Making the Choice: The future of Ukraine and the stakes of outside actors
During the past months, Ukraine has been in the deepest crisis of its independent history. The stakes are high. Domestically, the outcome of the crisis will determine whether the country will undertake a renewed effort of political and economic reforms, thus reversing an authoritarian trend and catastrophic economic policies over the past few years. Efforts to suppress the bottomup protests and turn Ukraine away from Europe may drive the country into prolonged conflict and chaos. Internationally, the crisis in Ukraine has escalated tensions between Russia and the West to a level not seen since the end of the Cold War. Ukraine is crucial to Russia’s geopolitical ambitions, and it challenges the EU and the US to stand up to their values and interests in the region.
The event will address the strategic choice and prospects of Ukraine, the involvement of the EU, US and Russia in the region, and the implications of the heightened confrontation between Russia and the West.
Welcoming Remarks and Chair:
Teija Tiilikainen, Director, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Volodymyr Fesenko, Chairman of the Board, Center for political studies “PENTA”, Ukraine
Robert Nurick, Visiting Senior Fellow, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Commentators and panelists:
Arkady Moshes, Programme Director, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Kristi Raik, Senior Research Fellow, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Summary of the seminar:
The 7th Annual FIIA Day was declared open by the Director of the Institute, Teija Tiilikainen. In her opening remarks, Dr Tiilikainen presented the activities of FIIA’s three research programmes. She also officially introduced Robert Nurick, one of the keynote speakers of the seminar, as a Visiting Research Fellow at FIIA for the remainder of the year. Before giving the floor to the speakers, Dr Tiilikainen was also pleased to note that the theme of FIIA Day has probably never been as topical as this year.
After Dr Tiilikainen’s opening remarks, it was time for Volodymyr Fesenko’s keynote. Dr Fesenko argued that the revolution in Ukraine was based on the country’s post-Soviet legacy, and Ukraine was in fact “pregnant” with revolution for a long time before it actually took place. The revolution happened after two provoking things happened. Firstly, there was a sharp and unexpected turn in Ukraine’s foreign policy when the leadership decided not to sign the association agreement with the EU. Secondly, violence was used demonstratively against the protesters in Kiev.
Dr Fesenko said that the driving force of the revolution was the Ukrainian middle class, comprising of owners of small and medium sized businesses, the students’ “independence generation”, active part of the civil society, three different parliamentary opposition forces, and rightist radical forces.
Dr Fesenko also noted that the Russian media’s claims that the Maidan movement was constituted mainly by nationalist radical forces is complete propaganda. He argued that no more than 500 members of the Right Sector were part of the Maidan movement, when there were all in all as many as 200,000 people protesting in the streets of Kiev.
According to Dr Fesenko, one of the biggest risks for Ukraine right now is that Crimea would not continue to be a part of the country. There are three alternative developments that can all take place in Crimea, Dr Fesenko argued. The scenarios are:
1) Rapid separation of Crimea from Ukraine after a referendum;
2) The establishment of an unofficial Russian protectorate in Crimea in a way that the area formally continues to be a part of Ukraine;
3) Significant extension of Crimea’s autonomy by Ukraine and the withdrawal Russian forces to their military bases.
Dr Fesenko believed that scenario number one is the most likely to happen. He said Ukraine will probably choose the European way, but at the same time that might mean losing Crimea to Russia. Dr Fesenko described Russia’s actions as military aggression without a formal declaration of war.
Dr Fesenko also discussed the role of the EU and the US in Ukraine’s crisis. According to him, the influence and authority of the outside actors has turned around because of the revolution. Before the revolution happened, the West could affect both the Yanukovych government and the opposition, but now it can only affect the new government. Russia, on the other hand, could only affect the Yanukovych government but not the opposition before the revolution, but now it can affect both the new government and the pro-Russian opposition in Ukraine.
Russia is thus the most powerful outside actor in the Ukrainian crisis, Dr Fesenko argued. The second most powerful actor is the EU, Dr Fesenko said. It was too slow at the beginning, but later it played a large part in signing the agreement between the opposition and president Yanukovych.
The US is only the third most powerful actor in Ukraine, Dr Fesenko said. It supports the EU, because its policy is to contain Russian authority. The main priority for the US is the integration of Ukraine with the EU. The failure of Ukraine’s Western integration would stop the progress of Europeanization in post-Soviet space, whereas successful integration could also affect Belarus and Russia, and have big effects on the Eurasian Union, Dr Fesenko argued.
Taking the stage after Dr Fesenko, Robert Nurick also addressed US policy in Ukraine. He noted that, while concerns about Putin’s policies towards Ukraine had been simmering for some time, until recently the US had to a large extent been inclined to let the EU take the lead. According to Dr Nurick, Ukraine had not been a top priority in US foreign policy. For much of this period, the hope was that the EU effort would succeed and the Yanukovych government would sign the Association Agreement; the principal US role would be to support the EU where it could.
Two developments in Ukraine forced the US to reassess its approach: the failure of Ukraine’s negotiations with the EU (that is, Yanukovych’s reversal); and the violence on the Maidan. The key issue for the US then became how it could best support the EU’s efforts to induce
Yanukovych back on course—the assumption being that both the US and the EU would be dealing with the then-existing government in Kyiv. .
Since Yanukovych’s departure and the intensifying development in Crimea, the US had several broad policy objectives: prevent further violence; prevent default; support EU and IMF initiatives for economic reform; promote a coherent and stable government in Kyiv; and deter further Russian incursions. These challenges, combined with the recent dramatic developments in Crimea, have meant that Ukraine has now taken a central place in the US foreign policy agenda.
According to Dr Nurick, these developments have also underscored the deterioration in US-Russian relations, which seem headed for potentially the most difficult period since the fall of the USSR. Relations had begun to cool before the Ukraine events, reflected for example in the lack of any real “post-reset” agenda, but Putin had been widely viewed as a difficult yet basically pragmatic interlocutor. This assumption is under review, to put it mildly. Now sanctions, the imposition of diplomatic costs, and a narrowing of the bilateral agenda are all on the table.
Underlying questions about the future of the bilateral relationship is another issue: what is Russia’s place in European security architecture? The West has struggled with this question since the end of the Cold War, but has not found a sustainable answer—not least because of uncertainties about the nature of the Russian regime. That Russia has become a revisionist power with respect to existing European security arrangements is hardly healthy over the long run, but the problem seems unlikely to be resolved as long as Mr. Putin remains in place.
Giving his comment after Dr Nurick’s keynote, Arkady Moshes argued that should the problems in Crimea drag on for a long period of time, they will produce security problems for Russia as well. Dr Moshes reminded the audience that Crimea is home to 200,000–300,000 Tatars who are very well organised and have no other place to go. They have always counted on Kiev to ensure their security, and they don’t want to live in an independent Crimea or in a Crimea annexed by Russia. If one of the two things was to happen, Russia would face a terror threat by the Crimean Tatars, Dr Moshes argued.
According to Dr Moshes, a lot of Russia’s actions in Crimea can be explained by the fact that Moscow finally wants to tell the West it is the one calling the shots in Ukraine. It wants to make it clear that Ukraine belongs to Russia’s sphere of influence and not the West’s. Ending preparations for the G8 Summit in Sochi in June is a little more than Putin not getting a Christmas card from the West, but not much else, Dr Moshes argued. Russia is still gaining a better position in Crimea all the time, he said.
According to Dr. Moshes, Moscow does not seem to be concerned with the reaction of the West even potentially. Russian Foreign Policy Concept of 2013 is premised on the “decline of the historical West”, and a high degree of economic interdependence with Europe apparently allows Kremlin to dismiss a threat of potential sanctions. The refusal of the official Berlin to consider Russia’s expulsion from G8 indicates that the political isolation is not inevitable either.
To sum up, Dr Moshes argued that Russia’s objectives in Ukraine are anything but clear. The intervention in Crimea seems more and more like an irrational move to teach Maidan a lesson. Russia’s purposes are not clear, its objectives are not clear, so it seems we might be coming into a perfect storm, Dr Moshes concluded.
The last one to take the stage, Kristi Raik began her comment by saying the EU should do much more in Ukraine than express grave concern. She called for a credible threat of sanctions against Russia. Looking at past mistakes, she blamed the EU for placing geopolitics above democracy promotion during the last autumn, when the Union was keen to sign the association agreement with President Yanukovych although he did not meet the EU’s conditions.
After that, the EU has had a hard time convincing Russia (or anyone else) that it is not playing a geopolitical game in Ukraine, Dr Raik argued. No matter how many times the EU has said that its Eastern neighbourhood policy will not harm Russian interests, Russia has not become to see it like that.
Even though the EU would not see the situation similarly with Russia, it should at least acknowledge that Russia defines its own national interests, not the EU, and that there are conflicting interests from Russia’s point of view, Dr Raik argued.
Looking ahead, Dr Raik stressed that Ukraine will not manage domestic reforms without extensive EU support. The EU has to support inclusive political process and conduct of elections. Urgent assistance is also needed with the economy. The Ukrainian government’s estimate, probably exaggerated, is that Ukraine needs €25 billion during this and next year, which is a lot less than support to the Eurozone crisis countries, Dr Raik said.
In the heart of the Ukrainian question is a battle between democracy and authoritarianism, Dr Raik argued. The EU would accept it if Ukraine made a democratic choice to integrate with Russia and the Eurasian Union. To many people in Europe, it would even be a relief, Dr Raik said. But we also need to remember that even Yanukovych was against taking Ukraine to the Eurasian Union; he thought it to be a wrong alternative as well, Dr Raik concluded.
After the presentations, there was a vivid questions and answers section. Below, some of the questions and answers are summarised.
Question: How many foreigners there were in Maidan?
Dr Fesenko: The absolute majority of people, approximately 99 percent, were Ukrainians and Ukrainian citizens. Among the deceased, there were two Georgian nationals and one Belarusian. The foreigners participating in the demonstrations might have been feeling revolutionary romanticism, but it was a Ukrainian driven protest.
Question: What was the role of the European ideology in Maidan?
Dr Fesenko: In the beginning, Maidan was profoundly pro-European. After November 30th, when the protest was brutally dispersed by the police, the movement transformed into an anti-government one: it wanted to overthrow the Ukrainian leadership. People came to realise that the change towards Europe can only be made after changing the leaders of the country.
Question: How big is the EU’s support in other parts of Ukraine than Kiev?
Dr Fesenko: Ukrainian society is deeply split and the EU question is one of the biggest things dividing the Ukrainians. Some 30–35 percent of the people would still prefer accession to the Customs Union, but around 45 percent support signing the association agreement with the EU. This question also brings about a typically Ukrainian paradox: some people are pro-European and pro-Eurasian at the same time. Their head tells them to go to Europe, but their heart wants them to turn to Russia.
Question: What does the US have at stake in Ukraine as such? Is there something for the US to win in Ukraine?
Dr Nurick: There are people in Washington who think that this should not be a high priority in the US foreign policy. If the US wants to support the Ukrainian government economically, it needs to make the case why the money is needed, why they are spending the money on Ukraine. I don’t think there is great economic stakes for the US in Ukraine, although a lot of people would also argue that it’s a big market and important in energy policy. My guess is that the US will push for more economic support for Ukraine in line with the support from EU.
Question: Some people claim the US sat back for a long time, but now that the EU’s diplomacy has failed, the US takes the lead. Is this true?
Dr Nurick: A lot of people in the US have thought that this is an EU issue, and there has been dissatisfaction with the EU in the US, like the leaked Nuland phone call goes to show. The EU is slow, whereas the US can do things very quickly. The US will push to support the EU, but primarily this is still a European issue from Washington’s point of view.
Question: If there will be a free election in Crimea, will the majority want to join Russia?
Dr Fesenko: At the moment, the elections cannot be organised freely. As long as there are Russian troops on the ground, the people that support staying with Ukraine cannot express themselves freely.