Beneath the European-Russian Struggle for the Fate of Ukraine

Why it's so important to Russia—and why Europe will still win. 

Ukraine is fast becoming an ideological battlefield. On one side the Western European societal model—liberal representative democracy plus the market economy. On the other side the old-style czarist model—repression plus oligarchic economics merging into a form of autarchy. Behind the curtain a second conflict starts to grow in importance. Russia and its President, Vladimir Putin, adopts and applies conventional, traditional strategic thinking in the von Clausewitz tradition that war is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means. The EU approach rejects Clausewitz by renouncing war, seeking political objectives by pursuing political options.

Without Ukraine, Russia will never stand a chance of becoming a great power again. Ukraine’s 45 million people, of which around 75 per cent are Ukrainian and around 18 per cent are Russian, would increase Russia’s population by a third. Its industrial capacity is considerable, as is the case for its agricultural potential. Vast reserves of shale gas/oil have led to agreements with Shell and Chevron, auguring self-sufficiency around 2020 and removing the leverage supply of gas and oil gives Russia. Chinese investment in agriculture has been forthcoming, reserving five per cent of the landmass for food production going to China.

These investments may not be welcome from a Russian point of view. Geographically, Russia’s southern border is exposed. A Ukraine outside its sphere of interest requires this southern vulnerability to be incorporated into Moscow’s planning at a moment when military presence in the Arctic is being given high priority. The Russian ‘nation,’ or maybe it is more correct to say the Russian identity, can be traced back to Kiev—not Moscow—rubbing salt into the wound over Ukraine and its people’s apparent unwillingness to link their future to Russia. It’s a kind of cultural break, or even worse, a snub.

Superficially, the EU offer of a partnership gave better access to markets and the prospect of modernizing Ukraine’s economy. This might ire the Kremlin, but does not explain the intense opposition. The reason behind that stance is that a successful expansion of EU’s societal model so different from the Russian one will leave Moscow isolated, making it increasingly difficult to stem the tide of growing opposition inside Russia. Preventing Ukraine from choosing this path is therefore the first line of defence of the Kremlin’s own political system.

The European Union may not fully have seen this. It entered into talks in 2009 with not only Ukraine, but Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Moldova (from Russia’s perspective a maneuver to envelop it) in the mood of extending trade concessions and economic benefits. That it would also force these countries to change their societal model may not have been overlooked, but the interpretation or understanding of how Russia would react to such a change in its ‘near abroad’ was apparently not analysed; at least no proper diplomatic preparations for the inevitable showdown with Russia and confrontation with the Russian-backed rulers of Ukraine were initiated.

EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy have broken new ground in international relations by renouncing war and explicitly selecting political means to achieve political objectives. This proved tremendously successful in Central and Eastern Europe. Looking at Ukraine, it seems almost superfluous to highlight how attractive the Western European model is in the eyes of its people. They lived first under Soviet dictatorship and then suffered from a combination of incompetence, authoritarian rulers and kleptocracy robbing them of the country’s wealth. Some observers might label it arrogance, but the core of this is that the EU, despite flaws and shortcomings, has reached a degree of political maturity that people living at its periphery can only dream of—and they do—when comparing with their own situation.

The problem for the EU and the Ukrainian people surfaced in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s: There is no real answer when up against opponents choosing to play hardball by reverting to the Clausewitzian way of conducting foreign policy.

The victim of the course events has taken is obviously Ukraine’s people. Despite its rich natural resources and economic potential, mismanagement has brought it close to economic disaster. Third quarter 2013 saw the economy slip into recession. The financial markets do not seem interested in providing sums estimated to somewhere between USD twenty and thirty billion, including natural gas payments to Russia. A loan package of USD fifteen billion is being discussed with the IMF, which is likely to link loans to policy steps running counter to the current regime’s policies. The EU may find some money in case Ukraine joins the partnership, but recalling the Eurozone’s crisis over the last five years, the EU money is unlikely to be anywhere near USD 20-30 billion.

It seems most likely that, after tergiversation bringing further hardship to the harshly treated and unfortunate people living there, Ukraine will end up joining the partnership with the EU. Firstly, this is what the majority of the people want. Secondly, the EU offers a large and growing market. Russia cannot do the same, being almost totally dependent on the oil price not knowing what financial resources will be at its disposal in the future. The World Bank has just downgraded its growth for 2013 to 1.3 percent, with a forecast for 2014 at 2.2 percent.

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