The state of votes
Cold War thinking will not bring peace to Ukraine
The Russian Conundrum
Fons Wilmes | 2015. March 13. 20:17
Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict is a direct challenge to the values of peace, cooperation and democracy that are central to the post-war European order. If the European Union wants to remain the legitimate guardian of these values it should use its influence to strengthen the pro-European forces in Russia. In doing so it should, however, not resort to the Cold War-style methods that are used by its challengers.
In 2012 the European Union (EU) received the Nobel Peace Prize for its advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe. In 2015, however, these values are directly challenged by the Russian involvement in the Ukraine conflict. If the EU wants to live up to its history of fostering peace it will have to show a constructive engagement to resolve this conflict and re-establish cooperation between Russia and the rest of Europe.
The European Union’s current approach of imposing sanctions on Russia will not help to bring this goal of re-established cooperation any closer. This is not so much a question of effectiveness, the first rounds of sanctions have been surprisingly efficient, but rather of what exactly the EU wants to achieve. If the objective of the sanctions is to cripple the Russian economy and alienate its political leadership from Europe, they could be considered to be highly successful. It is, however, naïve to think that sanctions will coerce President Putin and his supporters into respecting Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, which is the EU’s immediate goal. Instead they will only become even more convinced that it is in their best interest to develop Russia’s independence from Europe and to include Eastern-Ukraine into a Cold War-style sphere of influence to stop the European Union from ‘meddling’ in its immediate neighbourhood. Such a policy could easily result in a new division emerging across Europe, with a Russian-led bloc in the east and Western bloc based around the European Union.
Any move by the Russian leadership towards such a situation would seriously harm the prospects of a negotiated solution to the conflict in Ukraine. If Europe wants Putin to come to the table for serious negotiations it will have to establish a climate of mutual trust and cooperation between Russia and the West. Putin will have to realize that isolation from the European community is not in the long-term interest of his country, nor in his own interest. Only once he accepts the necessity of cooperation, will he be willing to negotiate a peaceful end to the current conflict.
Another way in which European sanctions harm the prospect of peace in Ukraine is through the effect they have on the public opinion in Russia. Putin’s approval ratings have soared to 88% since the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine and not even the shortages in Moscow supermarkets caused by the European sanctions have brought them down. In fact, we should expect approval ratings to keep rising as long as Putin can be seen as standing up to what Russian propaganda has successfully framed as the US-supported fascist regime in Kiev. The sanctions imposed by the European Union only foster anti-European sentiment among the Russian people, consequently weakening the support for liberal pro-European organisations in Russia that advocate closer cooperation between Russia and the West.
If the EU wants these civil society groups to prosper it will have to adopt a similar approach to the one that worked in its Southern member states in the period leading up to accession. This means that it will have to refrain from direct support to these organisations, as direct support from a foreign government is a death sentence for any organisation in an authoritarian state like Russia. Instead, the European Union should encourage civil society groups throughout the Union to work together with groups in Russia and provide training and general support. On the long-term such an approach can strengthen the position of liberal reformers within Russia, giving them the opportunity to challenge Putin’s authoritarian leadership.
Ultimately, the European Union’s commitment to a negotiated peace agreement in Ukraine can take two forms. Firstly, it can adopt the methods used by other actors and try to coerce Russia into respecting the ceasefire agreement that was negotiated in Minsk in February. This does however risk the alienation of both the Russian leadership and the Russian people, making any cooperation between Russia and the European Union nigh impossible. Taken to its ultimate form such a development could lead to a division in Europe reminiscent of the Cold War. On the other hand, if Europe tries to change Russian society from within, cooperation with Russia could be a lot more successful and long-lasting. This is not a quick solution to the current conflict, but it is the only one that can guarantee the long-term peace and stability of the European continent.
Justas Kidykas | 2015. February 22. 00:00
February 12th Minsk: Russian President Vladimir Putin, as a non-conflict participant, announces the ceasefire in East Ukraine. Despite the initial expectations, the aftermath has proven that neither separatist fighters nor Russians are following the accords signed by their own officials. Thus, the European Union must uphold and strengthen its stance and maintain a balance between further sanctions on Russia and continuous support of Ukraine in order to solve the ongoing crisis and prevent Ukraine from collapsing.
The ceasefire reached after 17 hours-long negotiations coincided with reports of a dozen of Russian tanks entering Ukraine through the unsecured border. A few days later, Ukrainian troops were surrounded in the city of Debaltseve by the pro-Russian forces and bombarded by heavy artillery, which, Putin is still claiming, were not transferred from Russia. Now, that the ceasefire agreement has been shattered, the European Union must take a more persistent position and reinforce its pressure on Russia.
One of the recent discussions among the Western leaders included a proposal of sending defensive military supplies to Ukraine, which, before the Minsk Summit, was considered as one of the “last resort” measures. Yet, it must be understood that military support would only escalate the conflict in Ukraine.
First of all, sending military armaments to Ukrainian Army would put the United States or the EU at the same level as Russia. Although it might look as the right and justifiable decision, the continuation of violence would not benefit any of the opposing parties. Casualties are already high: more 5,700 people have died, approximately 1.5 million citizens have been displaced.
Furthermore, such involvement from the Western countries could fuel Russia’s massive propaganda apparatus. To replace communism, while reviving Russia’s past glory, Vladimir Putin developed a nationalistic ideology, based on social conservatism and transnational ethnic boundaries. State-owned media created the idea that the “Anglo-Saxon world” has been antagonizing Russia. Further Western involvement in Ukraine would possibly ignite chauvinistic moods, and thus strengthen and legitimize Putin’s authoritarian regime. Recent polls have indicated that most Russians believe that foreign news sources are unreliable and deceptive, while, most of the independent Russian news outlets have been subjugated by the State. Therefore, the European Union should avoid resorting to military intervention, continue stressing the importance of economic sanctions on Russia, consider new measures and support Ukraine financially.
The sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and the EU have received a lot of criticism for being ineffective, or rather for not affecting the right sectors of economy or social groups.
Yet, quite the opposite is true: measures taken by the Western countries have worked much faster and done more damage to the Russian economy – and especially on the Russian oligarchy – than most officials have expected. The sanctions have denied Russian banks and companies the access to the international capital markets, thus affecting large conglomerates including Rosneft or Gazprom, and causing huge losses for the wealthiest businessmen in Russia. The efficiency of the sanctions is also due to a decline in global oil prices, without which the sanctions would not be that powerful.
It is clear that these sanctions affect civilians – the perfect example was the consumer crisis during the rouble shock. However the sanctions not only hurt Russian citizens but European countries as well. Ironically, the countries who suffer the most from the EU sanctions are the fiercest supporters of those exact sanctions, as they realize the danger of the Russian threat and empathise with the Ukrainian people. For instance, Lithuania is losing 1% of its GDP growth because of the ban on meat, dairy and green products and the loss of transiting transactions to Russia. Nevertheless, it is clear that the United States or the European Union would not risk having a war with Russia over Ukraine. This leaves economic measures as the only possible way to counter the Russian aggression.
Santions should also go hand in hand with support to Ukraine. The EU could help by spurring the implementation of the Association Agreement signed last year, which would increase its attractiveness internationally. Plus, European officials must put more pressure on the current Kiev government to reduce the bureaucratization of the national institutions and to eradicate the kleptocracy and oligarchy that was rooted in the Yanukovich administration.
Ultimately, neither the European Union nor Ukraine itself can determine the fate of Ukraine. Russian aggression will only end when Putin decides to end it. The only thing Europe can do without escalating the conflict is to continue to economically pressure Russia until Putin decides that it is way too costly to constantly supply the separatist fighters. The public support of Putin will doubtfully stay as strong forever. For instance there are already reports on how young soldiers are being sent to military trainings in Southern Russia, while actually they are being transferred to the battleground in East Ukraine.
Therefore, European counterparts must not leave fellow Ukrainians behind as they have chosen their path to leave away the post-Soviet sphere and join Europe.
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