At the time of writing, Russia appears ready to stoke a civil war in Ukraine, rather than let Ukraine to look west. Eventually, the US, the EU and NATO need to talk to Russia to avoid this crisis tearing Ukraine apart. This is not to equivocate about Russian aggression. Russia’s hasty annexation of the Crimea, and her evident provocation using Russian military personnel posing as Ukrainian civilians with Russian sympathies, is despicable. We need to face reality. Russia may be a shadow of its former Soviet self, but she still represents a massive potential threat to global security. This is no time for the UK to be toying with the idea of downgrading our nuclear deterrent, nor for European members of NATO or the US to continue cutting defence spending. Putin is a virtual dictator with a formidable nuclear arsenal and substantial conventional military capability, who seems to be going rogue. The West cannot afford to appease him. We do however need to understand what we are prepared to fight for.
The bottom line is NATO, and the Eastern periphery that could be subject to Russian intimidation. The NATO boundary is the ‘red line,’ a term President Obama has surely learned should never be used lightly. We must have a spectrum of flexible responses to deploy if Putin chooses to escalate the crisis as far as to affect members of NATO.
Short of that, behind the scenes, the EU and the US face an ugly choice. Compromise with Putin over Ukraine, or watch him stoke the civil war. It is clear that the West will not recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea, nor the referendum that followed it. It is also clear that the West cannot reverse Russia’s action in Crimea. There will come a moment when diplomats will need to park that issue in order to agree a future of the rest of Ukraine.
We should also be asking how this confrontation got to this pitch. The EU must bear some blame for creating the pretext for Putin to react as he has. Just look at the text of the EU-Ukraine association agreement… The preamble to the agreement seeks to include Ukraine in the EU’s sphere of influence, stating: “Ukraine as a European country shares a common history and common values with the Member States of the EU and is committed to promoting those values.” Russia has long shown paranoia about Western influence over its near-abroad, yet the EU has been enticing Ukraine to sign up to “gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of Ukraine’s ever-deeper involvement in the European security area…” including “in the area of foreign and security policy, including the Common Security and Defence Policy.” This extends to military co-operation: “regular meetings both at the level of high officials and of experts of the military institutions of the Parties.” How did the EU expect Russia to have allowed the Crimea, and the Russian Black Sea naval base, to fall under such explicit Western political and military influence? The EU-Ukraine agreement “welcomes Ukraine’s choice,” but why did we encourage this without understanding its consequences?
The counter argument seems to hang on the principle of Ukrainian right to self-determination, but what does “self-determination” mean in such a divided polity? The Ukrainian parliament sent out the worst possible signal when it voted to strip the Russian language, which is spoken by about a third of the population as their first language, of its official ‘regional language’ status. The repeal was vetoed by acting president Oleksandr Turchnyov, but that vote signalled a desire to swing the pendulum against the Russian-speaking population. It also gave Moscow a pretext for intervention.
The internal divisions in Ukraine are serious. The last thing the West should be doing is fomenting that. Yet this is what the EU did by pressing on with the association agreement between Ukraine and the EU throughout the crisis. The EU and the West will have to recognise that the interim government of Ukraine is something of a bit-part player in the drama now playing out. It is Russia and the West who will need to agree about the status of Ukraine, which is unlikely to be part of any kind of Western military alliance for some time, if we want the Russians to calm down.
NATO and the EU should recall the Bucharest NATO summit of 2008. I was there as a member of the House of Commons Defence Committee. There was the most almighty row, with France and Germany wholly opposed to the US-UK proposal that Ukraine and Georgia be offered NATO ‘membership action plans.’ This was shortly followed by Putin’s annexation of the largely Russian-speaking South Ossetia and Abkhazia, part of Georgia’s sovereign territory, about which the West did little. It has been clear ever since that neither Ukraine nor Georgia can be treated as a NATO member.
The West should be speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Instead, we are speaking with a shrill voice, but looking powerless. The EU is not a credible military alliance. The EU has helped provoke a crisis it cannot now contain. It has diplomatically overreached itself. The EU’s present commitment to Ukraine will have to be reassessed, or we are heading into a long and dangerous confrontation with Putin for which the EU and NATO are wholly unprepared. President Obama should in future be more wary of giving EU ambitions unqualified backing. And this episode should serve as a wake-up call for NATO about Russian potential for aggression and destabilisation.