Ukraine, beware of the West

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

Dr. Ainius Lasas. Lecturer. University of Bath.

When the Baltic Soviet republics were fighting for their right to independence from the Soviet Union some 25 years ago, there were plenty of high-level Western “well-wishers” ready to offer advice. In most cases their recommendations could be summarized as follows: we understand your aspirations, but please don’t cause too much trouble for Gorbachev and his ongoing reforms.

Today a similarly “soothing” rhetoric can be heard from some prominent Western politicians in the context of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. One of the newest examples comes from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Commenting on the situation in Ukraine to the ARD television channel (24 August), she insisted that there is only a political solution to the crisis and hopefully the one that does not harm Russia.

The Ukrainian leadership should be extremely cautious of such strategies for three primary reasons. First, while many Western leaders feel for Ukraine, at the end of the day they are trying to solve their own problems and promote their own interests. These interests rarely overlap with Ukrainian ones and that is why Kiev must not readily swallow Western advice.

When Russian soldiers appeared in Crimea, most Western leaders urged Ukraine to keep calm and not to put up any military resistance or even buildup of forces in their local military bases. For whatever reasons, the Ukrainian government acted accordingly leaving its military units on the peninsula exposed and isolated. Without adequate support and reinforcement, the Russian forces and local militia soon overwhelmed them.

One can make a strong argument that this was a serious misjudgment on the Western and Ukrainian part. Having walked through Crimea in just several weeks and without any casualties, the Kremlin was tempted to try its luck again in eastern Ukraine. So much for keeping calm.  

Second, Chancellor Merkel is right on the necessity to find a political solution in the long term, but at the moment there is no political solution in eastern Ukraine. To a large extent this is because the Kremlin prefers a military solution, which forces Ukraine to respond likewise. For Vladimir Putin, the military strategy works because it puts a heavy burden on the Ukrainian economy, provides control of some Ukrainian territory, and boosts his popularity at home. It looks like Putin will genuinely return to the table of negotiations only when either Ukraine makes a strong military push back by taking Luhansk and Donetsk or the Russian economy starts spinning out of control. At the moment neither of these scenarios are likely in the immediate future.

Third, as in the Soviet Baltic republics, there is hardly a reasonable solution to the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, which would not harm Russia and its interests. To begin with, the majority of Ukrainians (including political elites) now have a very different take on Russia than they used to just a year ago. Mentally Ukraine has moved westward and it will stay there for many years to come. It will not join the EU anytime soon, but it has a strong overall support from some EU countries and these relationships are likely to grow stronger. The rapid implementation of the plans to establish the joint Ukrainian, Polish, and Lithuanian military brigade is one such example.

At the same time, since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Russia has viewed former Soviet republics as its legitimate sphere of influence. From this perspective, NATO eastern enlargement, and especially the admission of the Baltic States, was a key turning point in Western-Russian relations. The West allegedly used Russia’s moment of weakness to take over some of the neighboring territories that supposed to have stayed neutral. Because of that, the argument goes, the West cannot be trusted and Russia should double down on its efforts to keep what is still left “available.” Such a mindset undermines any search for mutually beneficial solutions.

Finally, over the years the Russian political elite has lost interest in emulating Western models of governance. This growing disdain for liberal democratic values and the elevation of the pan-Russianism doctrine stripped down Russian-Western cooperation to its bare mercantilistic bones. Ironically, Kremlin’s brute strategy also exposed the shallowness of Western normative standards. The idea of “normative power Europe”, once proposed by political scientist Ian Manners, has always sounded overly optimistic. Now it simply sounds hollow. The West is willing to punish Russia for its aggression, but only when their own people suffer, not those of Ukraine. Thus, like the Baltic republics in 1990, Kiev today has to find its own gusto to finish what it started and avoid being distracted by Western “well-wishers.”