Ukraine: Brave EU decisions are needed

10 лютого, 2015

Публікація на EUobserver

Once again in history, Ukraine has become the bloodiest place on the continent. Russian military aggression has already claimed 5,358 lives, according to the most recent UN report, and made around a million Ukrainians homeless.

Despite all the diplomatic efforts and concessions meant to appease Russia, there is no end to the bloodshed on the horizon.

The Minsk protocol – last year’s ceasefire accord – is dead.

The cause of death is clear: Russian aggression against Ukraine has bigger goals than the current territorial gains in Crimea and in the Donbas region in east Ukraine.

The failure of peace efforts does not come as a surprise. Since September, Russia has been pouring heavy modern weaponry into Donbas on a scale unprecedented in modern day military conflicts. It was clear that such a military buildup was not intended to respect the ceasefire.

For many long months, world leaders pretended to see no hard evidence of direct Russian aggression. The one valid reason for this was to leave the exit door open for Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

For the same reason, Ukraine has been fighting the “hybrid” war with a hybrid defence: it has restrained itself from announcing a state of war, even when parts of its territory were occupied, while conducting an “anti-terrorist” operation against Russia-controlled militants armed with tanks and rocket systems.

Putin, so far, does not want to make use of that exit door.

The recent, massive offensive by Russia-controlled militants and regular Russian troops against the Ukrainian army marks the end of illusions about a “diplomatic solution” in many capitals.

Even Belarus has tacitly recognised Russia’s presence in Ukraine by adopting a law to protect itself from Putin’s “green men”.

Almost a year since the beginning of Russia’s incursion in Crimea, it is clear that the initial response of the West to Russian aggression was ill-conceived.

Instead of hastily ruling out a military response to the conflict back in March 2014, the US president should have found courage to declare that his country will honour its obligations under the Budapest security memorandum – a 1994 treaty on protecting Ukrainian territorial integrity in return for its renunciation of its nuclear arsenal, which was co-signed by the US, France, the UK, and Russia.

A joint statement with the British prime minister and the French president would have made it harder for Putin to ignore the signal.

Instead, the Budapest memorandum has become a symbol of the failure of non-proliferation initiatives and of international law. Russia broke its obligations under the memorandum, and Western governments didn’t respect theirs.

Crimea was de facto sacrificed. But this kind of “diplomacy” only further encouraged Kremlin aggression.

Understandably, Western politicians do not have the luxury that Putin does to disregard the interests of their people.

Russian ‘diplomacy’

They do not want their nations to be dragged into a continental war. Putin’s decisions, however, are not constrained by such sentiments. The recent cuts in vodka prices are a good indication of what Putin thinks of Russian people.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, which suffered from Russian colonialism for centuries, even the most pro-Western politicians can hardly hide their disappointment with the West’s leniency towards Russia.

Last March, it would have been hard to imagine that it would take almost a year for a country under attack to establish in world public opinion that it is being invaded, not by some unknown masked men but by irregular and regular armed Russian forces.

But even today Putin “understanders” in the West find a way to deny proven facts, manipulate public opinion, and mislead their nations.

Western leaders are often accused of “bending” Ukraine into making concessions to Russia. For this reason many do not trust the mediation by European leaders. They remember the outcome of similar mediation in Georgia’s war with Russia in 2008.

The West is losing sight of the fact that Moscow has been undermining Ukraine’s independence through various strategies since the collapse of the USSR.

Russia continued to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty through cultural, economic, and political programmes.

Today, Ukrainians fear that Western diplomacy will result in a frozen, Transnistria-like scenario effectively creating a Russian stronghold in Donbas and Crimea from which to launch future incursions.

No one can explain to Ukrainians why Putin is the one who is making demands on the West.

Neither can it be explained why so many in the West are keen to push aside principles and make exceptions for Russian imperialism.

Many Ukrainians are upset the West fails to acknowledge the real threat of Russia “diplomacy” – in particular the Kremlin’s insistence on federalisation, or, in other words, the dismemberment of Ukraine.

From propaganda to Grads

Nevertheless, support for federalisation in Ukraine is so slim that Russia’s agents couldn’t win influence over Ukraine’s leaders or society.

That is one of the reasons why in 2014 the Kremlin had no choice but to switch from political propaganda to Grad rocket launchers.

People understand that autonomy for the Donbas puppet governments effectively means planting a ticking bomb under Ukraine’s statehood.

The so-called “rebellion” in Donbas was masterminded, organised, and co-ordinated in the Kremlin. It wass executed with the help of marginal local elements and members of the former president Viktor Yanukovych’s regime.

Russia-controlled militants overthrew the constitutional order in Donbas by means of military coup and terror against the local population.

One million refuges is a very clear indication that the conflict is not of local origin. It is not a civil war, but military aggression cloaked as rebellion.

Yet, despite the proven facts, Western media keep describing the aggression as a rebellion.

The plethora of evidence does not seem to make a difference.

Russian nationals heading the puppet governments and rotated at the command of Kremlin; a massive campaign sponsored by Russian state and oligarchs to recruit mercenaries to be sent to Ukraine; training camps in Russia under the command of Russian army officers training Russian nationals; thousands of Russian regular troops in Ukraine; tanks, artillery, rockets systems, and other modern weapons that have never been in the arsenal of any army but the Russian one; rocket strikes from within Russian territory; and, of course, the fait accompli of the Crimea annexation.

What kind of future is there for a region under the control of Russian proxies, who show ferocious hatred for Ukraine?

They have kidnapped and tortured activists, killed businessmen, banned Ukrainian history teaching in schools, cut short Ukrainian language lessons, re-organised courts to imitate the Russian judiciary system.

Ukrainian people’s veto

For all these reasons and more the Western mediation efforts risk delivering a compromise that will not be accepted by Ukrainian people.

Ukrainian society will not say Yes to losing to Putin just to let the EU go back to business as usual with Moscow.

This is why Ukraine’s president made several public statements meant to demarcate the limits to concessions on a Minsk-2 deal with Putin: no federalisation, no peacekeepers (a Russian diplomatic move that means to legitimise Russian troops on Ukrainian soil), and no Russian veto on Ukraine’s euro-integration.

No one in Ukraine doubts that a peaceful and democratic solution to the conflict in Donbas could happen quickly if Russian regular troops and mercenaries left the region and Russia stopped sending arms to the militants it controls.

Peace coercion

The refusal to send arms is increasingly seen as a betrayal both of Ukraine and of the principles on which Western democracies are supposed to function.

Supplying arms to Ukraine is perhaps the only move that could make Putin come to the negotiating table. In concert with stronger sanctions it could halt the Russian land grab.

Putin has shifted the world into a brutal, new era. He created a new precedent of international relations with no rules or laws. There are many governments eager to follow him. The Russian model could be used in the Pacific, Arctic, and Middle East.

Europe, whose citizens enjoy high incomes and extensive freedoms, has far more to lose in this context than the poor Russians.

Meanwhile, the rise of populist and radical eurosceptic parties in Europe indicates the EU is entering dangerous waters.

Soon, Russia might become a friendly nation helping European radicals to remove what it calls “corrupt and oppressive” liberal governments.

The military conflict in Ukraine is a threat to EU security, but European leaders are failing to communicate its dangers to their voters.

That is why we don’t see thousands of Europeans protesting against Russian aggression in front of Russian embassies. We don’t witness any large scale charitable efforts to support Ukrainian refugees. We don’t see media reports on humanitarian crises.

International financial support is not making up for even a tenth of the damage that Russian aggression has brought to Ukraine.

Ukrainians made their choice of allegiance on the Euromaidan and now the West, and in particular the EU, needs to make a real choice of its own.

Ukraine needs brave decisions from its partners.