The Survival of the Ukrainian State is Important for Peace in Europe and Beyond

In the EU’s Southern proximity, recently major state crises have evolved. Whether Syria, Iraq, Libya or Egypt—the future of large parts of the Arab world is unclear today. Although also of direct relevance to the Union, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, because of the disarray in Northern Africa and Middle East, has been receiving less media attention during the last weeks. The outcome of the East European conflict is, however, just as consequential for the West.

While other difficult situations in Europe, Asia or Africa demand attention too, the escalating confrontation between Moscow and Kyiv touches upon the core of both the European security structure and the world’s non-proliferation regime. Russia and Ukraine are Europe’s territorially two largest countries comprising populations of circa 144 million and 45 million people respectively. They have land borders with several EU member states, and are inter-connected with the Union’s economy and societies in multiple ways. Ukraine is the showcase of the European Union’s far-reaching partnership and association policies in Eastern Europe. Russia is, after the United States, the second largest military power while Ukraine could have been today the world’s third largest holder of nuclear warheads.

The Perils of Devaluing International Security Assurances

When signing the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, Kyiv naively trusted some security pledges given by the United States and the United Kingdom. In the Memorandum, Washington and London assured the territorial integrity and overall sovereignty of Ukraine in exchange for the removal of Ukraine’s atomic weapons arsenal. Moscow too was a signatory of this Memorandum. Yet, the document’s prime purpose was to protect Ukraine from Russian irredentism and neo-imperialism.

Although it would not have been able to make full use of it, Ukraine’s nuclear potential military might was, in the mid-nineties, larger than that of China, Great Britain, and France taken together. Within several years, Ukraine became fully non-nuclear, as had been agreed in 1994. Nevertheless, Russia, as the fourth original signatory-state of the Budapest Memorandum, has for the last 10 years, in multiple ways, violated key provisions of the Memorandum. Until 2013, Moscow repeatedly exerted economic and political pressure on Kyiv. In February to April 2014, Russia annexed Crimea by military means. For several weeks now, Moscow has been actively instigating, arming and supporting an increasingly bloody separatist upheaval in Eastern Ukraine. The West’s reaction to Moscow’s obvious abuses has been absent or timid, so far. Why should this change?

The behavior of Russia in the post-Soviet area, in general, her open annexation of the Crimean peninsula and thinly veiled invasion into the Donbass, in particular, and the West’s ambivalent responses to these challenges are sending worrisome messages. The Ukrainian lesson for statespersons across the globe is: “If you want to provide sustainable security for your country, you need the bomb. And once you got the bomb, you never give it away—whatever some important politician from Washington, London or Brussels (not to mention Moscow) may promise you.”

The Budapest Memorandum of 1994 on Ukrainian territorial integrity, the OSCE Document of 1999 on the removal of Russian troops from Moldova’s Transnistria region, the 2008 Sarkozy Plan on a Russian military withdrawal from Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, and the 2014 Geneva Declaration on a freeing of Ukrainian public spaces by pro-Russian separatists are all meaningless today. Signed by both Russia as well the US, European states or/and international organizations, they have become worthless pieces of paper. The warning this is sending to the world is that assurances even by leading Western powers or such entities as the OSCE and EU are eventually inconsequential. If a country does not have a reliable nuclear umbrella—either its own or that from a close ally—its integrity, territory, and independence will be under question. The Ukrainian crisis has proven that only weapons of mass destruction can secure a state’s full sovereignty, in case of a major confrontation with an aggressive neighbor.

The Special Significance of Russia’s Latest Deeds and the West’s Timid Response

Russian neo-imperial policies towards Moldova, Georgia, or Armenia from 1999 to 2013 had already raised many of these issues. Yet, the 2014 Ukrainian case was novel in terms of

(a) the gravity of Russia’s violation of international law through a de jure annexation of Crimea, and not only a de facto appropriation as had happened with Transnistria, Abkhazia, or South Ossetia,

(b) the viciousness of the Kremlin’s propaganda campaign using terms as “fascism,” “junta,” “genocide,” “Nazi,” “Auschwitz,” etc. to describe not only relatively marginal Ukrainian ultra-nationalists, but the EuroMaidan Revolution and governmental policies, as a whole, so as to justify Russia’s invasion into Southern and Eastern Ukraine,

(c) the brusqueness of Moscow’s public lies, media manipulation and diplomatic gaffes, concerning post-EuroMaidan Ukraine, on the international scene, and

(d) the frankness of the Kremlin’s role in the provocation, escalation and brutalization of violence, in Eastern Ukraine.

Russia’s political, diplomatic, rhetorical, and military attack on Ukraine’s territory, identity and culture has been a particularly offensive challenge towards the international order of states, the global nonproliferation regime, post-Cold War diplomatic practices, and the OSCE’s as well as Council of Europe’s system of values. In terms of both European and world security, a sustainable resolution of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is, therefore, of as large importance as the solution of other major crises in the EU’s proximity.

Notwithstanding these grave circumstances, the West’s approach to the Russian subversion of Ukraine—like to similar Russian trials before—has been reticent, wavering, and confused. Moscow completed the occupation of Crimea against all warnings from Washington, Brussels, and Berlin. The West’s limited punishment of the annexation during the following weeks has not only had consequences for the world’s non-proliferation regime. It has been also informing Russia’s subsequent bold, if less manifestly illegal, moves in mainland Ukraine, and thus contributed to a further subversion of the security assurances provided in exchange for Ukraine giving away its WMDs.

Soon after violating, with few consequences, the Budapest Memorandum and other international agreements on Crimea, Moscow also disregarded the provisions of the April 2014 Geneva Declaration on Eastern Ukraine, although the Kremlin had seemingly itself formulated large parts of it. Through its proxies in Eastern Ukraine, Moscow sabotaged, or, at least, facilitated the disruption of, the Ukrainian presidential elections of 25 May 2014 not only in Crimea, but also in the Donetsk and Luhansk Districts. The elections were actively boycotted by the Russia-supported separatists. That was in spite of the fact that there were two outspokenly pro-Russian presidential candidates, Petro Symonenko and Mykhailo Dobkin, on the ballot who might have done relatively well in Crimea and the Donbass. Moreover, had the voters of the three regions had the chance to vote, this might have forced a second round of the elections, perhaps even, with a relatively pro-Russian candidate, such as Dnipropetrovsk’s Serhiy Tihipko, facing current President Petro Poroshenko, in a stand-off.

Why the Kremlin Is Going for the Jugular

These and other actions not only indicate that Russia is insufficiently interested in a solution to the crisis. They suggest that, in fact, Moscow wants to keep the unrest in Eastern Ukraine going. The Kremlin’s apparent aim is to use East Ukrainian separatism to destabilize not only this relatively russified sub-region, but the Ukrainian state as a whole. Moscow’s strategy may, at its core, be a socio-economic rather than military-political one. Perhaps, Putin wants to spoil, above all, the investment and business climate in Ukraine. This would not only undermine the financial foundations of the Ukrainian state, but it would also discredit the partnership and association policies of the EU in Eastern Europe. It would delegitimize the Ukrainian anti-authoritarian revolution, Brussels’s policy of transposing EU values, laws, and practices into its Eastern neighborhood, as well as Western democracy promotion in Russia’s 'backyard,'' in general. Russia’s far-reaching confrontation with the West is a novelty in the post-Soviet period, but it should not be surprising. What is at stake, for Moscow, in Ukraine is not only a territorial and identity issue. The main reference is instead the domestic power of Putin and his entourage, or the legitimacy of their kind of rule. The competition between the contemporary Ukrainian and Russian models of development in Eastern Europe is a fundamental one: liberalism vs. patrimonialism, an open vs. a closed political system, a free vs. an unfree society, a pluralistic vs. a monistic societal order.

The core question about Ukraine today is: can a large post-Soviet Slavic Orthodox nation succeed with Westernization? If the Ukrainians manage to transform their country along postwar European lines, this would pose a principal challenge to the Putin System based on authoritarianism in politics, corruption in state-society relations, and repression of civic activism. Moreover, the current Russian proto-type of rule also plays a model role for the governments of such countries as Belarus, Azerbaidjan or Kazakhstan—and until recently Ukraine. In order to prevent a basic questioning of its regime through a deep and effectual Ukrainian reformation as well as European integration, the Kremlin is ready to sacrifice peace in Eastern Europe, social stability in Ukraine, and the rule of international law.

It will be only once and when the Kremlin perceives the overall economic costs and domestic political risks of such policies as posing an even higher threat than the uncertainties arising from Ukraine’s Europeanization that we can expect some fundamental policy changes. If the West wants to solve the so-called 'Ukrainian Crisis,'' it will have to increase the stakes for the Kremlin’s mingling in Eastern Ukraine. Should the West, instead, continue with its current timid policies, the Ukrainian crisis could gradually become reminiscent of the Yugoslav one of the 1990s. Ukraine’s 1994 decision to abandon the world’s third largest nuclear weapons arsenal could be seen as one of the most naïve geopolitical decision in recent history.