Addressing the situation in Ukraine is an obvious choice for this blog’s first post. The next few days are critical for the country’s future. In addition to revolutionary turmoil, financial meltdown and secessionist movements, the new interim Ukrainian government now faces an invasion of its territory by Russia, which is threatening to annex the region it is occupying.
The European Union should do all it can to prevent Ukraine from falling into the abyss. It has been supportive of the protesters on Kiev’s streets who faced up to former president Viktor Yanukovych, and Catherine Ashton, in her role as EU foreign policy coordinator, has spent months trying to broker a deal between Ukraine’s political opponents.
The EU also has the economic muscle to bail out the Ukrainian administration and must prevent Russia from taking unilateral military action. Yet, in its handling of the situation so far, the EU has made errors. It has also been sluggish to react to a rapidly changing situation. Can it now make amends for these mistakes?
As with all revolutions, changes have taken place at lightning speed. After Mr Yanukovych’s flight, an interim government formed and reversed the country’s former direction: rather than look to Russia for support and money, Ukraine would now face westwards to the European Union.
But the EU has miscalculated in giving its support to the new authorities in Kiev simply because they are Mr Yanukovych’s successors and favour more integration with Europe.
It is clear that some of the far right elements heavily involved in Euromaidan, as the Kiev protests have come to be known, are now sitting in the new government. The EU now finds itself supporting men like Andriy Parubiy, who holds a hugely important position as the head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council. Unfortunately, he is also the founder of a political group that styles itself on Hitler’s Nazi Party. The deputy Prime Minister, Oleksandr Sych, is a member of the far right Svoboda party, which calls for a revolution against Russian and Jewish domination.
It didn’t take long for the new government’s hostility towards Russia and ethnic Russians to surface. One of its first moves was to repeal a law that gave regional rights to Russian, a language that is mother tongue to a quarter of the country’s population. In an already dangerously divided country, where the political faultlines have more or less followed ethnic and linguistic lines, this decision has inflamed relations between the country’s western and eastern halves. Worse, it has given Vladimir Putin the excuse he needed to justify Russia’s intervention.
By invading Crimea, Mr Putin is close to achieving his twenty year old dream. Crimea is culturally and militarily important to Russia, and its majority ethnic Russian population is under threat from an unfriendly government in Kiev, or so goes the Kremlin’s narrative.
In so doing, Mr Putin has taken the EU and the US by surprise and out-manoeuvred them. Yet it was all rather predictable. Russia hasn’t gone to great lengths during the last twenty years to conceal the importance it attaches to Ukraine. As long as Mr Putin could have a say in how Ukraine was run, he remained satisfied. When things started going sour for his ally in Kiev, the Kremlin had a plan B. But did the EU? Did it even consider that Russia would take military action? The answer is a very likely no. With 150,000 drilled and well-equipped Russian troops now massed at the border, the EU shouldn’t claim to be surprised if they are used to take over other parts of eastern Ukraine with significant ethnic Russian minorities.
The US and the EU have rightfully ruled out military intervention. Instead, they should place heavy sanctions on Russia that make Mr Putin think twice about annexing Crimea or going into eastern Ukraine. However, when it comes to foreign policy, the EU rarely moves quickly, or in unison. Europe’s leaders were painfully indecisive during the last European Council. Clearly, countries like Germany,France or the UK do not share the same sense of urgency about Russia’s actions as the Swedes, the Poles or the Balts do.
The other problem is that the EU is handicapped by its economic interests and strangled by its need for Russian gas. Several countries are unwilling to close up shop to Russian business for the moment. But far more important is the need to show Russia that it cannot come and go in the Ukraine as it pleases. Firstly, the EU should walk the talk and prepare much tougher sanctions against Russia immediately, even if it hurts Europe and its trade. This is a matter of principle which is too close to home to be ignored.
Secondly, the EU should offer, with the International Monetary Fund, a bailout package worth $15bn that ties Ukraine over the next two years. This will require the Ukrainian government to sign up to painful economic and political reforms that will be unpopular. But staving off a default of the country’s public debt is far more important.
Thirdly, the extremist elements of the interim Ukrainian government should be told to go. They are dangerously partisan and divisive in a country that is crying out for unity and inclusiveness. This would calm tensions between the western and eastern halves of the country and calm secessionist fervour in some regions.
The problem is that without the EU addressing all three of these points quickly, the situation could change rapidly and Ukraine be heading for freefall. After encouraging the Ukrainians to rid themselves of Viktor Yanukovych, the EU can not let the new government face an avalanche of problems on its own. It needs to step up its game now.