By Edward Lucas
23. Jan 2014
European policymakers are eating the ashes of their failed policy in Ukraine. Anyone who six months ago said that the Yanukovych regime would use live ammunition against protestors would have been denounced as a scaremonger. Now it is happening on the streets of a European capital.
The scenarios are bleak. Stalemate – which seemed a bitterly disappointing outcome only days ago – is now the least bad. Perhaps the authorities will decide that they cannot crush the protestors, and will draw back, meaning months of tension, jitters and uncertainty. But I think the likely scenarios are worse.
A few weeks ago I was told by a top European policymaker that Yanukovych had done a deal with Putin. The elements were cheap gas, soft loans, and an agreement to join the Eurasian Union. I confirmed this with another source and tweeted it—attracting a storm of incredulous criticism for my supposed irresponsibility. The gas and loans turned out to be true. The promise to join the Eurasian Union by 2015 looks more likely by the day. But there was one more element to the deal which I could confirm with only one source, and did not reveal. It was that Putin wanted Yanukovych to “dip his hands in blood”. Only by forcing an irreversible breach with Europe and America could the Kremlin be sure that its Ukrainian satrap would behave.
At the time, I thought that would be unlikely. Yanukovych did not need to use force against the demonstrators. They clearly lacked the critical mass to block his policy, let alone to overturn his rule. Their numbers are too small, and their geographical focus too narrow. Western observers have been surprisingly unconcerned by the presence of the Freedom (Svoboda) party in the opposition’s ranks. But to many Ukrainians, the stench of right-wing extremism taints the whole opposition. The opposition demonstrators have not achieved the reach of the “Orange” camp in the east of the country during the revolution of 2004-5. They needed to exceed it to have a chance of winning.
So the rational (and likely) response of Yanukovych would have been to let Maidan fizzle and split, using a dose of soft repression to hasten the process. Using force would reduce his options: he may have been convinced by the Putin offer in Sochi, but he surely does not want to end up like Aleksander Lukashenko in Belarus: humiliated by his country’s economic dependency on Russia.
I now think I was wrong. Yanukovych has dipped his hands in blood. He has made it all but impossible for the EU or America to forgive and forget. He has now only one option left: the Kremlin one. The question for Ukraine and the rest of Europe is where that leads.
All the possible scenarios look bleak. One is that the crackdown continues, and succeeds. Ukraine becomes another Belarus, with a demoralised and marginal opposition which touts its wares in Strasbourg, Brussels and Washington DC, but has no real role in domestic politics. We will see a dreadful roll-back of the gains of the last 10 years. The newly passed repressive laws will be used in full, not just against public protest, but against independent media, civil society, and other institutions. Higher education will be one target: say goodbye to the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, one of the finest institutions of its kind anywhere in the region. We may see the reintroduction of a visa regime for visitors from Western countries. All kinds of foreign-related and foreign-sponsored activity will be impeded or banned.
It can get worse still. Ukraine could join the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the Kremlin’s answer to NATO. The much-mocked military integration of Russia and Belarus has proved remarkably successful (this was a big difference between the Zapad-09 and Zapad-13 exercises). If the regime in Kiev proceeds with military and security integration with Russia, Central Europe will experience what the Baltic states have felt for several years: the icy sensation of a hard security threat.
Any chance of securing a European future for Moldova is in doubt too. The economic and political stability of Europe’s poorest country depends almost completely on relations with Ukraine. In circumstances of benign neglect, it has been possible for the EU to make considerable progress in Chisinau. If that gives way to active sabotage from Ukraine, the Eastern Partnership with Moldova is doomed.
Europe’s symbolic defeat in Ukraine and elsewhere makes it far harder to sustain even Georgia in its European orientation. We cannot require from small, poor, weak countries an appetite for risk that we do not accept ourselves. The worst result of a successful Kremlin power grab in Ukraine is that it emboldens Russian policy in Central Europe, the Baltics and the Western Balkans. Fanciful? Perhaps. But events of the past few years suggest that complacency about Russian aims and capabilities is unwise.
If the prospect of a successful crackdown is bleak, the consequences of an unsuccessful one look even worse. If the regime in Kiev tries and fails to impose its will on Western Ukraine, we could have something close to civil war on the borders of the EU. That involves not just human suffering (and quite possibly large numbers of refugees), but also economic dislocation and grave risks of outsiders being drawn in. What happens if someone – a real or invented band of nationalist guerrillas, say – attacks one of the east-west oil or gas pipelines? What happens if Russians in Crimea are targeted? It is easy to imagine the Kremlin demanding that its forces be allowed to restore order (and not much harder to imagine the Yanukovych regime accepting the “offer” of help).
It would be rash to assume that any conflict will be a clear one: in a fight between the grim skinheads of Svoboda (or still more radical groupings) and the riot police or interior-ministry troops of the regime, which side does Europe back? It is easy to imagine the fun the Kremlin propagandists will have with the idea of EU defending the proud heirs of the Galician SS.
If a crackdown fails, Ukraine’s territorial integrity could come into question. In a continent which likes to think it has settled border questions, that raises a series of unpleasant and frightening prospects.
It would be nice to think that Europe is seized of these dangers and doing everything to avert them. I see nothing of the kind. The overwhelming political and diplomatic priority is making the Syria peace talks in Geneva succeed. That requires Russian help. The appetite for confrontation with the Kremlin (which as I have argued is the real instigator of the crackdown) has never been lower. We also have a new German government, where the new foreign minister is wedded to the idea that dialogue with Russia, not confrontation is the answer. Some, such as the new special envoy for Russia Gernot Erler, even think that the answer to the problems of eastern Europe is explicitly to include Russia in discussions about the region’s future.
A further problem is “Ukraine fatigue”. Ukrainians of all stripes have exhausted Europe’s patience over the past years. The demonstrators may be at least in part photogenic and inspiring, but their leaders are not. Few European foreign ministers have the appetite to expend political capital at home in demanding that their governments do something to help a country which has never failed to miss an opportunity.
Such thinking is catastrophically wrong. Ukraine does not vanish just because it is frustrating and boring. Having failed to triumph with the misbegotten Eastern Partnership, Europe must now work even harder to avert disaster.
There are no good options. But there are options. One is to put pressure on the regime through its weakest point: the oligarchs. They have a long-term interest in staying rich, free and integrated with the West. A combination of visa bans, money-laundering investigations and ostracism would quickly get the message across that they cannot be free-riders on Ukraine’s future.
A related policy would be to apply visa sanctions to those involved in brutality and abuses. The United States, commendably, has shown that this is possible with its Magnitsky law, which penalises those involved in the death of the eponymous whistleblower, and in the $230m fraud which he uncovered. Europe, shamefully, has failed to follow suit. But it could.
Less effective, but still useful, would be public statements from public figures. The silence of most governments in the region is as striking as it is saddening. Hungary has just done an energy deal with Russia. Slovakia may be mulling a similar one. The Czech Republic lacks a government. Poland has done plenty already: Donald Tusk blames his foreign minister for the unpleasant surprises of the past months. He does not want more.
But that still leaves room for others. Parliamentarians, both at national and European level, have freedom to hold hearings, ask questions, invite guests, and kick up a fuss. Even municipalities can do their bit. The media can make sure that the atrocities are properly covered. Universities can offer places to students and faculty purged for their views. Civil society can reach out to their beleaguered counterparts. The calculation from the Kremlin is that Europe is too tired, too divided, and too ineffective to defend its interests and values in its eastern neighbourhood. Our behaviour this week suggests that the Kremlin is right in this view.