Irvin Studin For The Straits Times

Why Asia is the key to the Russia-Ukraine conflict

The writer says India is the ideal Asian country to send a peacekeeping mission to the conflict zone in south-east Ukraine, where the Ukrainian military (above) is battling pro-Russian groups.
The writer says India is the ideal Asian country to send a peacekeeping mission to the conflict zone in south-east Ukraine, where the Ukrainian military (above) is battling pro-Russian groups.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Strange though it may seem, Asia can and should play a pivotal role in resolving Europe's biggest crisis since the end of the Cold War.

As the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France gather in the Kazakh capital Astana on Wednesday to try to find an exit to the conflict between Russia, Ukraine and the West, many Asian analysts and political leaders will doubtless have a poor understanding of the genesis of the conflict, its consequences for future world order, and how, if at all, a resolution can be engineered. This poor understanding is, alas, shared by many Western analysts and political leaders.

Any solution to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict must reckon with the basic fact that the Ukrainian revolution and the subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea effectively resulted in "two houses radicalised" - but radicalised in different ways.

Ukraine's radicalisation came in the form of the rise and proliferation of ultra-nationalist militias that not only provided the sharp end of the revolts that toppled president Viktor Yanukovych last February, but have also been a key part of Ukraine's subsequent military campaign in south-eastern Ukraine. These militias are loosely beholden to the new government in Kiev and will not be easily disarmed and demobilised. Any peace with Russia must not disappoint these militias, as this could lead them to topple the Poroshenko-Yatsenyuk government.

For its part, Russian radicalisation comes from the romantic nationalist euphoria triggered by the annexation of Crimea. This annexation, however "biblical" in scope, was a response by Moscow to the extra-constitutional removal of an elected Ukrainian president, incompetent but otherwise friendly to Russia, by militias that now have a major say in the terms of Ukrainian government and strategic behaviour. It was equally a response to perceived Western cover for this extra-constitutional removal - in Russia's analysis, possibly in order to expand the borders of Nato.

Western sanctions and the dramatic drop in the price of oil have now plunged Russia into severe economic crisis.

A solution to the Ukraine crisis that sees these sanctions lifted is arguably the only short-term fillip for Russian exit from this economic crisis, and, therefore, Ukraine's only hope for territorial reconsolidation in the aftermath of terrible civil bloodshed.

But this exit must be sufficiently elegant to give both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko the appearance of victory before the more extreme flanks of their domestic constituencies.

Systemic collapse in Ukraine would bring to power radical elements that would make the prospect of European-style democracy an absurdity for that country. More worryingly, systemic collapse in Russia would have global consequences of century-long resonance. Such a collapse would be devastating for the future of the European Union, and would leave the international community impotent before complex challenges, such as nuclear proliferation, the stability of the Middle East, the Arctic, and even security in North-east Asia.

Enter Asia.

Four of the five points I have been proposing to resolve the crisis are diplomatic-political in nature: reforms to the constitutional structure of Ukraine that strike a balance between federalism and non-federal decentralisation; an Australian-style indissolubility clause in the Ukrainian Constitution; special economic zones for the Ukrainian south-east; and permanent non-membership in Nato.

However, these points require a definitive cessation of fighting in Ukraine's south-east in order to relax all parties and refocus the national narratives in both Russia and Ukraine away from the growing body count and humanitarian crisis and towards the prospect of normalisation of their domestic politics and international relations.

The buffer zone created last September through the Minsk talks in order to separate the belligerents has not served its purpose decisively. Instead, it has created a security dilemma, with none of the parties trusting that the other will neither impinge on the zone nor use the downtime to prepare for the next battle.

What is needed immediately is the introduction of international peacekeepers into south-east Ukraine and along the Russia-Ukraine border. This, then, is the first and most important of my five points.

The problem: Russia will never accept peacekeepers from Nato countries. Ukraine, for its part, may not trust peacekeepers from the former Soviet space, given their economic and military interdependence with Russia. But experienced peacekeepers from an Asian country that is held in high regard in both Moscow and Kiev would probably do the trick - indeed, they would be welcomed with considerable relief by two capitals that are desperately searching for an out that does not compromise their core interests.

And so, I nominate India - a country with superior peacekeeping experience (currently the third-largest contributor of uniformed personnel to UN peacekeeping operations) and with a strong reputation in both Russia and Ukraine - as the ideal Asian candidate country to send a peacekeeping mission to the conflict zone. Of course, there may be one or more other Asian countries that would be nearly as good.

This mission should be under United Nations auspices (Chapter 7), and it should happen by spring. It should be quickly followed by developments on the five points above, including building an internal structure of the Ukrainian state, its indissolubility, special economic zones, and military neutrality for Ukraine. These complex solutions can be facilitated only by the Asian continent being invited to insinuate itself frontally into Europe's first major new-century conflict.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is editor-in-chief and publisher of Global Brief magazine, and president of the Institute for 21st Century Questions.