to Russia. This is certainly what the majority of Ukrainians as a whole prefer. As a result for a long time in the future Russia will have to live with a neighbour which is at best distrusting and at worst hostile.
Most of EU is reluctant to bring in Ukraine
Most countries in the EU are not keen on expanding to bring in Ukraine and this therefore is at best a long term prospect. In the event of Ukrainian accession other EU members would face the budgetary costs of supporting a country which is much poorer than most EU countries and the likelihood of strong migration flows if Ukraine was given the same right of free movement as accorded to existing member states. EU policy is motivated partly by its own founding treaties, which envisage the possibility of accession to all European countries, and partly by its interest in having a stable democratic neighbour. Because of its longstanding principles of conditionality to association agreements and eventual accession, it has come to be regarded in Ukraine as representing hopes for entrenching democracy, ending the imprisonment of major politicians by their opponents, reducing corruption and improving human and minority rights.
Relations between the EU and Russia will suffer as a result of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. If Russia were to try to annex other parts of Ukraine, however, relations would deteriorate dramatically further. For the moment Russia is insisting it will not intervene elsewhere in Ukraine but large numbers of troops and equipment near the border do not seem intended to reassure Ukraine or its friends in the EU or US.
What are Russia’s legitimate interests?
Substantial discussions took place on March 30th between the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov and the US secretary of state, John Kerry, who was to an extent speaking on behalf of the EU as well as the US. The dilemma is to what extent Russia (or the EU and US) should be considered to have a legitimate interest in what happens in Ukraine. If the EU wants to have a stable and friendly so can Russia. Moreover it is reasonable to want the wellbeing of those who consider themselves to be Russians to be protected. But there comes a point whereby telling Ukraine how it should run its own affairs amounts to trying to undermine its independence. That point is crossed when Russia says it wants Ukraine to be reorganised on a federal basis. On the other hand a request that Russian be one of the official languages is reasonable. It is also reasonable to demand that if Ukraine does develop closer links with the EU, they do not weaken economic links between Ukraine and Russia.
Longer term aim for EU and US should not be “winning” against Russia
In the longer term the interests of the EU of US should not be to win a new zero sum conflict with Russia but to provide it with a way to return to normal relations with the rest of the world. After all Russia does not have to expand to become one of the world’s largest countries in both area and natural resources. It was recently seen as one of the BRICS of countries on the rise. Somehow Russia’s leader and population need to be persuaded that a return to nineteenth century power politics is not in their interest.