By Thanos Dokos *
The rapidly unfolding crisis in Ukraine has become Europe’s most serious post-Cold War challenge since the Yugoslav Wars. Europe and the US have consistently underestimated and/or failed to understand Russian President Vladimir Putin and the “siloviki’s” objectives and ways of thinking. In the case of Ukraine, Europe has seriously mishandled the crisis. There was ample warning about Russia’s annexation of Crimea that went unnoticed. In 2008, for example, Russia had attempted to use Kosovo’s de facto independence after the NATO intervention as a justification for obtaining international recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Of course NATO argued that this was an “exceptional case” which should not set a precedent in international affairs. And upon comparison of the situations, no real threat against Russian-speaking citizens was documented in Crimea, whereas the Kosovar Albanian community was faced with a real security threat. Furthermore, during the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, Putin sent a clear message that he was prepared to use military force to promote foreign policy objectives.
Despite US President Barack Obama’s “reset” of relations with Russia, Washington failed to take into consideration Russian interests and sensitivities in two other important cases: Libya and Syria. In the former case, Western powers (justifiably) went beyond the provisions of UNSC Resolution 1973 in supporting regime change in Libya, but completely ignored Russian interests in that country and Moscow’s need to be treated as an important player and given a seat at the decision-making table. Efforts to manage the Syrian civil war have been unsuccessful thus far for a variety of reasons, and US and European reluctance to intervene militarily in that conflict has given Putin the opportunity to win the first round, boosting both Russia’s international image and his own self-confidence.
The current political and economic crisis in Ukraine began at a time of limited US interest in the post-Soviet space (in the context of the strategic pivot to Asia) and of a deep, structural European crisis also affecting EU global and regional policies, including the rather limited political interest in and financial support available for the Eastern Neighborhood Policy. Under those unfavorable circumstances, the EU decided to make a rather half-hearted attempt to draw Ukraine – a country heavily indebted and highly dependent on Russian energy – closer to a European orbit. The financial support that would have been provided through the proposed agreement, in order to balance the costs of opening further the Ukrainian internal market to European firms, was so low that it would have guaranteed a deterioration of the Ukrainian economy in the short term, only for the country to enjoy some long-term benefits if all went according to plan. This European initiative obviously underestimated the perceived importance in Russian eyes of a friendly or, at worst, neutral Ukraine. Ignoring the fact that Putin had the motive, the means and the opportunity to react strongly to European openings toward Ukraine was a fundamental mistake at the strategic level. It was quickly followed by other tactical blunders.
First, European countries offered unconditional support to all opposition forces, irrespective of their ideology and democratic credentials, even to the extent of senior European politicians openly supporting the protesters in Maidan Square. Secondly, after the February 21 agreement, major EU countries acquiesced to the formation of a temporary government composed exclusively of pro-European (and essentially anti-Russian) political parties, without any participation of pro-Russian political forces. To make matters worse, a number of extremely radical politicians and parties either became coalition partners or were appointed to key positions by the new government, one of the first actions of which was to draft a new law (never ratified) that would limit the rights of Russian minorities.
It is of little practical importance that there was no real threat against the Russian minority either in eastern Ukraine or in Crimea. Putin never hid his intentions to rebuild Russia’s sphere of influence in the former Soviet space, and here the pretext was given to Moscow to move forward with a not very subtle, but well planned and executed military operation to reclaim Crimea. Of course, the Crimea referendum was illegal but so was – at least from a constitutional perspective – the overthrow of the country’s President Viktor Yanukovych, which provided Moscow with yet another convenient excuse to intervene.
It should also have been clear that Russia is not a postmodern power. Putin is playing by traditional foreign policy rules (the use of hard rather than soft power) and he would have jumped at the opportunity to retake Crimea and bargain with the West from a position of strength. At the same time he spectacularly improved his domestic standings by rallying the Russian population around the nationalist cause.
It is highly possible that Putin has miscalculated the long-term consequences of his actions, what effect a change of borders by force might have for multiethnic Russia and the impact on Moscow’s relations with former Soviet states where large Russian minorities reside. And he may miscalculate even further by continuing to destabilize eastern Ukraine while underestimating the political and economic vulnerability of Russia. And this will undoubtedly be an even more serious challenge for European security. To be more successful in the next rounds of this high-stakes game, it is of critical importance that the EU looks at its own management of the crisis and draws the necessary conclusions.
* Thanos Dokos is director of the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).