End Game in Ukraine?

By Jens Jorgen Nielsen

Written September 25, 2014

It should never have come to this horrible situation in Ukraine. The local population of Donetsk, Lugansk, Slavyansk and other eastern Ukrainian cities is living through a true nightmare. Residential areas are being bombed, shelled and burned. Non-combatants i.e. elder, women and children are lying dead in the streets. We’re talking about thousands of deaths. No water supply, no heating, no security – this is the grim reality for the population.

700.000 Eastern Ukrainians have already escaped from the war scene, most of them are living in refugee camps in Russia. It is worth noting that they have not fled to Kiev or elsewhere to the west.

Surprisingly the Western media hardly pay any attention to the horrors in Eastern Ukraine.

But that is not all. Ukraine is in total disruption socially, politically and not least economically and financially. Furthermore, the mental scars in Ukraine will continue for at least one generation ahead.

But again that is not all. The European Union suffers as well – in several ways. EU foreign policy has proven to be hopelessly incompetent. Maybe it really is an impossible task to develop a common European foreign policy, which combines the interests of 28 countries. Whatever the case, it would have been the basic interest of the EU to not let events run out of control in Ukraine.

The relationship between Russia and the EU has worsened tremendously during less than one year. Politically the climate has turned to a very cold one, breaking various channels of communication almost every week.

In terms of Russia-EU trade, things are steadily and seriously deteriorating through these months.

The sanction policy is utterly counterproductive, if the purpose were to force Russia to change its policy on Ukraine or turn the Russian population against Russian president Vladimir Putin in the hope to topple him and make Russia a different country, more subservient to the west. Nothing of the sort has happened. The Russians support their leader more than ever.

The Russia policy of the EU tests the coherence of the EU, it might not be as strong as many very European politicians hope and believe. On the 12th of September the EU adopted another set of sanctions, not caring even to wait and see whether the truce process in Minsk actually would be working. As a matter of fact it does, not least because of Russian resolve. Another reason is that Poroshenko has realized that his army has de facto broken down not being as strong and committed as he (and the West had hoped).

Finally, the relationship between Russia and USA is now at an all time low. It has not been this bad since the end of the Cold War. We face a situation in which a war between NATO and Russia is in principle imaginable.

The developments in and around Ukraine is tantamount to madness.

There are so many losers and very few winners – one of them being China and certainly not the EU, not Russia and not even USA, even though many Americans seem to think that a weakened Russia means strengthening the West. Bashing and punishing Putin will not reinforce the west. It is one of the stupid premises of the Western thinking.

But it takes two to tango. Russia is party to the conflict and both sides have contributed to escalating the conflict these weeks and months, but NATO has done most of the escalation. The Western way of thinking is basically not only wrong but also dangerous and harmful. I am not criticizing Western politician for having reservations as to Putin’s precidency. Some might even be relevant. But the policy is powerless and does not at all promote peace and stability in Europe, which should be the raison d´être for every politician.

The EU policy rests on some quite erroneous grounds. Let us just look at few examples.

Many in the West think that there is a war between Russia and a unified Ukraine. But that is not so. Ukraine is a very special country with a very delicate balance between different cultures with different mindsets, values, political and economic interests and also languages.

When the democratically elected president, Victor Yanukovich in November 2013 chose to postpone an association agreement with the EU in order to balance the interests of Russia and EU, the EU displayed a strong outrage. This outrage is not easy to understand. A free trade agreement between Ukraine and the EU of course had implications for Russia, which had not agreed to free trade and free access for e.g. German competitive goods to Russia. In normal democratic countries people accept such outcomes all the more because no one has complained about the elections from 2010 being rigged or even unfair.

What happened next is clear but very open to criticism.

EU very actively supported the Maidan movement in Kiev. The movement wanted to remove the democratically elected president and government in order to accept the EU agreement and reject the agreement with Russia. The Maidan was a very heterogeneous movement. In the beginning the movement it was dominated by idealistic young people.

Later another kind of people took the lead. It was the extreme right movements and parties. They escalated events on Maidan which turned bloody in January and February. On February 21-22, three EU foreign ministers from France, Poland and Germany brokered a deal with Yanukovich – an agreement which was supported by Putin. It was a hope in a dark hour.

The agreement provided a compromise between the president and the Maidan movement according to which both presidential and parliamentary elections should take place later in 2014 during the autumn. But the right-wing ‘revolutionary’ forces did not agree and they practically overthrew the president and the government, threatening both the president and the members of the Ukrainian parliament. The president had to flee to the east. In the parliament a majority voted to oust the president, but it did not happen in accordance with the Ukrainian constitution. So both technically and politically it was a coup, a violent overthrow – not at all in accordance with Western textbooks of democracy.

Surprisingly the EU supported the new government, no mention at all about the character of the coup. On the contrary it was stunningly hailed as a victory for democracy. The coup had just removed a democratically elected government and president and practically removed the influence of the Eastern Ukrainian population. No wonder that the Eastern Ukrainians were angry – not least when the first decision of the new government was to remove the status of the Russian language and make Ukrainian the only official language.

The new Ukrainian state should be formed along the lines of the West Ukrainian narrative, which paid tribute to Stepan Bandera who was a war criminal well known for his killings of Jews and Poles during the 2nd World War. It is a narrative which generally is very hostile to Russians (and Jews). A process began to forbid the Communist Party and prosecute members of the party in government the Party of Regions. Furthermore measures were taken to limit and eventually remove Russian speaking media in Ukraine. Many in the east were opposed to the EU because the association would mean unfair competition. It was certainly not an undemocratic point of view, but it was distorted that way.

How did the EU react to these events and the decisions of the new government which were far removed from the rather idealistic and politically correct values of the EU? No objections! No critical words or remarks. The acceptance of a non-democratic and non-constitutional regime change and acceptance of the extreme right-wing, which was generously represented in the new government structure proved to be a disaster.

It also proved to be the turning point of the crisis which soon embarked on the road to a real catastrophe. Almost every week since then has had its never ending escalation of all the various conflicts involved. The ghost has really been let out of the bottle.

Alongside the unfortunate development opening a civil war in Ukraine the West also began to demonize Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. It sort of created an image which would legitimize and explain away the West’s own failures and misconceptions.

Already in 2013 the former US secretary Hillary Clinton compared Putin to Hitler and Russia to Nazi Germany. The claim is that Putin is about to restore the Soviet Union. Neither allegation has anything to do with reality. Russia is a reactive power. It reacts to decisions taken by NATO and USA and here the ongoing NATO enlargement remains a huge stumbling-block for Russia.

One could of course argue that Russia´s understanding of NATO is pure paranoia, but the concern is real in the Russian elite and population. It simply isn’t true that Russia’s goal is to restore the USSRand it lacks justification. Russia is a far cry from what USSR used to be in terms of military strength and political lever. The military expenditures of NATO are 10 times higher than those of Russia today.

Concerning Crimea the decision to join the Russian Federation has been hard to digest for Ukrainian nationalists and also for the West. It has been claimed that the process of joining Russia was not in accordance with the Ukrainian constitution. What constitution?

There was a real confusion as to which constitution was actually functioning at the time. Things certainly did not work accordingly to political textbooks. But at least a referendum was held on Crimea and it showed the support of the biggest part of the population for independence from Ukraine. Eventually Crimea became part of the Russian Federation.

I am not writing in defence of the decision but – as many military analysts have written – Sevastopol is of utmost importance for Russia, the city being home for the Russian Black Sea fleet. In 2010 Russia and Ukraine agreed on extending the lease of the Navy´s facilities until 2042. Russia was alarmed that the new harshly anti-Russian government would violate the agreement which was signed by the deposed president Victor Yanukovich – even more so since the new government was strongly supported by the West.

The stage has been set for the ongoing and escalating conflict, and we may yet have to see still more ugly features of the conflict or, rather, conflicts. One must understand that several issues are at stake in this conflict.

One issue is the creation of a Ukrainian nation and state. The West has chosen to support one part of the Ukrainian population, the Western Ukrainian. The West supports the Western Ukrainian narrative, historical points of view, language etc. They are supposed to be the ones who define the Ukrainian nation, de facto they have the right to conquer the East, which many of the western Ukrainians consider to be aliens, who should be forced to accept the Western narrative.

It means support for the very dubious past that the Western Ukrainians have chosen to be the foundation of their new Ukraine. This development takes place at the expense of the Eastern Ukrainians and other nationalities (including e.g. Hungarians). They of course react strongly against this narrative.

Furthermore, the Eastern Ukrainian population which used to comprise almost 50 % of the population is virtually without political representation today. And that is going on in Eastern Ukraine amounts to ethnic cleansing. Like the Serbian minority in Croatia in 1990-1995 the Eastern Ukrainians are on the wrong side of the new divide, they are not ‘ours’ i.e. their struggle does not support the Western agenda, and therefore Western media do not pay much attention to killing, destruction and slaughter.

It indeed remains an open question how Ukraine can be a normal state after the horrors in Eastern Ukraine.

But the conflict has much more to it. It has raised the question about which role Russia should play in the new world order. Russia, once the core republic in the powerful Soviet Union, is pale in most ways when cpmpared with that former super power. After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, Russia was a poor powerless state for some years quite at odds with the former grandeur and also its size, by far the biggest country on the planet.

What Putin has done during a little more than a decade is to make Russia a more ‘normal’ country. During the first decade of the 21st century Russia rose not to former grandeur but still to be a recognizable regional power whose interests should be taken into account.

Russia has no intention of accepting the Western agenda, Russia has made it clear that it does not accept the US-NATO-European-led world order which the United States and its allies seem to think shall be dominating also in the long future. Russia has unambiguously made it clear that it does not accept NATO’s ever closer enlargement, it consider it to be hostile moves towards Russia. And Ukraine seems to have the bad fortune to be the apple of discord between Russia and the West.

No one can say for sure where this battle between EU and the West about Ukraine will end. By the day we witness more and more contacts being torn apart, political, economic, trade etc. logically the end station seems to be total isolation and no trade.

I believe it is relevant to mention that the last time the U.S. carried out a sanction policy towards a major power (not including minor ones as Iraq, North Korea and the like) was against Japan from 1939 to 1941 and it eventually ended in all-out war.

No doubt, gradually Russia is changing it’s cooperation and relations from the EU towards China and other Asian states and multinational cooperations such as SCO, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS – Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa – and the like).

In many ways the EU is much more vulnerable than Russia. Probably one could argue that EU politicians have not really arrived at the present century. Russia is not at all totally dependant on EU and the West. It has many other options, a fact which is already clear by now. We live in a time when the old world order is rapidly fading and a new taking shape.

The West will eventually have to find a more humble attitude with which to meet that fact. Needless to say there is no unwritten agreement as to spheres of influence and rules of the game. And this is dangerous news because this is the kind of stuff that wars are made of.

At the time of writing this article a truce is in place, a truce between the Eastern Ukrainian Militia and the Kiev government. There is still some shooting, but the truce is basically adhered to. Negotiations are taken place in Minsk. Both Poroshenko and Putin have supported the process. It is very good news even though no one can say if the war will resume in some weeks’ time. Who can be against this process?

The EU and USA has adopted a number of sanctions in the midst of the negotiations and the truce. NATO came short of declaring war with Russia at the meeting in Wales. You could get the impression that the West is not at all happy should a genuine peace process succeed.

Moreover, you could get the impression that the Western involvement in the Ukraine conflict is not about care and love for the Ukrainians. Is the real target to harm Russia and Putin, to weaken the Russian state and possibly, over time, bring about a regime change there too and make Russia subservient to the West – more or less what happened in Boris Yeltsin´s Russia in the 1990′ies?

I sincerely hope that ‘my’ ( I am a Danish citizen) politicians – or any other politicians for that matter – share the above-mentioned way of thinking and scenario. If they don’t, I think they should prove it by making agreements and compromises with Russia. Everyone in Europe will benefit from that.

A resolution of the Ukrainian conflict without Russia is neither realistic nor feasible. And it is not desirable. For several reasons. The West is not at all ready to risk a lot to save Ukrainians. They have made sure that they are not going to deploy troops to fight in Ukraine. I’m happy that that is so.

So far the sanctions have not been that costly for the West. But when it comes to the question of paying the huge bills of the Ukrainian state, the West will be very reluctant. There will be many words but little action! The west is simply not ready to sacrifice a lot for Ukraine. Little by little the Ukrainians will find out that – Poroshenko has probably already smelled it.

I think that Poroshenko is not eager to stumble into trap which the Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili fell into in 2008, naively believing that the West would send in troops to defend him against Russia. That is probably one of the reasons that Poroshenko has agreed to talk to the ‘terrorists’, as he called the rebels in the east.

Russia, on the other hand, has already subsidized Ukraine with cheap gas and oil. Russia imported a substantial part of the Ukrainian export. Ukrainian industrial products are hardly generally competitive in the West. Furthermore, the EU doesn’t need agricultural products from Ukraine.

What is needed is not bombastic ideological outrage and arrogance. What is needed is down-to-earth pragmatic compromises taking account of the reality.

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