Ukraine: all sides, inside and outside the country, should strive for de-escalation

The more emollient tone adopted by Russia’s President Putin on May 7th in particular his apparent support for Ukraine’s election on May 25th, should be reciprocated by the EU. The rapid escalation in recent weeks to a state of near civil war in Ukraine is disastrous for all sides in and outside Ukraine. It represents a major disaster for the EU’s neighbourhood policy whose objective is to bring stability. It has suffered a major reverse from events in North Africa and Syria. Although developments across the Mediterranean have little do with any EU policies, this cannot be said of Ukraine, where the EU’s attempts to negotiate an association agreement have, albeit inadvertently, led to conflict. One mistake was to have presented the former Ukraine president, Victor Yanukovich with too sharp a choice between closer relations with the EU and closer relations with Russia. An imaginative approach could be to find away in which closer economic relations with the EU could be made compatible with closer relations between Ukraine and Russia (and indeed other ex-Soviet countries). If the outcome were to let Russia and other countries have more access to the EU market that would be no bad thing the only proviso being that Russian companies competing in the EU be subject to EU competition rules. This is in any case already an issue particularly in relation to Gazprom.

The EU should try to persuade the interim Ukraine government to hold back from further confrontation, to try tackle the Right Sector and other Ukrainian nationalist extremists more effectively, to promise full and guaranteed rights for Russian as a second language and ensure non-discrimination against Russian speakers and to be willing to enter a dialogue over increased local autonomy as a response to Russian demands for federalisation. The latter is the most difficult issue and there is concern about one country making demands on how another country should conduct its internal affairs. But a de-escalation now requires both sides to make conciliatory moves.

It is possible that Putin’s apparently conciliatory tone is a ruse and that possibility should prepared for. That said, it is hard to see what aim he would be looking to achieve if he is not sincere. It cannot be in his or Russia’s interest to have a failed state the majority of whose population is hostile to Russia as a neighbour. In the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War it is worth remembering that a series of belligerent responses to the situation led to an outcome which was disastrous for all concerned, particularly Austro-Hungary, Russia and Germany but also the eventual victors, Britain and France.

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