How to save Ukraine at the 11th hour

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

Ukraine is disintegrating before our very eyes, but it could still be saved, writes Michael Emerson.

Michael Emerson is Associate Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), former EU ambassador to Moscow.

“Acting  President Alexander Turchinov has  officially  declared that  Kyiv  is  powerless to  resume control of  Donetsk and Lugansk, where bands of separatists occupy public  buildings, raising Russian flags.

The Geneva Quad agreement of 17 April – signed by Ukraine, the EU, Russia and the US and decreeing that public buildings be liberated – is ignored. The  viability of the  presidential election,  scheduled for 25 May, is threatened by boycotts announced in some  of the eastern regions, with  calls  for  referendums instead on  separation from  Ukraine and  accession  to Russia.

The Geneva agreement had promising content and, crucially, quadripartite support.  The only conceivable way now to save Ukraine is to enforce the agreement and to build upon it. A contrary tactic  is emerging, to blame  Russia  for the  non-implementation of Geneva, and for the US and  EU to punish it with  sanctions. Even if Russia  is to be criticised, the tactic is not going  to work.  Russia will not be crippled by the sanctions, certainly not in the short-run, and  meanwhile the scenario of growing anarchy and  violence  in the  eastern regions brings nearer the prospect of a Russian ‘peacekeeping’ invasion.

There  has  to  be  a  course   correction  by  the  Quad [EU, USA, Russia and Ukraine], or  rather moves   to  ensure a  serious enforcement of the Geneva agreement. The Quad should therefore agree  to a reinforcement of the  OSCE mission, or  its replacement by  a new  tripartite peace  and  order enforcement mission. The key in either case has to be the physical coordination on the spot of Ukrainian, European and Russian uniformed and flagged troops, whether they are army,   police or gendarmerie.

Recall Berlin 1945, with  the patrol jeeps manned by a quad of British, French,  Soviet and  US troops. That  scenario, of course,  cannot serve  as an  actual  model, but  it does  offer  a little inspiration.

The necessary operation can be simply described. First dismantle and  clean up the Maidan in Kyiv. It would suffice for just a few armoured personnel carriers, crucially carrying three  big flags  – Ukrainian, EU and  Russian – to move  in alongside a bulldozer and  with  trucks to carry away  the debris.

Then  move  on  into  Donetsk and  Lugansk, with  larger  contingents, but  the  same  formula. Light  military vehicles,  jointly  manned and  flagged with  Ukrainian, European and  Russian colours,  would escort  bulldozers to demolish road  blocks  and  barricades, and  then  demand evacuation of the  public  buildings. The thugs of Donetsk and  Lugansk would not  hold  out for long. The operation would surely attract large public  support.

For  the  EU  this  would be  a  regular ESDP  mission. The  resources required are  available. There  is no lack of European military or policing capabilities for this kind  of operation, and thanks  to  the   EU’s  enlargement  ten   years   ago,   no   shortage  of  Russian-speaking  EU peacekeepers.  The  Quad would be  reconvened to  launch this  reinforced operation,  but neither US nor  NATO  presence in the  joint operation is necessary technically nor  plausible politically. For Russia  this  is the  only  way  a temporary military presence in Ukraine could avoid  the  stigma of invasion. The  failing  Ukraine would be rescued by  the  huge  political symbolism and  reality   of  the  three   flags  working together. The  success  of  the  tripartite operation would be grounds for suspension of the US as well as European sanctions against Russia.

Should the  new  tripartite brigade be  authorised to  use  lethal  force  if there  is resistance? Better not get into who would give the orders to fire. If there  were  a refusal to cooperate and a stand-off developed, the  matter should be taken  to the  highest political level,  for Russia with  the EU and  Ukraine together to order evacuation of the buildings explicitly both  on the spot   and   with   leader  staking their   case  to  the  TV  stations.  This  should  overcome the weakness of the original Geneva agreement. If there  is still no cooperation, the three  parties would consult together on further steps.

This tripartite process should also lead  on to further political understandings. The May 25th presidential  election   would  go  ahead  correctly in  the  whole   of  Ukraine,  but   could   be accompanied by referendums is some eastern regions with  the following question:

Would you  prefer  for your  region  to remain part  of Ukraine alongside a process  of constitutional  reform   to   guarantee  adequate  regional  safeguards  on   matters  of language  and   decentralised  competences;  or  would  you   prefer   separating  from Ukraine and joining Russia?

Opinion polls suggest that the majority would support the first alternative, even in Donetsk. If the new  post-May 25 authorities in Kyiv wish  to go ahead and  sign the DCFTA (Deep and Comprehensive Free  Trade  Agreement) with  the  EU,  there  should be  completion of  the process initiated at  the  June  2013 EU-Russia  summit to  examine any  possible unintended harmful consequences of the  DCFTA  for Ukraine-Russian economic relations.  In principle there  should be  no  problem since  the  introduction of EU technical product  standards  by Ukraine still  would normally allow  for  the  voluntary application of  these  by  Ukrainian enterprises, leaving Ukrainian exporters to Russia  free  to supply according to Russian (or Belarus-Russia-Kazakhstan customs union) standards.

The EU should now make such proposals with the utmost urgency. The US would be glad to see the EU, whose flags have been flying in Kyiv like the Russian ones in Donetsk, take up its responsibilities. Russia  has  already advocated trilateral solutions. The chances are that the overwhelming majority of  Ukrainians would  be  mightily  relieved.  EU-Russia   relations would get back on to a constructive track. This short-term action  should also have  long-term strategic consequences for the European order, if it initiated a switch  by the EU and  Russia into  a  cooperative modus  operandi  over  their   common neighbourhood.  The  immediate tripartite action  here  advocated would therefore also  be  a test  of the  sincerity of Russian discourse about Lisbon to Vladivostok.”

This article was first published on the website of the Centre for European Policy Studies.