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Ukraine: What next?

K. P. Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. His book Commonsense on War on Iraq was published in 2003.
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  • April 13, 2014

    The crisis in relations between Russia, the successor to the extinct superpower USSR, and US, the declining superpower, with European Union playing the role of an ‘attendant lord’ is a fascinating study for the student of geopolitics. It is important to distinguish between the long term causes and the immediate events that triggered the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Without understanding the big picture, it will not be possible to understand what has happened and what might follow.

    Ever since the 1991 break up of the Soviet Union and the unfolding of the Warsaw Pact, Russia, recognizing its weakness, sought a non-confrontational relationship with NATO. In 1994, NATO and Russia signed a Partnership for Peace; in 1997, they signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security. Yet, one might have said that they were sharing the same bed, but with different dreams. The West wanted to take into NATO the states in eastern Europe and Russia wanted to keep NATO as far away as possible from its borders. A clash was inevitable. This is what has happened in the case of Ukraine.

    In 1994, Ukraine also signed a Partnership for Peace with NATO. In 1997, a Charter on Distinctive Partnership was signed; following the Orange Revolution, President Viktor Yushchenko attended the NATO summit and in 2008, NATO announced that it was willing to admit Ukraine as a member. However, owing to opposition from Russia and within Ukraine, Kiev was compelled to announce that it was not actively pursuing the membership. In short, so far Russia has succeeded in stalling Ukraine’s accession to NATO.

    Keeping the above background in mind, it is easier to understand Russia’s opposition to Ukraine’s entering into an agreement with EU and the political pressure it exerted on President Yanukovych in January-February, 2014 not to sign that. When the Parliament dismissed Yanukovych and the interim government made it clear that the agreement with EU would be signed, President Putin decided to make use of his country’s conventional military superiority and enacted an elaborate drama of referendum leading to the annexation of Crimea, reversing the much contested decision made by Khrushchev in 1954 to hand over it to Ukraine.

    If the West had accepted the fait accompli of the annexation, which it cannot reverse for the time being, that would have been the end of the matter. But, after having threatened Russia with ‘consequences’ if it did not desist from annexing Crimea, the West had no means of getting out of the corner it had painted itself into through declarative diplomacy unsupportable by military action.

    Sanctions on Russian officials were imposed, Russia was evicted from G8, and diplomatic business with Russia was suspended. President Putin had to be seen as responding. He massed troops on the border, 20,000 to 30,000 according to US, and 100, 000 according to Ukraine. Probably, Ukraine is exaggerating.

    There are substantial numbers of ethnic Russians in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine and many of them have grievances against the new government in Kiev. With some encouragement from Moscow, they would ask for secession from Ukraine. This was shown when mobs captured, on April 6, government buildings in many cities including Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhmans and hoisted Russian flags. Though initially, Kiev threatened strong action, it has now climbed down by saying that no action will be taken against those who leave the buildings and surrender the weapons. Kiev is worried that any strong action against the mob might give Russia an excuse to come in. But, Kiev might be compelled to use force.

    There are some in the West who want to use the annexation of Crimea by Russia to punish it and damage its economy. Some have argued that the US should reconcile itself with Iran to bring down the price of oil and gas by selling which Russia derives the best part of its income. The US has emerged as the top producer of hydrocarbon energy and with the prospects of shale gas in the near future, the energy lobby in the US wants new markets and Europe is an attractive one. They see a huge commercial opportunity to sell energy to Europe, now critically dependent on imports from Russia. Some Western pundits have argued that Putin has violated the post-Cold War norms in Europe by carrying out the annexation. They are right, but they exaggerate a little when they say that Putin wants to revive the extinct Soviet Union. Nor is he alone in violating norms.

    Calm reflection will show that Russia is reacting to signals from the West and has no intention at present to annex more territory from Ukraine as it will hurt Russia a lot. But, Russia will do its utmost to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. Its strategy now is to cause confusion in Kiev. It has to an extent succeeded as one watched the physical fights in the Parliament as members blamed each other for the crisis.

    Three meetings to discuss Ukraine are scheduled for the week beginning on Monday, April 14. The first meeting is of EU foreign ministers at Luxembourg on April 14. They are supposed to consider further sanctions on Russia. The next day the EU defence ministers are going to meet. The third meeting in Geneva on April 17 will bring together US, Russia, EU, and EU. If the first meeting imposes sanctions and if the second meeting signals further confrontation, the third meeting is not likely to yield any significant results.

    Russia does not recognize the interim government in Kiev, but has agreed to meet the Ukrainian foreign minister. As to the agenda of the Geneva meeting there is some altercation. Russia has made it clear that it wants to discuss constitutional changes in Ukraine to give more powers to regions even in regard to foreign policy. Moscow has also warned Ukraine that if force is used against the agitating Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine, it will not attend the Geneva meeting. The West naturally would demand withdrawal of Russian troops from the frontier. Putin has warned Europe that unless Ukraine pays up to GAZPROME the arrears, supplies to Europe might be delayed though he has in a way partially retracted. Obviously, threats of more sanctions on Russia generate counter threats.

    It is not beyond the ingenuity of diplomacy to find a compromise at Geneva that saves face all round and restores calm. But, diplomacy can succeed only when both sides are seeking a way out. Is that the case?

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.