Ukraine on Edge

Russia and the West both stand to lose a lot, and must work together to stop a brewing civil war.

This week, the crisis in Ukraine has crossed a dangerous line. What was expected to be a revolution is morphing into a civil war. Should this happen, Ukraine will turn into another Yugoslavia: a terrifying prospect. It should also be sobering. So far, the West and Russia have been trading accusations about their respective meddling in Ukraine. True, neither side has been impartial, and each has its preferences and its clients. Yet, both are likely to lose heavily in case Ukraine becomes Europe’s newest battlefield. There are several things the leaders in Brussels and Berlin, Washington and Moscow need to keep in mind, and several things they need to do jointly and in parallel.

Outsiders need to realize that Ukraine’s crisis, essentially, is not primarily about Kiev’s international orientation. It is above all about high-level corruption and poor governance; it is about rivalries among largely irresponsible oligarchical clans; and it is about the cultural divide between the country’s west and east, which has not been eased after Ukraine, received its independence in 1991. These issues can only be tackled and hopefully resolved by the Ukrainians themselves. In the foreseeable future, Ukraine will not move either east or west; it might, however, go south.

The European Union needs to be aware of the high social cost of Ukraine’s accession to the Deep Free Trade Area with the European Union. It also needs to be aware of the high expectations in Ukrainian society of Europe’s assistance in the process of Ukrainian modernization. The Russian Federation should be able to see not only the similarities between Ukraine and Russia, but also the glaring dissimilarities: Ukraine is not Little Russia. The Russians should also appreciate most Ukrainians’ strong desire for national independence, which means that there can be no serious pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine.

Both the EU and Russia need also to recognize how much their interests will suffer in case of a prolonged instability in Ukraine, not to speak of a civil war there. A Ukrainian default on its financial obligations would definitely hurt Russia, whose economy is already close to stagnating, but the EU will be affected as well. Worse, by supporting opposing sides in Ukraine without actually controlling them, the West and Russia would become dependent on their Ukrainian clients and their agendas. What started as a domestic Ukrainian conflict would evolve into a version of a war by proxy between the West and Russia. Even though some might think such a confrontation would weaken the Putin regime and help democracy in Russia, a more likely scenario would be the rise of anti-Western nationalism in Russia and a closer alignment between Moscow and Beijing.

A better way for Russia and the West would be to cooperate on Ukraine, mindful of all the differences that exist between them. The main interlocutors in this case should be President Vladimir Putin and Chancellor Angela Merkel, who, of course, will be in constant touch with Germany’s EU partners and with the United States, and thus be able to speak on their behalf. Putin and Merkel have already begun their exchanges by phone. They need to regularize them and make them more productive.

Together, Berlin and Moscow should push the Ukrainian sides toward stopping violence and repression; resuming the parliamentary process leading to constitutional reform and national elections; and restoring governance across the country. Berlin and Brussels should open consultations with Moscow on trade issues with relevance to Ukraine, to exclude damage to either side’s economic interests. Jointly with Kiev, they also need to make sure that the domestic situation in Ukraine does not interfere with the energy transit from Russia to the European Union across Ukrainian territory.

Time for political compromise in Ukraine is running out. Even as the EU foreign ministers are holding talks in Kiev, at least twenty-one more people have been killed in the city. As Ukraine is teetering on the brink of a civil war, the West and Russia have found themselves on the brink of new confrontation. Putin and Merkel, with the support of Obama and others, still have a chance to prevent the worst. They must act now.

Dmitri Trenin is the Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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