_ Anatol Lieven, professor, director of Research on Terrorism and International Relations at King’s College, London, senior fellow of the New America Foundation Fund, Washington. 20 October 2016. Published for debate.
The struggle between “the West” and Russia over Ukraine has been decided, and everyone has lost. The Ukrainian disaster itself will continue, and may well lead to further crises in relations between Russia and the West; but if so this will be one of the most tragically unnecessary disputes in modern international history, for there is literally nothing left for the West and Russia to fight about. There are no conceivable circumstances in this age of the world in which Ukraine as a whole will join either the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) or the European Union and NATO.
The origins of the Ukrainian conflict lie precisely in this choice – a choice that Ukraine should never have been forced to make and which was always likely to ruin the country. In 2013, Russia invited Ukraine to become a member of the Eurasian Economic Union. In order to block this, the European Union responded with an offer of an Association Agreement with the EU: not EU membership or a realistic prospect of ever getting membership, but enough to make accession to the EAEU impossible. Russia responded with a greatly increased financial offer; in response tens of thousands of Ukrainians began a color revolution in Kiev, and by early 2014 this had become the rebellion that brought down the legitimate Ukrainian government and triggered the Ukrainian conflict.
There is a lesson in this that all future Russian governments should remember: that so great is the opposition in large parts of the Ukrainian transatlantic elite to membership of any Eurasian bloc that any move by a Ukrainian government to join such a bloc – in whatever form- will trigger Western backed mass protests that can in the end only be suppressed by mass violence. Even if at some unforeseeable point in future the Ukrainian government could be brought to take such a step, the resulting deeply unstable Ukraine would not be an asset to Russia but on the contrary a permanent and crushing liability.
Ukraine genuinely is of vital importance to Russian history, identity and interests. As far as Western countries are concerned, their “engagement” in Ukraine amounts to little more than amateur play-acting. If Russia has not acted more decisivly in Ukraine, it is not for fear of anything that NATO’s military would do, but that such a Russian move would shatter any possible basis for a future German-Russian entente, on which hopes of future Greater European stability may ultimately rest.
It has become equally obvious that Ukraine will never join the European Union – assuming that the EU in its present form even survives the next decade or so. I do not know a single expert on European affairs who still honestly believes in Ukrainian membership as a possibility. On the side of the EU, the British vote to leave the organisation, the Dutch vote to reject a partnership agreement with Ukraine, and the steep rise in support for anti-EU patriotic parties across Western and Central Europe show conclusively that European publics simply will not accept the colossal additional financial burden of helping Ukraine to acquire EU membership. The only present or future value of Ukraine to the EU is as a source of cheap non-Muslim migrant labour – and that does not require EU membership. Indeed, the poorer Ukraine is the more such labour it will provide.
As for Ukraine, during the two and a half years since the overthrow of legitimate President Yanukovych, the country has not advanced but on the contrary declined catastrophically, for reasons that every honest and sensible Western observer should have been able to predict. The deliberate break in economic relations with Russia has devastated the Ukrainian economy and reduced Ukraine to nothing more than a provider of a few minerals to the West.
Politically, the need to maintain an implacably anti-Russian stance amidst a collapsing economy and deep discontent in the population has reduced the administration in Kiev to dependence on a combination of corrupt oligarchs – by far more rotten as those who supported Yanukovych – and extreme nationalists. Between them they violate every one of the EU’s core principles. There is no serious sign of the emergence of powerful new democratic and reformist forces, nor is it easy to see how such forces can possibly emerge in the situation now prevailing in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian regime is too weak to make peace with Russia, for that would tear its fragile base apart. So Kiev can neither fight nor talk – a feature that it shares with the government of another US proxy-state, Afghanistan. The West too does not dare to bring real pressure to bear on Ukraine for fear that the whole rotten edifice will collapse in ruins.
So while Western governments and the media have complained bitterly about Moscow’s refusal to disarm its proxies in the Donbas, the Ukrainian government and parliament have done nothing – and been allowed to do nothing – when it comes to implementing their side of the political conditions of the Minsk agreement, the development of a new constitution guaranteeing autonomy of the Donbas and constitutional defences for the Russian-speaking regions.
Given that neither the West nor Russia have anything of value left to win in Ukraine, rationality suggests that they should come to a reasonable agreement between themselves and then impose it on their respective Ukrainian proxies. But given the nature of the debate – to give it that name – on Ukraine in the West there seems no realistic chance of this. At least however a recognition of how non-existent the potential winnings in Ukraine really are should discourage the Russian and Western governments from making any further bets in this race.