How far should Europe go for the security of Ukraine?

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

MH17 wreckage guard

One of the fighters guarding wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines MH17 flight on july 19, 2014 near Hrabove, Donetsk region. [Shutterstock]

Europe should be prepared to commit hard defence in support for Ukraine and maintain sanctions against Russia, writes Richard Howitt ahead of a UN Security Council meeting over the downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17 one year ago.

UK Labour MEP Howitt (Socialists & Democrats) is a member of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee and of its subcommittee on human rights.

Few people would fail to have sympathy in the Ukraine crisis for a country which has seen its borders invaded by a foreign power, part of its territory annexed and its power supplies blockaded. 

Ukraine is a country which has been ‘sneered at’ by its larger neighbour for decades I was reminded, during European Parliament talks in the country last week.

It is a country already struggling to transform itself from its Soviet history and from its still incomplete revolution against a past autocratic leader. It is a country whose previous attempt at Revolution stalled over internal disagreement, only to see that division now amplified in to open conflict which threatens the territorial integrity of the very country itself.

There is a “do nothing” tendency in Brussels, combining those who are closely allied to Russian interests, as well as those for whom the cost of sanctions is too high. Add to these others who are prepared to play a geopolitical game in which Moscow’s control over its near neighbours in the East of our continent is tolerated by a European Union content to enjoy its own ‘sphere of influence’ in the West, irrespective of what sovereign countries and their populations may want for themselves.

But the strongest counter-argument for Europe is based on the sober reality of a resurgent and increasingly anti-democratic Russia, apparently intent on military expansionism, where Europe’s failure to act intelligently now could see our own countries drawn in to military conflict in the years ahead. 

“We’re not fighting for our own borders but for those of Europe itself,” Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Arsenyuk told us when he met the Members of the European Parliament last week.

Even if the territorial ambitions from Moscow are not yet clear, my own work encouraging EU enlargement for the Western Balkans has given me direct experience of a new Russian activism, which can quickly destabilise what the European Union thinks of its own back yard.

Europe must also take responsibility for past mistakes. The pursuit of an association agreement at the Vilnius Summit of 2013 may have badly miscalculated the consequences, even history may prove the decisions to have been the right ones. The parallel failure as Russia annexed Crimea, to honour the Budapest Memorandum guarantee for the defence of the country after Ukraine had unilaterally given up its nuclear weapons, also sets a truly awful precedent in global attempts to halt and reverse proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

However, walking away from Ukraine now could compound these mistakes many times over.

The European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee was in the country to assess the latest situation – what did we learn?

Militarily, OSCE security monitors confirmed there had been no reduction in troops or weaponry, with breaches of the ceasefire negotiated in February now rising not falling in number.  “Both sides are reinforcing defensive positions, digging trenches around the line of control,” they told us.

Attempts by rebel forces to withdraw heavy weaponry in front of the cameras were dismissed: “Moving an anti-tank gun 600 metres to the next forest means nothing when it has a range of several kilometres – it is simply a PR exercise,” according to the monitors.

UN Human Rights officials alongside their European security colleagues are careful to identify accountability in individual cases on both sides, but avoid generalised conclusions about responsibility overall.

Nevertheless I was left with the clear impression that analysts who suggest Ukraine is already moved in to a new frozen conflict – horrendous for the people involved but stable from a European point of view – could be badly complacent.

“A frozen conflict is the best outcome we could hope for,” one diplomat told me.

What could be the trigger for a ‘hot war’ I asked several of the actors?

The answers ranged from an act of deliberate provocation from neo-fascist ‘right sector’ armed groups some suspect are in the pay of Moscow, Russian unwillingness to finance the economic costs of Crimea leading to its descent in to a criminal state or a deliberate military act such as the delayed decision to mount the offensive which ultimately took the airport at Donetsk for well-thought out tactical reasons.

What will stop all-out conflict?

For Prime Minister Arseniy Arsenyuk who blames the successful invasion of Crimea on the vacuum created by the fall of previous President Yanukovich and who now sees the Ukrainian army as successfully rebuilt, it is the sheer number of casualties should an offensive be attempted.

European monitors we spoke to seemed to agree: “Neither side wants peace but neither side wants all-out war either,” we were told.

Stories circulating while we were there suggested Ukraine might agree for Moldovan guards to be stationed on the country’s Ukrainian border, effectively cutting off Russian replenishment to support that country’s own frozen conflict in Transnistria.

That really could be a sufficient provocation.

Europe has to decide whether to move from the provision of non-lethal to lethal weapons to the Ukrainians, who argue with some justice that no trade restrictions exist which can legally justify the failure to do so. But this will be a step too far for some EU countries, fearing an arms race with Moscow which can never be won.

They also press Europe to mount a ‘Common Security and Defence Policy’ (CSDP) mission to help oversee the ‘Minsk 2’ ceasefire agreement in the East, also with justice.

Despite highly credible personnel who we met working for the existing OSCE mission, Ukraine accuses its Russian members of simply identifying the coordinates to enable subsequent shelling of its own positions.

But Russian unwillingness to accept such an EU mission could mirror the experience in Georgia, where EU monitors are largely ineffective by being limited to one side only.

Nevertheless, as Europe embarks on its potentially ground-breaking anti-trafficking operation in the Mediterranean, perhaps it is time to take a similar risk in the Eastern neighbourhood too?

That sympathy for the Ukrainians, a feeling of solidarity which ultimately flows from the brave protesters of the Euromaidan – too many of whom lost their lives – is enough for me to argue the case for engagement.

In Azerbaijan, in Armenia, in Belarus, Europe laments the existence of governments which do not more aspire to our values. It is a dangerous scenario where we reject the advances of those who do, in a major country such as Ukraine.

The European monitoring mission may have declined to openly speculate to us about Russia’s military intentions.

But they did identify a clear pattern of attacks just before the latest Minsk talks, and a clear diminution as talks took place.

It was “spooky almost scary” that not one shot was heard fired in the day of the talks last week, we were told.

The lessons, for me, are clear.

Stay engaged. Support the weaker party, one who wants to orientate towards Europe and who we should want to turn towards us. Be prepared to commit hard defence, in a form which is successful. Maintain sanctions but do not rule out a negotiated settlement which can see them lifted.

Recognise that two ‘rebel’ areas in the Luhansk and Donetsk ‘oblasts’ of Ukraine cannot be simply inoculated from questions of European security.

But above all, keep both parties talking to each other. ‘Minsk II’ may be deeply flawed, but the only alternative is ‘all-out’ war. And that’s what the whole of the European Union was established to avoid.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe