Ukraine, Before the Minsk Ceasefire Deal
Matteo Tacconi 10 February 2015

The temptation to escalate

This already critical scenario is made worse due to the prospect of further militarisation. Aleksandr Zakharchenko, leader of the People’s Republic of Donetsk, which together with the People’s Republic of Lugansk forms the Ukrainian secessionist entity known as New Russia, has announced a general mobilisation. There had been talk of one hundred thousand men, although this figure seems improbable. Recruiting is also underway on the other side of the barricades, in Kiev, where the government wants to strengthen the front lines and take back land lost in clashes during recent weeks of the conflict. There is, however, the issue of the growing phenomenon of desertion.

Kiev’s difficulties are leading the Obama administration (and NATO) to seriously consider sending military aid, very recently supported by the Brookings Institution with an analysis requesting Kiev be assisted with aid consisting of “lethal but not offensive weapons.” This belief is shared by the British historian Timothy Garton Ash, also an influential columnist for the Guardian, who has begged the West to stop hesitating and equip Ukraine with modern weapons so the country can defend itself from Russian attacks. The thesis is that the war in Ukraine is not being fought by two factions, but rather by two states, seeing that rebels in the Donbass are nothing but an extension of Moscow. 

Russia, on the other hand, believes that the Ukrainian army is NATO’s foreign legion and that the West organised the Maidan uprising, which began in November 2013 and culminated when Yanukovich fled last February. Then there are also a multitude of anchor-men, news analysts and court-philosophers who have raised tensions even further. The political analyst Sergei Markov proposes that the Ukrainian government be overthrown and Odessa and Kharkiv occupied. These cities have remained under Kiev’s control, but the situation there is tense. The unpunished attack on Odessa is one of the festering issues in this crisis, and, when it began, Kharkiv was the theatre of violent confrontations between those supporting and those opposing the Maidan. 

What negotiations?

Some consider this endless increase in clashes and rise in international tension as a way of raising the stakes and earning negotiating points for when talks really begin. It is legitimate to wonder when and above all how this will happen. An agreement between Kiev and pro-Russians, and between the West and Moscow, will be difficult. Russia wants a federal and neutral Ukraine, while Kiev finds it hard to envisage such a solution. On the one hand, Ukraine fears that a federal solution in relations between the centre and the periphery would lead to a state within the state, bearing in mind not only the speed with which pro-Russians have taken and are managing power in Donetsk and Lugansk, but also the case involving Crimea, grabbed and taken home by the Russians as if it were a knick-knack. On the other hand, and precisely for this very reason, Kiev believes that a return to an until-recently constitutionally approved neutrality would expose the country to Russian revisionism, blamed for the breaking of the agreements sanctioned by the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. At that meeting in the Hungarian capital, the Russians, the Americans and the British signed a memorandum on the basis of which Ukraine would surrender its nuclear arsenal in exchange for guarantees on its territorial integrity, although clear legal solutions were not stated.

The other negotiating option is one involving an administratively decentralised Ukraine, free to choose to form the alliances it pleases (which does not automatically mean joining NATO). Such a plan has not been greeted favourably by pro-Russians or by the Kremlin. As far as the first point is concerned, one should consider that the government offensive has totally ruined relations between the centre and the periphery, resulting in a necessary radical rethinking of the state’s organisation. Regards to the second point, it involves the hypothesis that NATO will sooner or later co-opt Kiev, changing one again the balance in Eastern Europe, to Moscow’s disadvantage of course.

These recriminations are not meaningless. Military operations undertaken by the regular army, accompanied by para-military battalions, have been extremely harsh. Civilians have not been adequately protected, nor has the government done much to avoid the East feeling it had its back to the wall after Yanukovich fell. On the contrary, one often had the feeling that the creation of post-Soviet Ukraine, the legitimate aspiration of the Maidan uprising, would arise through neurotic forms of revenge expressed by one part of the country against the other. As far as Russia is concerned, whether one likes it or not and leaving aside the means used, there is no doubt that as a world power it wishes to oppose a compression of its own back yard, in which Ukraine is the most important element.

Saying it as it is, things have come to a head. A status that goes well beyond the perimeter of negotiations. It is almost an existential fact. Kiev is broke. Without its para-military battalions it could not sustain the war. But these battalions are funded by the oligarchs, who thereby hold the government to ransom, fearing mass infusions of economic reforms requested by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union in exchange for loans. These sums in the meantime are rising, and saving Ukraine is turning out to be more expensive than expected.

The Kremlin is working on its neighbour with the intention of proving that it is a totally failed state and thereby suggesting to the Euro-Americans that Kiev is not worth all this passion. The price to be paid is, however, extremely high in economic terms. Over the short term it is sustainable, over the longer term who knows. In any case, Washington and Brussels are holding their ground; no one is withdrawing. Once again the cost of this commitment is soaring. The Americans are thinking of embarking on the uncertain and dangerous path of military aid. Europe, between its sanctions and Russia’s agricultural counter-sanctions, has lost a great deal of business and lost market share.

Adieu Eurussia

There are conflicting interpretations as far as the EU’s approach to the Ukrainian crisis is concerned. There are some who mark it as yet more political dwarfism and others who, on the contrary, consider the decision to insist on sanctions against Russia, criticised but then later approved by many European governments, as a wish to affirm the right to offer inclusion to third countries in line with the EU’s enlargement mission. 

Time will tell whether the first or the second theory is the correct one or whether there is a little of both. One can, however, already venture a conclusion. The Ukrainian crisis had demolished the idea, cultivated in certain circles on the Old Continent, according to which Europe and Russia are complementary, as if destined to create something more organised than simple, albeit intense, market relations. This interpretation does not sufficiently take into account the assets of rights and values. Strong relationships are formed also thanks to these ingredients.

Russia is not rich in such assets. On the contrary, since Putin came to power in 2000, rights have been progressively reduced. The Kremlin has given Russians better living standards, but in exchange has demanded fewer objections being raised as far as civil and political liberties are concerned. And that is not all. With Putin in command, Russia has experienced a transformation of its political culture that has resulted in the recanting of liberal paradigms, confusedly absorbed during the Yeltsin era, and turned towards a conservative vision of society and of the world. Faced with such elements it becomes difficult to speak of complementarity.

However, this short-sightedness is also at the root of Europe’s approach to the Ukrainian crisis. Having not understood the march embarked upon by Russia, there was a belief that events would follow a linear path and that the European economic and democratic model could be exported anywhere, following the usual plans and without encountering opposition. One has instead seen that Putin acted as he did. It would, however, be reductive to consider Russia as the only impediment to the development of more solid relations between Europe and Ukraine. The former Soviet republic is yes a victim of geography, but over time has often proved to be resistant to all reformist stimuli and unable to shrewdly move its own political barycentre, cunningly playing against the Europeans and the Russians without avoiding devastating shocks. And this has happened once again.

Translated by Francesca Simmons