Stop the Dismemberment of Ukraine

, by Lucio Levi

Stop the Dismemberment of Ukraine

The fair and free presidential election held on 25 May 2014 has not averted the ghost of civil war in Ukraine. The triumph of the people’s uprising in bringing down the corrupt and bloody government of Yanukovich marked the resumption of the democratic process in Ukraine. But it is only the first step in a long and difficult transition. The decline in the initial impetus of the Arab Spring shows that the fall of dictatorships is only the dawn of a long day. The transition to democracy has two prerequisites: economic growth and international stability.

The fair and free presidential election held on 25 May 2014 has not averted the ghost of civil war in Ukraine. The triumph of the people’s uprising in bringing down the corrupt and bloody government of Yanukovich marked the resumption of the democratic process in Ukraine. But it is only the first step in a long and difficult transition. The decline in the initial impetus of the Arab Spring shows that the fall of dictatorships is only the dawn of a long day. The transition to democracy has two prerequisites: economic growth and international stability.

Ukraine is on the brink of an economic disaster. The oligarchs who grabbed economic power, profiting from the devastating transition from state socialism to wild capitalism after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, looted the country and bent the political class to their will. The plan for emergency aid, organised by Moscow after the Kiev government’s decision not to sign the association agreement with the EU, was suspended after the fall of Yanukovic. Now it is part of the association agreement between Ukraine and the EU, with the support of a financial contribution by the IMF. The swinging of Ukraine between East and West shows how it is becoming the pawn in a dispute that seems to be taking us back to the Cold War. The most serious risk for the country is dismemberment. If the situation slips out control of the political forces vying to govern the country and of the external players on which world order depends, this could initiate the most dangerous international crisis since the end of the Cold War along the fault-line dividing two great regions of the world: the EU and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The country is split: while Ukraine’s western half leans towards Europe, its eastern half leans toward Russia. However, the decision on the future of the country will be taken elsewhere. What has to be absolutely avoided is that the decision be presented as a choice between East and West. Unfortunately, the annexation of Crimea by Russia is an irreversible step towards a spiral of mutual retaliation which risks questioning any positive results that the West’s collaboration with Russia had achieved in past months on the Syrian and Iranian crises.

It is true that Putin has violated international law and that the legitimacy of the referendum on the annexation of Crimea was undermined by the Russian military occupation. However, the majority of the inhabitants of the region – according to the most accredited observers – feel themselves Russians and want to belong to the Russian Federation. This approach does not solve the problem that in Crimea there are ethnic and linguistic minorities (apart from the Tatars, there is also an Italian minority) who are entitled to protection. What the EU should have the courage to question is Putin’s idea that all those who speak Russian ought to belong to the same state. In other words, the multinational nature of the EU represents an alternative to the principle, born with the French Revolution, according to which states and nations ought to coincide. Therefore, the EU should assert its alternative model of a multinational and federal union first of all within its borders, but also in Ukraine, in the Eurasian Union and in East-West relations. In military terms, Russia has unquestionable superiority. The naval base in Crimea at Sevastopol plays the utmost strategic role, since it provides an outlet for the Russian fleet to the Mediterranean. Ukraine is besieged by Russia, which controls most of its land and sea borders. It is in the interest of the West, particularly of the EU, to avert the military option which could shake the foundations of the world order and trigger off a conflict of catastrophic proportions. It is to be acknowledged that the origin of the crisis lies in the proposal of associating Ukraine with the EU: this country, which has formed part of Russia for centuries, is an essential aspect of Putin’s project to establish a Eurasian Union and to recover Russia’s status as a great power.

The EU must clarify what its boundaries are and where its process of enlargement to the East has to stop. In the Slavic languages, Ukraine means “the border” and this is where Europe’s border lies. This means that Europe must recognise the right of countries located on its eastern border to develop an integration process and build a regional organisation, so that they can achieve the necessary economies of scale and political dimensions for assuring economic development and political independence in a world in which only regional groupings of countries – as well as states that have a macro-regional size – can have a say in world politics. A condition for the solution of the crisis is that Ukraine decides not to join international organisations of which Russia is not a member, such as the EU and NATO. Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger1 recently evoked the model of Finland for Ukraine, namely the choice of an international status that is neither anti- European nor anti-Russian. The proposal is attractive because it suggests a solution which avoids a clash between irreconcilable positions and dismemberment. However, this model belongs to the world of the Cold War, that was divided into two, but that no longer exists and cannot return.

The EU and the US are no longer tied together as in the past, like Russia and China were. The world is gradually but irreversibly becoming multi-polar and cooperation and integration are inescapable imperatives in the globalization era. What is new is that international relations are enmeshed in a dense network of international organisations that are the expression of the need to co-manage a growing number of problems which cannot be resolved separately by individual countries. These days, compared to the old neutralist formulas, it is possible to plan and experiment new forms of international organisation which can pave the way toward a Ukraine that develops cooperative relationships with both Russia and the EU.

Negotiations must immediately begin between the US, Russia and the EU that involve all the Ukrainian political forces and commit them to building an agreement that maintains the unity of the country and develops new forms of cooperation between the EU and the CIS. There are several inter-regional institutions that group together all the players interested in such negotiations, namely the US, Russia and the EU: in first place, the OSCE, but also the NATO-Russia Council and the Council of Europe (where the US is an observer). Instead of applying the traditional axiom “either here or there” of the era of nationalism, why not to adopt the one “and here and there” of the federalist model? A new type of federalism could pave the way to trying out an institutional formula that enables the association of Ukraine with both the European Economic Area and the Eurasian Union: a formula that would make it possible to roll back the threat of civil war and safeguard the territorial integrity of the country. Ukraine is not an isolated case. There are similar examples of countries acting as hinges between two great regions of the world (for instance, Turkey on the border between Europe and the Middle East, or Mexico on the border between North America and Latin America) which can act as bridges and be a vehicle for new forms of solidarity between the major regions of the world.

Like the EU, Ukraine depends on supplies of Russian oil and gas. On the one hand, since Europe will still be dependent on Russia for energy resources for a long time, it is urgent that the EU adopts a single energy policy to reduce its dependence on fossil fuel imports, and unites in efforts to accelerate the transition to renewable energy. The 30-year energy deal between Russia and China shows what the EU could have done and has been unable to do. On the other hand, Russia is not presently able to face the competition of the EU, but needs its market. It is aware of the structural weaknesses in its production system based on exporting gas and oil – which has provided the temporary benefit of significant financial strength – and it is aiming to modernise its economy by forming a Eurasian Union. An agreement that ensures cooperation between Europe and Russia as regards energy supplies (from Russia) and the most advanced technologies (from the EU), and which binds the agreement to affirming in the CIS the principles of representative democracy and the rule of law, represents the condition for beginning to solve the Ukrainian crisis in a framework of stability and cooperation between contiguous regions. In addition, in order to maintain the political unity of Ukraine, the coexistence between its various ethnic, language and religious components can only be assured by a reform of its institutions in a federal direction – and more specifically by applying a form of asymmetrical federalism –, which envisages granting to the largely Russian-speaking eastern regions greater margins for self-government in the areas of education, culture and management of police forces. Asymmetrical federalism permits granting a special status of autonomy to Crimea, making its inclusion in the Russian defence system compatible with belonging to the Ukrainian state. Once Ukraine becomes a federal state, the regional governors, now appointed by the President of Ukraine, would be elected by the citizens.

The missing link for building a new international order is a Europe able to speak with one voice. By containing the aggressiveness of the US towards Russia, a stronger EU would acquire the authority to correct Putin’s imperialist and nationalistic design aiming at reorganising the Eurasian region by appealing to the great Mother Russia. By strengthening international cooperation in the sectors of security and economy, the EU could defuse the factors that have led Russia to choose nationalism and authoritarianism and could encourage the country to evolve towards reorganising both its own institutions and its relations with the former Soviet republics in a federal direction. Promoting the construction of democratic institutions in Ukraine and creating the conditions for involving Russia and the former Soviet republics in this project is a major objective that must become the core of a EU initiative. We have seen that economic development and international stability are the conditions for strengthening democratic institutions. It is up to Europe to provide a decisive contribution to the achievement of these goals. Bringing to completion the democratic revolution, for which the Majdan people in Kiev have proven to be willing to sacrifice their lives, is a task to which Europe must devote all its energy.

1 Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Russia Needs to be Offered a ‘Finland Option’ for Ukraine”, Financial Times, February 24th, 2014 ; Henry Kissinger, “How the Ukraine crisis ends”, The Washington Post, March 5th, 2014


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