Year LVI, 2014, Single Issue, Page 55

 

 

Ukraine Caught Between East and West

 

STEFANO SPOLTORE

 

 

The dramatic events in Ukraine that began to unfold at the end of 2013 raise some serious questions about the future geopolitical scenarios in Europe and in the world. The Ukrainian crisis is not just a regional crisis, given that one of the countries most deeply involved, Russia, is currently making a forceful return to the political arena, apparently determined to be, as in the recent past, a key player on the international stage. For the Europeans it is crucial, for their own survival, to understand the process that is under way.

A Summary of the Facts.

The decision by the Ukrainian President Yanukovich not to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union in November 2013[1] sparked a series of protests. These, which began in the capital Kiev but progressively spread to other cities in Ukraine, degenerated into a civil war with implications and consequences that were inconceivable at the start of the crisis. The announcement of the decision to halt preparations to sign the agreement was a dramatic and unexpected turn of events that caught the EU totally unprepared and provided further confirmation of the cavalier and unorthodox behaviour of the ruling class currently in power in Ukraine. Furthermore, Ukraine’s decision not to sign the Association Agreement coincided with its acceptance of an offer of substantial economic and financial aidfrom Russia, which, through Ukraine, was looking to strengthen its proposed customs union with former Soviet republics. Ukraine’s failure to join the EU's Eastern Partnership triggered protests that, although initially peaceful, soon evolved into an openandviolent protestagainst the ruling class, which was rightly accused of corruption, nepotism and inability to manage the public good. As the violence took hold, President Yanukovich was forced to flee to Russia. Ukraine was thus plunged into a severe crisis that the interim government, failing to rein in the protest, proved totally incapable of managing. Despite the appointment of an entirely new Cabinet of Ministers, the central square in Kiev remained occupied by the most extreme factions of the nationalist right wing, which forced the new government, as its first act on coming to power, to abolish Russian as an official language. Furthermore, the new Prosecutor General was appointed from the ranks of the Svoboda party whose ideologists include Bandera, the leader of the Nazi Party of Ukraine at the time of the German occupation during the Second World War. In the meantime, monuments to Lenin and to the Soviet soldiers who died during the war against the Nazi invaders were torn down in many cities in central and western Ukraine. Conversely, in eastern regions of the country committees were formed to defend former Soviet monuments and to show support for Russian policy.

In this context, the new government in Ukraine came in for increasingly harsh criticism from the Russian government, which accused it of being illegitimate andfascistandof failing to protect theRussian-speaking minorityin the country: Russian speakers account for 20 per cent of the population (and for more than 80 per cent in eastern regions). The protests mounted in eastern Ukraine achieved their objective, namely withdrawal of the law against the use of Russian as an official language alongside Ukrainian. But the cost was a worsening of the climate of mutual mistrust that saw one part of the population accusing the other of fomenting visceral anti-Russian feeling, and the other replicating with accusations of anti-Western hatred. In setting, there began to emerge a strong and increasing current of Ukrainian nationalism that rejects both Russia and the European Union as models.

The question that must be asked, therefore, is whether the Ukrainian crisis stems solely from the limits of the ruling class that led, and still leads, that country, or whether it is, instead, rooted in deeper structural causes and whether the European Union played some part in triggering the tension and unrest.

The Roots of the Crisis.

Ukraine as an independent state came into being in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. This vast area has actually been the subject of bitter territorial disputes since ancient times, but prior to 1991, it had never existed as a single state. For centuries, the western and central parts of Ukraine were under the political and military control of foreign powers: the kingdom of Sweden and Poland-Lithuania, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. Instead, the more eastern areas and the Crimean peninsula (often disputed) were historically underRussian control. This explains the two identities of modern Ukraine: the central and western provinces feel historically and culturally closer to Western Europe, while the eastern provinces have more affinity with Russia.

This dual personality has been strongly opposed since Czarist times, and this was particularly evident during the Soviet era. Indeed, the 1920s and 1930s saw the imposition of mass migration programmesin an attempt to Russianise the entire region; furthermore, in 1932 and 1933, to ensure compliance with excessively high agricultural production quotas, the Soviet government imposed the seizure of Ukraine’s entire production of wheat, a move whose tragic outcome was the death from hunger of millions of Ukrainians. These events, still alive in the memories of local people,continue to be cited today by nationalists, and others, to counter pro-Russian sympathies.

It is important to remember that agricultural production is concentrated in the central and western regions of the country. The Ukraine is a major producer and exporter of wheat and a country rich in coal mines and iron.[2] But on gaining its independence, the new state immediately found itself plunged into a deep crisis that, far from encouraging growth, led to the collapseof its entireeconomic system. Over a period lasting more than two decades, the mining industry (concentrated in the East of the country) and the agri-food industry (in the western central regions) experienced a gradual decline that in some cases culminated in a halt in industrial production due to a lack of technological updating,or simply a lack of spare parts. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the managers of the largest companies, previously appointed by the Communist Party, found themselvesthe owners of entire companies and, as a consequence, millionaires.[3] These oligarchs vied and indeed still vie for power. The struggle between the various aspiring leaders was at times extremely bitter, and as early as 2004[4] Independence Square in Kiev, which has recently become even more famous as Maidan Square, was occupied by protesters opposed to the election of Yanukovich as president, the same Yanukovych that we find mired in controversy in November 2013.

The Ukraine, where political struggle is perpetual, corruption rife[5] and the economy stagnant due to a lack of investments, was forced, despite its considerable mineral wealth, to depend heavily on imports from Russia, primarily of gas in order to guarantee not only heating for its cities but also the operation of its obsolete metalworking factories and its mines. At the same time, the country’s central bank, up to the end of 2013, continued to draw on its reserves in an attempt to maintain a surreal parity with both the dollar and the euro; as a result, as these reserves dried up, the state was forced to delay the payment of pensions and to oblige many state employees to take leave without pay.[6]

The Ukraine’s desperate need for money was, therefore, one factor underlying its failure to sign the Association Agreement. In November 2013, the Ukrainian central bank estimated that it needed 15 billion dollars in order to pay its debts due by March 2014. At this point a political crisis was only months away. To prevent matters from getting out of hand, the European Union was requested to provide the necessary financial aid in exchange for, on the part of Ukraine, signature of the Association Agreement. In early December, Europe responded, through EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, with an offer of 1 billion USD. This figure was totally inadequate and was contemptuously dismissed by the government in Kiev as little more than a handout. In the meantime, the Russian government had stepped in with an offer of 15 billion USD and a hefty additional discount on the price of gas in force at the time.[7]

The break with the EU in favour of the agreement with Russia was, therefore, the event that triggered the overwhelming crisis that progressively spread from Kiev to the other western regions opposed to what was perceived as pro-Russian servility on the part of the government. On the other hand, in the eastern Donbass regions, and in Crimea, demonstrations were held in favour of the agreement with Russia. Furthermore, this area of the country also saw strikes by miners who, in addition to demanding better working conditions and wages, were also protesting against the interim government’s request to impose a 10 per cent tax on workers’ salaries to fund the reconstruction of buildings (both government and non-government ones) in Kiev that had been destroyed during the protests.[8]

The country thus found itself in the midst of a civil war that had taken everyone by surprise, primarily the European Union, which, at the start of 2014, still did not know what stance to adopt. This situation provided, yet again, confirmation of the powerlessness of today’s divided Europe, which is incapable of developing a coherent political line or even of predicting — let alone preventing — explosions of tensions on its own borders.

Ukraine, or Little Russia, and Big Russia.

The crisis in Ukraine revived, in Russia, strong feelings of resentment towards the rest of the world, and saw President Putin immediately stepping in, in person, to manage the situation. But to really understand the importance of Ukraine in the context of Russia’s power politics, and also to avoid falling into the trap of simplistically seeing Russia as eager only to restore the boundaries of the former USSR, a few points need to be clarified.

Ukraine is the region from which Russia itself developed. This is why it is also known as Little Russia, while Big Russia refers to the country governed by Moscow. It was from Kiev that, in around the 9th century, the Principality of Rus first expanded, before going on to conquer the regions on the Baltic Sea.[9] It was, indeed, the Principality of Rus that gave Russia its name. In short, the seed of the future Russia was planted in Ukraine. The legendary Cossacks of the Czar, still a special corps of the Russian army, originated in Ukraine in the eastern region of Zaporizhya. Furthermore, Chersonesus, in Ukraine, is where the ancient Russians embraced Byzantine (Eastern) Christianity.[10]

Even though the roots of Russia’s history lie in Ukraine, the reasons that prompted it to become a key player in the region were of a more political nature and linked to the national interest. There is no question that President Putin aspires to return Russia to its position as a leading player on the world stage, and he is known to have repeatedly declared that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a tragedy.[11] The Russian government has, on a number of occasions since the start of the Ukrainian crisis, harshly criticised the mass demonstrations and the violence that followed the flight of President Yanukovich, as well as the appointment of the interim President Yatsenyuk pendingearly elections. Its main argument was that a democratically elected president had, in fact, been deposed and that the ongoing violence in the country was driven by anti-Russian feeling that left the country’s Russian minority vulnerable. Furthermore, the country found itself hostage to the demands of protestors that were effectivelyin the hands ofneo-fascistmovements (Svoboda and Right Sector).[12]

In this context, the Russian government was quick to back the idea of a referendum in those regions of Ukraine asking to return to the Russian Federation, such as Crimea that, in fact, is now an integral part of Russia despite the refusal of the entire Western world to accept the outcome of the referendum there. But in addition to these events within Ukraine there are several general policy issues that led Russia to adopt a firm line. So firm was this line that it prompted the Ukrainian government and the whole of the Western world to accuse Russia of aggression and of encouraging the split within the country. There thus began a long dispute with each side accusing the other of interference. The declaration by Russian Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov (“an attack on Russian citizens is an attack on the Russian Federation”) triggered further controversy and risked causing a widening of the conflict given that these words, if taken literally, would allow Russia to intervene militarily anywhere along its current borders;[13] one need only think back to its intervention in Chechnya.

The point is that the Russian government regarded Ukraine’s potential association with the European Union as a serious threat, and the EU — supported and encouraged by the USA in this sense — did nothing to refute this idea, despite the fact that Russia is a close (albeit awkward) neighbour and trading partner of Europe, especially in the energy field. The Partnership Agreement proposed to Ukraine included a series of articles in the economic field that would have precluded its membership of Russia’s proposed customs union. Reinforcing this anti-Russian line, the text of the Agreement also included entire articles devoted to cooperation in the area of common foreign and security policy, to promote gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of Ukraine’s ever deeper involvement in the European security area and to deepen cooperation between the Parties in the field of security and defence. Article 10 of the agreement envisaged the participation of Ukraine in the development of civilian and military crisis management operations. Cautiously, at the signing in April 2013, Ukraine opted not to initial this part of the agreement, but the fact remains that Europe’s ambiguous stance over the evolution of relations between Russia and the Ukraine was undoubtedly one of the factors responsible for triggering the crisis.

The United States.

The attitude adopted by the European Union is largely attributable to its lack of autonomy from the foreign policy of the United States. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US policy towards the former Soviet bloc countries has been to favour any local policy and leader likely to hinder a rapprochement with the new Russia.[14] However, the USA has actually gone further than this, supporting the application of many of these countries to become full members of NATO, with the aim of reducing the area of influence of its old adversary and, at the same time, of establishing a defence axis able to protect the new democratic republics that, in the meantime, had become members of the European Union.[15] The Russians, however, saw this policy as an attempt to surround them, not only politically but also militarily, and the United States did nothing to refute this interpretation. In December 2013, while Ukraine was seeing the first, sometimes violent, demonstrations against the government, some American Republican representatives, led by Senator McCain, were in Kiev in order to lend their support to the country’s association with the European Union.[16] At the same time, the US Secretary of State John Kerry was arguing that Moldova, Georgia and also Ukraine needed to be granted entry to NATO.[17] From Moscow’s point of view, all these initiatives amounted to a form of provocation, as well as direct interference by the USA in the Ukrainian crisis. Added to this, in April 2014, the Director of the CIA John Brennan was in Kiev, and at this point the situation became clear to Moscow: behind the demonstrators and the anti-Russian attitudes lay the manoeuvring of the US-backed Western world.[18] Thus, while Russia was accusing the Westerners of interference, the Western governments were, on the basis of solid evidence, accusing Russian militants of being behind the pro-Russian demonstrations in the Donbass region and in Crimea, where a referendum held in March had determined the region’s detachment from Ukraine and its integration into the Russian Federation.

In this climate of mutual accusation, any attempts at mediation by the parties involved in the crisis were rejected, all immediately dismissed as acts of interference.

The European Union.

While it is true that the Ukrainian crisis erupted because the Association Agreement was not signed, it is also true that the Ukraine was already heading for a crisis on account of its critical financial situation: it would, in any case, have been a matter of only months. Moreover, it is also true that while Ukraine’s rulers revealed themselves to be incompetent and corrupt, the European Union, for its part, showed that it had absolutely no understanding of the internal situation of the country it was inviting to be its partner. In addition, over the last few months, the EU, victim of its own internal divisions, has played an absolutely marginal role. Seeking to reconcile different views and demands, it has found itself caught between its member states pressing for a policy of firm condemnation and interruption of all relations with Russia (in particular Poland, the Baltic Republics and Sweden, all of which in the distant past were conquerors of entire regions in Ukraine) and those more willing to attempt mediation.

As a result, the EU’s role in the management of the crisis (which, with its short-sighted partnership policy, it had actually helped to bring about) was absolutely insignificant. On several occasions, it was even excluded from the direct negotiations between Russia and the USA: an example is the Paris summit between the US Secretary of State Kerry and the Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs Lavrov, which however failed to find a solution.[19]

Thus, during this crisis, the European Union has once again provided confirmation of its political weakness. On several occasions, in the course of various negotiations undertaken in an effort to find a way out of the crisis, President Putin, well aware that the German position was the only credible one in the whole of the EU, preferred to call Chancellor Merkel directly. It should also be pointed out that the European Union only partly supported the USA’s appeals for economic sanctions against Russia. The reason for this is that the EU, together with its many other inefficiencies, does not have an internal energy policy and imports, on average, 30 per cent of its gas from Russia, through pipelines that cross Ukraine (the percentage is much higher in individual countries: 100 per cent in Bulgaria, 80 per cent in Romania and 70 per cent in the Baltic states); this is why the Bulgarian and Romanian governments were both vehemently opposed to financial sanctions against Russia. Gas exports are, for Russia, an extraordinary political instrument. The European Union could free itself from its dependence on Russian gas imports, but not before 2020 at the earliest, and even then only if it immediately starts adapting its storage facilities to the different quality of the American gas; but even if it did this, it would only be swapping its dependence on Russia for dependence on the USA. Gas prices, too, constitute a political instrument for Russia, which, immediately after the fall of President Yanukovich, it exploited to put pressure on the Kiev government, increasing the sale price per 1,000 cubic metres from 265 to 385.5 USD. In addition, the Russian Energy Ministry demanded that Ukraine pay arrears which, because of the country’s financial crisis, had grown to over 1.7 billion USD, threatening to suspend gas deliveries if it failed to do so. In order to avoid energy shortages, the new Ukrainian government requested the help of the EU and of the IMF, both of which agreed to intervene, also in their own interests given that an interruption of gas exports towards Ukraine would have left a large part of the European Union without gas.[20] The Ukrainian government, moreover, also fears a 10 per cent increase in the cost of Russian gas transit to the EU.

It is worth noting that Russia’s adoption of this price policy towards Ukraine, and indirectly towards the European Union (which coincided with the intensification of the Crimean crisis and the approach of the secession referendum), was supported by the BRICS countries:[21] this may be seen as another sign that something is changing in the international political landscape, and that power is no longer only in the hands of the United States. Unfortunately, Europe does not feature in this landscape and cannot be seen as a reliable political partner.

China.

One of the BRICS countries, China, played a silent role in the Ukrainian crisis. Despite on several occasions reiterating its desire to retain a neutral stance on the crisis, by abstaining during the UN sessions it actually seemed to support Russia’s positions. China’s trade with Ukraine is worth 10 billion USD, but their relationship hinges, crucially, on the existence between them of agri-food supply agreements worth a total of 3 billion USD and of a land-lease agreement that puts 10,000 hectares of farmland in Ukraine at China’s disposal for growing wheat. And here is the crux of the problem: Ukraine failed to deliver the quantity of grain it had agreed to supply. As a result of Ukraine’s breach of their loan-for-grain agreement, the Chinese government brought a case against Ukraine before the London Court of International Arbitration. Furthermore, as the European Union and the USA were discussing possible sanctions against Russia, China was signing, with Russia, a 30-year gas import plan worth a total of 400 billion USD. In this way, Russia and China responded to the commercial threats of the Western countries by sealing an economic agreement that, in the near future, will inevitably have repercussions in the political and military sphere.

The Ukrainian Dilemma.

The complex situation in Ukraine, characterised by the development of now radical political divergences throughout country that led to military clashes in the eastern areas (partly fomented by Russian militants), and the annexation of Crimea and its integration into the Russian Federation make it hard to see any prospect of peace. The presidential elections held in May 2014, won by the oligarch Poroshenko,[22] have not been sufficient to lessen the political tensions: in fact, the armed clashes in the Donbass region have intensified. After all, the election of the billionaire President, known as the “king of chocolate”, highlighted once again all the contradictions that have characterised Ukraine in recent times. The newly elected President is the first oligarch to have supported the Euromaidan movement from the outset, even though in the past he funded the Party of Regions of President Yanukovich (now in Russia) and, before that, was a leading figure in the Orange Revolution triggered, in 2005, by Yulia Tymoshenko, who was his rival in the latest presidential elections.

Ukraine’s geopolitical fracture could be healed by adopting a federal institutional model and providing regional authorities with wide margins of autonomy. But this proposal, which moreover came from Russia, met with a negative response by the new Ukrainian government, as well considerable scepticism on the part of the USA and the European Union. The fundamental reason for Ukraine’s rejection of this proposal is that the parties involved in the events in Ukraine do not trust each other. The only way out might be a peace conference held in a neutral country, which, bringing the four players in the crisis — Ukraine, the European Union, Russia and the United States — around the same table, should act as guarantor during the peace talks. The difficult internal situation leaves Ukraine only two options: either to adopt a neutral stance towards both Russia and the European Union, by signing non-exclusive commercial and political agreements, or to see its territory further fragmented and meet the tragic fate of the former Yugoslavia.

The Decline of the West.

In 1918, Oswald Spengler published a book which was an immediate success and, translated into different languages, was read worldwide: The Decline of the West. In Russia, where the Revolution was at its peak, the title of the book was translated as The Decline of Europe.[23] The Russian edition was the only one to use a different title, which emphasised that the crisis dealt with in the book was a crisis not so much one of the Western countries as of Europe and implied that Russia was not to be considered a part of Europe. Indeed, given its geographical location and the fact that has boundaries on the Pacific Ocean, the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, Russia’s role and politics cannot be shaped by the West alone. Viewed from Moscow, with one’s back to the Kremlin, Western Europe certainly appears to be a weak, divided and powerless peninsula.

The tragedy and the internal division of Ukraine, destined to deepen as the civil war goes on, surely constitute, first of all, a defeat for the political élite of this young nation. But they also constitute yet another defeat for Europe which, without a government and without a common foreign and defence policy, is destined to remain in thrall to events that it does not understand and is not equipped to tackle or help to address. Europe looks destined to become an open-air museum, just like the Republic of Venice after the discovery of the Americas: initially marginalised, then economically and financially weakened, and ultimately reduced to a museum of beauty and decadence.

Maybe, in the Russia of 1918, there was already an understanding of the destiny that awaited Europe. So the point now is: should the European Union resign itself to its own gradual decline or instead show a surge of pride? Might we not rightly expect to see at least those countries that created the monetary union making a political quantum leap and fighting for the creation of a political power within the eurozone?

 


[1] The third Eastern Partnership summit between the heads of state or government from the EU member states and those of the six Eastern Partnership countries was held on 28 and 29 November 2013 in Vilnius. In order to meet the conditions allowing it to sign the agreement, Ukraine had been requested to implement judicial reform and to release former Prime Minister Tymoshenko from jail.

[2] It is still today the ninth largest producer of wheat.

[3] This is true of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was an official in the state natural gas company.

[4] The events and protests of 2004 have gone down in history as the Orange Revolution, a reference to the colour of the protesters’ flags.

[5] The Ukraine has been ranked 134th out of 178 countries for its level of corruption. Source: Transparency International 2013.

[6] Under the Ukrainian social security system rules, salaries are not paid during holidays.

[7] The pricewas reduced to $265 per1,000cubic metres (as against the $380 paid by European countriesimportinggas from Russia).

[8] The average wage of an office worker or a miner in Ukraine is about €300, a third of that paid to their Russian counterparts. The miners’ strikes ran from April 22 to April 24.

[9] R. Bartlett, Storia della Russia, Milan, Rizzoli,2007, pp. 17-35.

[10] V. Strada, Europe, Venice, Marsilio, 2014 , p. 33.

[11] Speech at the plenary session of the Duma voting the recognition of the Crimea referendum.

[12] Among the many violent actions, it is worth remembering the aggression of some representatives of the Svoboda Party, who raided the state television headquarters in Kiev, beating up the director live on TV and calling for his resignation for having broadcasted Putin’s speech in full; and the attack on two presidential candidates, who were considered guilty for having been born in the Donbass region and being native Russian speakers.

[13] Declaration made during an interview on the SophieCo. show on RT.TV, broadcast on April 24.

[14] A clear analysis of the possibility of Russia re-emerging as a world power can be found in the article The Ukraine and the Global Equilibrium, F. Rossolillo, The Federalist, n. 1 (2005) pp. 31-36.

[15] In 1999, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary officially became members of NATO. In 2004, the whole Warsaw Pact bloc — Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Slovenia — officially joined NATO, followed by Croatia and Albania in 2009.

[16] Corriere della Sera, Milan, December 15, 2013.

[17] Corriere della Sera, Milan, February 27, 2014.

[18] Ansa, April 14, 2014.

[19] Il Sole 24Ore, Milan, March 31, 2014.

[20] Il Sole 24Ore, Milan, April 2, 2014.

[21] Washington Post, April 1, 2014.

[22] Internazionale, May 26, 2014.

[23] V. Strada, op. cit., p. 13.

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