Saturday, August 30, 2014
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Europe’s Ukrainian Test

MADRID – Powerful images have been pouring out of Ukraine lately: Kyiv’s Maidan protesters bravely enduring months of bitter cold, withering police attacks, and sniper bullets; the gilded bathroom fixtures of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych’s opulent personal residence; a wheelchair-bound Yuliya Tymoshenko emerging from prison to address her countrymen in a broken voice. And now Russian troops in the streets of Crimea’s cities.

At a time when Europe’s self-confidence is at low ebb, Ukrainians’ courageous struggle to topple a rotten political system is a powerful reminder of Europe’s core values. The question now is what Europeans will do about it.

With the Russian Duma’s approval of President Vladimir Putin’s request to use Russian military forces in Ukraine (not restricted to Crimea), the mirage that Yanukovych’s ouster signal the start a new era, in which Ukraine moves inexorably away from Russia and into the European democratic fold, has now evaporated. Confronted with a reality that they should have foreseen, Europe’s leaders must recognize that Ukraine is subject to deep internal cleavages and conflicting geopolitical forces.

For starters, Ukraine is riven by deep-seated cultural tensions, stemming from its history of occupation by competing foreign powers. In the seventeenth century, the struggle among the Cossacks, Russia, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for control of Ukraine resulted in a split along the Dnieper River. While the division was formally eliminated after the Second Partition of Poland in 1793, its legacy has remained.

Ukraine’s geography has also contributed to its disunity. Following the devastating famine of 1932-1933, 2-3 million Russians repopulated deserted farming areas in southern and eastern Ukraine, contributing to ethno-linguistic divisions that endure to this day. Add to that endemic corruption, unscrupulous and powerful oligarchs, and fractious political parties, and it is easy to see why Ukraine’s efforts to consolidate a more democratic system will be exceedingly difficult.

And the challenges do not end at Ukraine’s borders. On the contrary, the country’s internal discords operate within the context of a broader, ever-mutable geopolitical rift that many assumed had been buried with the end of the Cold War.

Since the beginning of the Maidan protests, Russia had signaled that its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was not an isolated phenomenon, highlighting America’s lack of strategic vision and declining global influence. Russian leaders certainly had a point: the United States, preoccupied with domestic challenges, is no longer setting the international agenda.

Indeed, US President Barack Obama’s response to Putin’s decision to send in Russian troops pales in comparison even with the proposals made a week ago by former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Whereas Brzezinski advocated threatening financial sanctions or a review of Russia’s World Trade Organization status should Putin take military action, Obama warned only that the June G-8 summit in Sochi might be canceled.

Further complicating matters is the shifting nature of transatlantic security arrangements. The good news is that Europe finally seems to have recognized the need to assume greater strategic responsibility, exemplified in the recent French-led missions in Mali and the Central African Republic. But the process of building a common and relevant EU security strategy has only just begun – and progress will undoubtedly be slow.

As it stands, the EU lacks the experience and savvy that the US accumulated over decades as an international hegemon. This deficiency was on full display last November, when the EU offered Ukraine an Association Agreement that failed to account for the country’s financial vulnerabilities. That enabled Russian President Vladimir Putin to swoop in and compel Yanukovych to scuttle the deal in exchange for a promise of $15 billion in loans and energy subsidies.

Making matters worse, Germany, the reluctant leader of the EU, has traditionally acted in support of its own economic and energy interests, maintaining a strong bilateral relationship with Russia. Today, German leaders are sending mixed and confusing signals. While Germany has increasingly emphasized values – from the rule of law to human rights – in its dealings with Russia over the last year, it remains unclear whether it will go so far as to lead the tough EU-wide initiative that is needed.

The fact that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was joined by his French and Polish counterparts in brokering last week’s agreement in Kiev could confirm that Germany is not planning to go it alone. However, in the aftermath of German President Joachim Gauck’s recent announcement that his country is prepared to embrace a larger role in global affairs, it is far from certain whether Germany is willing to align its foreign policy more closely with that of the EU.

The West’s uncertainty over Ukraine contrasts sharply with Russia’s clear vision. Putin knows that a pro-Western, pro-NATO Ukraine would present a major obstacle to Russian dominance in Eurasia, potentially cutting off Russia’s access to the Black Sea and, most important, providing a model to his opponents at home. His acts over the last days confirm that he is willing to play hardball, leveraging the discontent (real or provoked) of Ukraine’s ethnic Russian population, particularly in Crimea, the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Against this background, if we let old conflicts and rivalries persist, the images that emerge from Ukraine will progressively contrast with the hopes of Maidan and echo those seen in 2008, 1979, 1968, and 1956. The international community must balance the need to ensure that Ukraine does not become the site of a proxy battle with the necessity of stopping Putin’s destructive ambitions. Ukraine’s conflict bears out a critical reality: the Atlantic Community and Russia need each other. It is therefore urgent and essential that the US and Europe do not leave Putin with a free hand.

Read more from "Europe's Eastern Question"

EDITOR'S NOTE: This commentary was updated on March 2, 2014.

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  1. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    From my very little reading of Kennan and of Russian history, I feel Russia is ready to accept, so long as it does not feel its security threatened or gravely endangered, Eastern European countries doing economic and cultural exchanges with the West. Anyway, this is what Russians themselves have wanted to do.

  2. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    When NATO including the United States extended its membership to a few Eastern European countries, George F. Kennan said in the midst of everyone's euphoria that it was the greatest mistake that the West had ever made since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
    (Of course Kennan was not suggesting anything like indiffernece.)

    It was and is fortunate that the United States had not given the Ukraine any military commitment.

  3. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Ms Palacio asks, what "Europeans will do about" the courageous Ukrainians, who took to the streets, braved the cold and toppled "a rotten political system"?
    Does Ms Palacio see Ukraine's "deep-seated cultural tensions" an impediment to its democratisation process? Ukraine has had a "history of occupation by competing foreign powers" and the country's "geography has also contributed" to its East/West division, "split along the Dnieper River".
    Nevertheless the desire for freedom and progress is not just Europeans' "core values" and it does not know any cultural boundaries. Nor does a geographical divide pose an impediment to national unity. Look at Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia: These countries make up of regions separated by miles of waters of the South China Sea.
    Ukraine has to come to terms with its colonial past and forge its own future. Its immediate concerns are to secure international loans and to hold presidential and parliamentary elections. Moscow is taking advantage of Kiev's woes and wresting Crimea from Ukraine.
    Ms Palacio rebuke's President Obama for not responding strong enough to "Putin’s decision" to annex Crimea . She mentions "the shifting nature of transatlantic security arrangements" complicates "matters", without elaborating.
    She laments, "the EU lacks the experience and savvy that the US accumulated over decades as an international hegemon". Do EU members want that? It's true that its "common and relevant EU security strategy" is in the making, but shouldn't it leave this to NATO? What she finds upsetting is that Germany focuses more on realpolitik and is less willing to jeopardise its strong economic ties with Russia.
    Indeed, these weaknesses have allowed Putin to flex his muscles. It's unfortunate, but there's no guarantee that he gets away with impunity. Meanwhile The EU and the US have to urge Russia and Ukraine to go to the negotiating table to hammer out a long-term security peace deal, from which Europe benefits.

  4. CommentedMargaret Bowker

    Re comment on March 3: tension eased, the markets surged on the 4th and corrected somewhat the day after. EU is being practical with a financial package, along with IMF and others. The two sides' positions are gradually becoming clearer, although it may take further negotiation for them to meet in more measured circumstances.

  5. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    Europe has failed the test even before the Ukrainian uprising started.
    The experiment that started with the EU then progressed to the Eurozone has been botched from the beginning, since the founders and prospective leaders never had the bravery to lay down the foundations for a true union, integrating the participating countries from the ground up.
    Instead they keep trying to balance a fragile financial structure as a roof without foundations or even walls.
    The next big explosion could be from within the Eurozone or the greater EU falling into pieces in a very nasty divorce, since in truth apart from balancing, liquidating banks, trying to save face at any cost there is nothing to hold the structure together.
    If Europe functioned as a true Union this conflict in the Ukraine might not have even happened since a naturally united, mutually cooperating and complementing union would naturally attract others into it, instead of constant tension, separatist fringes, breakaway or "naughty" states everybody, possibly even Britain or Russia would try to join in to a certain or full extent.
    Even such a multi-cultural, diverse country as the Ukraine or Russia would not find it difficult to merge in since the whole structure would be built on mutual, integrating cooperation above inherent or historical differences, even hatred.
    Unfortunately instead of showing the way, providing a working, practical example how different, unique and diverse parts can work together on a multiple platform in the global, integral world, Europe is failing the test, showing a negative example, scaring others away from any kind of similar attempt.
    But the infrastructure is still there, and with urgent, visionary political steps the present leaders could still steer the Union onto the right path, before the rising extremist forces put the final nails into the coffin.

  6. Commentedsilvio starosta

    Mrs, Palacios :
    Europe is politically nothing, The inteventions in Mali and central africa are not valid examples.
    when you can send troops only to extemely poor Countries ,with no defense is ridiculous to presume.
    You belong to a European Burocracy that is OUT of the reality,
    So, what you all pretend, ?, that maybe some declarations in some of the next "urgent summits " ?? is a sign of change ?
    No, Europe will not change , because talking seriously Europe is Germany,UK,France etc. each with the own interest and a lot of hipocresy.


  7. CommentedMargaret Bowker

    Market reaction isn't doing anyone any good. Have the two sides put forward a basis for negotiation yet?

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