Ukraine must cease to be a tasty trophy for external rivals

26 february 2014

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Resume: The nation’s largest neighbouring partners need to pool their efforts

 The main conclusion from the recent turmoil in Ukraine is that the country should not be given the hard choice of taking sides between Russia and the west. The tragedy should serve as a lesson for external forces, which must revise their policies.

The bloody climax of the developments in Kiev was primarily the fault of the Ukrainian political class, which has never adequately governed the state since independence. Another factor was the sporting excitement of its neighbours – Russia and the EU – which often viewed Ukraine as a tasty trophy and confirmation of their own geopolitical influence.

It was not accidental that the planned signing of an association agreement with the EU served as a catalyst for an acute political crisis in Kiev. Ukraine’s heterogeneity, the peculiarities of its history and differences in mentality created a situation in which attempts to bind to either of the two rival political associations sharply increased internal tensions.

The problems of Ukraine can only be solved if its largest external partners pool their efforts. A zero-sum game is destructive for a country sandwiched between big external interests. That message must be heeded by the Ukrainian elite itself, which has often tried to play on conflicts between Russia and the west in the hope of deriving dividends.

The shocks of the past few weeks have shown the extent of polarisation of Ukrainian society. Black-and-white perceptions and ideological clichés in analysing the crisis are very dangerous. Simplification favours extremist forces in Ukraine from both sides: extreme nationalists in western Ukraine and revenge-seekers in the east.

The country needs a period of stabilisation, and so the risks must be reduced. A revision of Viktor Yanukovich’s foreign-policy legacy will appear on the agenda very soon. The most important point will be the nonaligned status of Ukraine and the agreement on the deployment of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol until 2042.

Any desire by the new government to get rid of the fleet and raise the issue of Ukraine joining Nato would trigger a strong negative reaction from Moscow and again spark geopolitical rivalry. This would cause Russia to consider all possibilities, notably escalating contacts with eastern parts of Ukraine including the stimulation of secession.

Politicians in Kiev have swiftly returned to the issue of association with the EU, which sparked off the revolution. It is clear that politicians in Brussels, Warsaw and Berlin would like to take revenge for the failure at the Vilnius summit last November. But the underlying problems have not disappeared with the change in power in Kiev.

Ukraine’s economic success is possible only if the country preserves access to both Russian and European markets. This requires tripartite consultations and co-ordination. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin proposed such an approach last autumn, but the EU showed no interest. If we see the recurrence of last year’s approach, the new Ukrainian authorities, struggling to save the country from economic collapse, risk even greater problems from a Russian blockade.

Another threat comes from possible attempts by the more active groups among the Ukrainian winners to “punish” their opponents, especially in the east and south of the country. The national revolution proclaimed by the Maidan has an agenda of its own: the identification of “antinational” forces, a ban on ideologies associated with the “accursed past”, lustration, and the demand for an oath of loyalty – not even to the new authorities but to the new system of symbols.

Such sentiments emerged in Ukraine before, but they always died out in the face of resistance from others. Now the victims will serve as a catalyst for, and justification of, actions by radical forces. If they are allowed to fester, they will dramatically exacerbate tensions between different parts of the country and provoke a reaction from Russia, to which the population of the east will appeal.

Since 1989 it has been repeatedly declared that the cold war is over. However, events have repeatedly shown that the inertia of confrontation has not disappeared and that old instincts are still alive.

Ukraine now symbolises a broader turning point with two different outcomes. Either Russia, the US and the EU realise the importance of working together to untangle the knots of European history of which the Ukrainian knot is the tightest, or a full-scale cold war will break out in Europe again, beginning with a divided state.

| Financial Times

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