How East and West Alike Compounded Ukraine's Troubles

Post-Cold War international diplomacy set the stage for troubles on the Black Sea.

Ukraine is a tragedy within a tragedy. The obvious tragedy is what is happening inside Ukraine: that Ukrainians have spilled Ukrainian blood and may spill more. That the country’s deep political crisis has no early or happy end, and, worse, that it is complicated by an imminent and vast economic crisis. That the current revolution’s excesses are the toll of the 2004 revolution’s failures: the corruption rather than reform that followed, the political manipulation and repression rather than democratic progress that stoked popular alienation. And that Ukraine, in its misery, has become the epicenter of everything wrong in Russia’s relations with the West.

The other tragedy is what never happened outside Ukraine. Never did those outside do much to create conditions cushioning rather than compounding Ukraine’s internal struggle. Never did they do much, despite soaring talk of building an inclusive security community “from Vancouver to Vladivostok,” to bring it about. On the contrary, year by year, step by step, they have turned the prospect into pure fantasy. Those on the outside—Russia, the European Union, NATO, and the United States—have done it together and in equal measure.

Shaping a new post-Cold War Europe and promoting European security was for the Western powers a cheap and lazy man’s enterprise; for Russia, no enterprise at all. When the opportunity existed, the West chose the easier solution for the lesser problem: enlarging NATO to fill the Central European “grey zone,” a good thing for Poland, Estonia and NATO’s other new members. Not for European security.

The too hard problem for the statesmen of the day was how to nurture an environment assuring Ukrainian (and by extension Belarusan and Moldovan) security, one in which of necessity Russia felt comfortable—and perforce that would have simultaneously solved Poland and Estonia’s core security challenges. It, however, could only have been accomplished by encouraging Ukraine’s leaders to follow what economists call a “risk averting strategy,” a strategy aimed at achieving positive relations in both directions, rather than leaning toward one side and balancing against the other. To work Russia and the West had not only to applaud the idea but to make it possible—to make it safe for Ukraine not to choose.

Instead the United States, NATO, and the EU went forward with their projects for the portions of Europe that fit within their scheme of things, and Russia chose to counter with its own. NATO enlargement consisted only of enlargement, and, worse, enlargement left open-ended with scarcely any thought to whether and, if so, how it could be made compatible with building a wider Euro-Atlantic security community. Russia chose to beg the question, rail against NATO’s decisions, and meet its concerns by intimidating neighbors eager to embrace the NATO option.

Nothing illustrates more painfully the consequences of the larger policy failure than the Ukrainian crisis. Although the tinder was the dense tangle of factors inside Ukraine, the struggle over Ukraine’s “association agreement” with the EU served as the spark. The EU, led by Poland and Sweden, for nearly a decade has pushed the idea of the Eastern Partnership for Russia’s six neighbors, not with malice toward Russia, but with little thought to how to make it work for Russia. Russian leaders in turn have retaliated by creating as a counterbalance the Eurasian Customs Union, to be followed by the Eurasian Union in 2015. Since last fall they’ve brutally pressured Ukraine to choose their project over the EU’s. Neither side has made it their top priority, for all the admitted difficulty, to find ways by which Ukraine can benefit from both projects.

For many, wrestling with the issue of European security is “last winter’s snow,” and, given the poisonous state of Russian-West relations, which, because of Ukraine, promise to get a lot worse, struggling to shift attention back to steps by which progress toward a joint, cooperative approach to European security can be re-launched seems a hopeless fools errand. Maybe. But unless the outsiders—particularly, Moscow—shut down their current short-sighted tug-of-war, and look for ways to cooperate in saving rather than savaging Ukraine, the melt from last winter’s snow will simply turn blacker and more acrid for all.

Robert Legvold is Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University, where he specialized in the international relations of the post-Soviet states.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mstyslav Chernov. CC BY-SA 3.0.