A false spring?

| March 22, 2016 | 0 Comments
When then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych abandoned the EU Association Agreement in 2013, his actions provoked the events, known as the Maidan uprising, that led to his downfall. (Photo: Nessa Gnatoush)

When then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych abandoned the EU Association Agreement in 2013, his actions provoked the events, known as the Maidan uprising, that led to his downfall. (Photo: Nessa Gnatoush)

Since the end of the year, there has been a shift in tone in Russian-Ukrainian relations. At Russia’s initiative, talks on the conflict in the Donbas between representatives of Russia, Russian-supported rebels, Ukraine, the EU, and now the U.S., have become more intensive.
For two of the key negotiations, President Vladimir Putin has replaced officials from the Russian foreign ministry with political figures reporting to him.
The purpose of the Russian push is to achieve the implementation on its terms of the Minsk II Agreement of February 2015, which established the current poorly observed ceasefire.
Each side seeks to exploit the ambiguities of the agreement to its own advantage.
Russia wants an agreement on less-than-democratic elections for the Donbas so as to give political legitimacy to its proxies, the rebels, and amendments to the Ukrainian constitution that would give full autonomy to a Russian-controlled Donbas, including the right to its own foreign policy and a veto on the foreign and domestic foreign policy of Ukraine. Russia attempts to force Ukraine to acquiesce to these terms by making the resumption of Ukrainian control of the border with Russia, and thus the withdrawal of the unacknowledged Russian troops, conditional on their acceptance.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko meets with German President Angela Merkel and U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden at the 51st Munich Security Conference in 2015. (Photo: Mark Müller)

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko meets with German President Angela Merkel and U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden at the 51st Munich Security Conference in 2015. (Photo: Mark Müller)

Ukraine requires Russia first to withdraw Russian troops and weapons and allow Ukraine to resume control of the border with Russia before elections are held or an amended constitution comes into force.
Ukraine furthermore refuses to accept elections that are not held under Ukrainian law, organized by the Central Electoral Commission with the participation of all Ukrainian parties, and citizens of the area, with total media freedom and observed by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
There has never been any appetite in Ukraine for decentralization anywhere in the country. Just before the Russian-led uprising in the Donbas, decentralization in Donetsk and Luhansk enjoyed the support of only about a quarter of the population.
The Ukrainian government is nevertheless supporting a revision of the constitution to permit decentralization at the community level for the entire country. Local bodies would have responsibility in areas such as health care, education, cultural institutions and public works. A special status for the Donbas would, however, only last three years.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (Photo: © Claude Truong-Ngoc)

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (Photo: © Claude Truong-Ngoc)

Russia wants what Ukraine can’t give
What the Ukrainian government is prepared to do in constitutional reform, therefore, falls far short of what Russia requires.
Furthermore, the government may not even have the political support needed to gain approval for this initiative. An amendment to the constitution requires 300 votes in the parliament, the Rada, on second reading. On the first reading in August, the proposed amendment obtained only 265 votes. There is a real danger that, should President Petro Poroshenko push through even the modest forms of decentralization this amendment proposes, the government will be defeated, perhaps forcing early elections and the fall of the government.
The reasons for the recent renewal of Russian diplomatic activity appear to be that the worsening economic situation in Russia, principally caused by the decline in the price of oil, has forced Russia to seek to end western sanctions.
There is pressure on the Ukrainians as well. Western Europe is suffering from “Ukraine fatigue.” If it appears that Putin is co-operating, and Poroshenko stalling in seeking a settlement, some EU countries may eventually be tempted to put an end to sanctions and leave Ukraine to its fate.
While Russia evidently wants to free itself from western sanctions, from the little information that has seeped out of the negotiating sessions, there is nothing to suggest that Russia is prepared to pay the price of surrendering control of the Donbas or accepting the independence of Ukraine. Russia appears more likely to be seeking a way of obtaining a release from the sanctions without changing its policy towards Ukraine. The increased Russian attacks in the Donbas suggest instead that Russia is still trying to destabilize Ukraine and perhaps prevent passage of the amendments to the constitution so as to blame Ukraine for the lack of progress.

Russian reluctance
There are two reasons for Russian reluctance to change course on Ukraine. The large and hostile demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2011 and 2012 that greeted Putin’s return to the presidency led Russia to pursue aggressively a policy that the country had been gradually developing since the previous decade: Convincing the West to treat Russia as a great power again, with a veto on issues of importance to her.
Russia’s belligerent foreign policy, especially shown in the annexation of Crimea, has sent popular approval for Putin to unprecedented heights. It is not clear that, in the Kremlin’s eyes, the danger of unrest arising from the worsening economic situation has reached the point where it counter-balances the political damage a Russian retreat on Ukraine would cause.
Furthermore, for Russia, the abandonment of its Ukrainian ambitions could sound the death knell for its wider ambitions to again be treated as a great power. It doubtful that Putin is prepared to give them up.
To understand the dilemma Putin is facing, let us look in detail at his foreign policy aims. Putin has been attempting to recover Russia’s great power status by obtaining a veto over major aspects of European and East-West affairs, and by bringing the other former Soviet republics back under Russian control.
Let’s first consider Russia’s efforts to obtain its veto. In 2008, president Dmitry Medvedev proposed a European Security Treaty that would devalue existing security measures, such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
The Medvedev proposals would also have prevented NATO from acting independently of Moscow and any further former Soviet republics from joining NATO.
Finally, the proposals would have weakened the independence of the East European countries by dropping the OSCE principles of the inviolability of borders, non-intervention in internal affairs, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and equal rights and self-determination of peoples.
Russia also proposed a “union of Europe” between Russia and the EU. The union would co-ordinate energy, military, political and strategic matters. In October 2014, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the agreement with the EU would be based on a system of indivisible security whereby no country would strengthen its security at the expense of the others. Such provisions would prevent the EU from acting independently of Moscow or the other former Soviet republics from associating with the EU. North America would, in fact, be excluded from Europe.
The Medvedev proposals apparently remain the basis of Russian policy. Since 2012, there have been many Russian speeches and articles advocating a return to the Yalta-Potsdam or Cold War system of East-West relations in which the Soviet Union had a veto.
Lavrov, speaking in October 2014, stated that the Ukrainian civil war could have been avoided if Russia’s proposed treaties on European security had been concluded.
Let us now examine Russia’s attempt to bring the other former Soviet republics to heel. In August 2013, Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (which is close to the defence ministry) and the author of an authoritative study of the new Russian Military Doctrine, declared that in order to achieve the aim of the Russian National Security Doctrine-2020, namely the renaissance of Russia as a great power, Russian dominance over the other former Soviet Republics had to be restored. Russia could, if necessary, use force to achieve its objectives.
The chief instrument for establishing Russian dominance is the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) of former Soviet republics (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan.) The EEU is the latest in a series of attempts to re-establish Russian control in the former Soviet Union.  The Russians hope that the EEU will grow into a geopolitical bloc with responsibility for collective security.

No European integration
For Russia, Ukrainian membership in the EEU is essential to the success of the organization. In September 2013, Putin’s aide for developing the Eurasian Economic Union, Sergei Glaziev, warned Ukraine that, if it signed the EU Association Agreement, which would have prevented Ukrainian membership in the EEU, Russia might support secessionist movements in Ukraine. During that autumn, Russia maintained its pressure on Ukraine. Eventually, then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych abandoned the EU Association Agreement and all but joined the Eurasian Economic Union. His actions provoked the Maidan uprising, which led to his downfall.
NATO was not an issue at this stage. NATO had refused to offer Ukraine a path to membership in 2008.Yanukovych had earlier proclaimed Ukraine’s non-aligned status. The idea of joining NATO enjoyed the support of only 17 percent of the population.
The overthrow of Yanukovych in February 2014 and the decision of the new government to sign the EU Association Agreement, and perhaps its intention to apply again for NATO membership, led Putin to activate long-prepared plans to subjugate Ukraine.
After seizing Crimea in February 2014, Russia launched the secessionist movement in the Donbas in April to prevent Ukraine from moving West. All but one of the principal leaders of the uprising were Russians.
An influential voice on Russian foreign policy, Sergey Karaganov, the honorary chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, and a Kremlin adviser on Russia’s relations with the other former Soviet republics, stated at the time of the Russian seizure of the Donbas that Russia wants “a united, federative Ukraine, if possible. Only this arrangement will maintain the formal integrity of the state, but Ukraine as a full-fledged state will be a distant historical memory. This scenario will ensure Russia’s de facto dominance in east and southeast Ukraine and semi-autonomy for the country’s west.”
While Russia may have abandoned its ambition to carve a Russian-controlled Novorossiya out of the southeast of Ukraine, there has otherwise been no indication of any change in Russian thinking since then.
The Russian threat is not confined to Ukraine. In a speech in October 2014, Putin declared that the Ukrainian civil war was an example of a conflict “at the intersection of major states’ geopolitical interests,” and added, “I think it will certainly not be the last” without a clear system of mutual commitments and agreements. In another speech in the same month, Lavrov added that Moldova and the Baltic states should “consider events in Ukraine and draw conclusions.”
To increase pressure on the Baltic states, Russia’s attorney general’s office opened an investigation in the autumn of 2015 into the legality of the Baltic states’ independence. Furthermore, at about the same time, Russian political analyst Rostislav Ishchenko, an associate of the Izborsky Club, a nationalist group with deep roots in the Kremlin, advocated, in what other Russian commentators have described as a trial balloon, the “preventive occupation” of the Baltic States so as to force the West into negotiations. British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has said Putin poses a “real and present danger” to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Russian pressure on the Baltic republics is also physical. Russian forces staged a raid on Estonia to kidnap an Estonian security official. The Russian foreign ministry has warned Latvia about its treatment of its Russian minority while Russian military aircraft violate Baltic airspace and the Russian navy harasses Lithuanian ships.
There may be, therefore, no easy or quick fix to the current East-West crisis. Under the circumstances, we must pursue negotiations with Russia. At the same time, we must keep robust sanctions against her, continue to strengthen NATO and maintain our support for Ukraine.
Abandoning sanctions at this point, which could lead democratic Ukraine to fall, would not mean a return to normal relations with Russia. It might merely encourage Russia to act against the Baltic republics. It might also provoke a movement of Ukrainian refugees to Western Europe that would rival that coming from the Middle East.

Derek Fraser is a former Ambaassador to Ukraine. He is now an associate fellow at the Centre for Global Studies and adjunct professor for political science at the University of Victoria, and an adviser to the Canadan Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta.

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Category: Dispatches

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Derek Fraser is an associate fellow at the Centre for Global Studies and adjunct professor for political science at the University of Victoria. He was posted to Ukraine as ambassador from 1998 – 2001.

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