Jonathan Eyal

A way out for Ukraine

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Upcoming presidential polls will not solve Ukraine's woes. Its history and geopolitical realities call for unique solutions.

UKRAINE is going to the presidential polls at the end of this week a torn, bankrupt state, a country which is no longer secure about its national identity, let alone its territory. Yet, all the protagonists in this crisis believe that, somehow, the ballots themselves will provide a way out of the existing logjam.

Ukraine's revolutionary government assumes that it would somehow strengthen its legitimacy with a newly elected president. Its Western backers hope that, once a new head of state is in charge, Ukraine's current rulers will suddenly become efficient and incorruptible, qualities which eluded all their predecessors.

And, brooding darkly from the sidelines, Russia believes that the entire electoral process will fail, forcing the West to accept that Ukraine must eventually be carved up between its various minorities, with ethnic Russians getting the lion's share of the land.

Yet, everyone is likely to be disappointed. A new Ukrainian president will not signify the end of the power struggle, but merely the start of a new one. And although Ukraine will remain disfigured by ethnic violence, it will not break up into pieces as Russia wants.

The only way out of the crisis is for everyone involved in this conflict to shed current prejudices by accepting that Ukraine defies all stereotypes and requires some unique solutions.

Divide between east and west

IT IS simply wrong to suggest, as many Western governments continue to do, that the entire crisis was invented by Russia as a pretext for a land grab. For the reality is that, although Ukraine cannot be dismissed as an "artificial" creation, it has always been a very fragile state.

The problem is not so much a mixture of nationalities - at 17 per cent of the population, ethnic Russians are not that numerous - but, rather, the different mentalities of the country.

Western Ukraine, which used to be part of central Europe until World War II, is entrepreneurial and culturally vibrant. There are still people alive in that part of Ukraine who recall what it was like to live without Soviet communism.

But in eastern Ukraine, one would have to be at least 100 years old to recall life without communism, so the people look up to the state and state-owned enterprises for their livelihood.

The first duty of any Ukrainian government is to bridge this fundamental divide, but every single Ukrainian politician since the country regained its independence in 1991 has singularly failed in this endeavour.

Russia, of course, made matters worse by regularly blackmailing Ukraine over the price of oil and gas deliveries, and by exporting Russian corrupt practices.

But the biggest enemy of Ukraine has been Ukraine itself, as one statistical fact makes plain. Two decades ago, Ukraine's per capita wealth was similar to that of neighbouring Poland, as both countries shared a similar history and economic set-up. Today, however, Poles are on average four times wealthier than Ukrainians. That is the price of bad governance, and the blame lies squarely on Ukraine's political class.

Yet, if Russia is not to blame for most of Ukraine's internal failures, the West is not to blame for precipitating the current crisis either.

It is simply nonsense to say, as most Russian politicians, including President Vladimir Putin, continue to suggest, that the West tried to "snatch" Ukraine away by luring the country into membership of Nato, the United States-led military alliance in Europe. For nothing was further from the minds of all European leaders, and especially from that of US President Barack Obama, who has seldom displayed any interest in Nato as it currently is, not to speak of an enlarged alliance.

The fact is that, far from displaying any interest in Ukraine, the country was seen in the West as a security backwater: The British withdrew their military attache from Ukraine last August, under the assumption - which seems risible today - that the army officer had no useful job.

Instead, what the West tried to do was to tie Ukraine into an economic partnership with the European Union.

Traditionally, Russia used to welcome such initiatives. Moscow viewed the EU as an organisation spreading economic prosperity, different from Nato, which was suspected of trying to contain Russian military power.

However, what Western governments - and particularly European ones - failed to notice was that Russia had changed its position, and now viewed the EU as a "Nato in disguise", part of a project of spreading Western influence worldwide that should also be opposed.

This shift, of monumental strategic implications for the continent, was entirely missed by Western intelligence agencies which, in any case, long ago allowed their Russian or Ukrainian expertise to rot away.

And, instead of trying to talk to Moscow when it became clear that Russia was opposing Ukraine's association agreement with the EU, European leaders pushed harder.

In effect, the West forced Ukraine to choose between rejecting the EU deal and resigning itself to the status of Russian satellite, or accepting the Western offer but risking the country's territorial division.

In the event, Ukraine's leaders chose the former, only to end up with the latter outcome, the worst of all worlds.

But the tragedy was entirely foreseeable, and the West must shoulder the blame for plunging Ukraine into this disaster.

Still, a path out of the crisis does exist, even at this dire moment. It must start with an acceptance from all sides that they will not allow principles, however important, to stand in the way of finding a solution.

What to do with Crimea

IT IS silly for the current Ukrainian government and its Western backers to assert that they would "never" recognise the forceful annexation of Crimea and its incorporation into Russian territory.

That act was, of course, in breach of all international laws and norms, but it is unthinkable that Russia would return this land, so it would be imprudent to make Crimea a sticking point in the normalisation of Russia's relations with either Ukraine or the rest of Europe.

Indeed, and although the Ukrainian government will not ever admit it publicly, the loss of Crimea has not only removed a serious bone of contention with Russia, but also two million ethnic Russian voters from Ukraine.

Western governments would also do well to accept that, as illogical as it may seem, Russia's view of its own status and global influence is radically different from that of most other big powers.

While China's approach to boosting its influence is to encourage its immediate neighbours to share in China's economic boom and enjoy their own prosperity, Russia seeks to maintain influence over its neighbours by enforcing penury. The Russians believe that, the poorer their neighbours are, the more they are dependent on Moscow.

Cooperation between West and Russia

THAT means that any attempt to kick-start the Ukrainian economy would succeed only if it comes in cooperation, rather than competition, to Russian interests. And it also means that, like it or not, Western governments will have to be engaged in a dialogue with Russia about the form of a future Ukrainian Constitution, and especially over the measures of autonomy granted to ethnic Russians in the eastern part of the country.

The Russians may have an interest in a compromise for, while they are winning the current confrontation, Moscow cannot be sure of how long its winning streak will continue.

No doubt, many in the West will complain that such an approach is defeatist, that it merely rewards Russian aggression and consigns Ukraine to a Russian sphere of influence.

But the alternative is a long-running crisis which lasts years, if not decades, resulting in a torn-up Ukraine which still ends up under Russia's tutelage once Western governments tire of subsidising its corrupt governments, or move on to handling the next crisis.

History has undoubtedly been cruel to the people of Ukraine: They have tried to create an independent country three times during the 20th century, and failed twice. The least Europe can do now is to make sure that their third attempt produces a slightly better outcome.

And that means helping Ukraine face realities, rather than encouraging unrealistic expectations.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com