The situation in Ukraine has gone from bad to worse. The country is wracked by three broad crises, each linked to the other and requiring comprehensive action. First is a debt crisis that is all too familiar to countries of the eurozone which, without help from the IMF and the EU, will lead to state bankruptcy. Second is a quasi-rebellion in eastern parts of the country demanding closer ties with Russia. Lastly, Ukraine’s very sovereignty is under threat from its powerful neighbour which last month swallowed up a southern region of the country – Crimea.
And things are getting further out of hand.
Protests in eastern Ukraine have turned nasty. Armed groups recently took over municipal and regional government buildings, erecting barricades and preventing the local administration from going about its work. Scuffles quickly broke out between citizens loyal to Kiev and those in favour of joining Russia, prompting the Ukrainian government to send in troops and restore order. Bodies are being claimed on both sides and the threat of civil war is looming. But there is an even darker shadow lurking across the border.
In a recent speech, Vladimir Putin made it disturbingly clear that Ukraine is not just Russia’s backyard, but part of its own house. Those of us acquainted with medieval history will be aware of the cultural significance of Kiev to Russians. Ukraine’s and Russia’s pasts have been interlinked for centuries. Yet having 40,000 well-armed and battle-hardened troops sitting at the border is a worrying reminder of how Russia has been dealing with countries it considers a ‘nuisance.’ When Mr Putin invoked the right of Crimeans to choose which state they wanted to be part of, he was conveniently forgetting to apply that same logic to the Chechnyans.
Mr Putin invokes the right to interfere in another country’s affairs if ethnic Russians are threatened. He is sabre-rattling. Having already annexed Crimea, he is indifferent to the rest of the world’s protestations and is instead preparing the excuse he needs to intervene militarily in eastern Ukraine. There is little doubt that Russia has agents on the ground who are deliberately stoking the high tension in cities like Luhansk.
Meanwhile the EU has lost its chance to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Ukraine.
After the annexation of Crimea, Europe’s leaders should have sent a strong signal to the Kremlin. Instead they were able to come up with sanctions against only 21 people, almost half of whom were Crimeans and who didn’t have Russian nationality until a month ago. The Ukrainians now find themselves in the unenvious position of being in no-man’s-land: too far forward to have EU and US support, too far back to reconcile with Russia, and too far apart to show real national unity.
Although new sanctions are currently being pronounced against Russian figures close to Mr Putin, it is probably too little too late. The EU has wavered and shown it isn’t ready for a big role in geopolitics. The soft power mix of democracy and diplomacy is still no match for people like Vladimir Putin who have hard power to back their arguments and who don’t play by the same rulebook.
Mr Putin calculated that the EU would struggle to stand up to him. He was right. Much has been made of the catastrophic impact Russia cutting off gas supplies to Europe would have as a form of retaliation for European sanctions. But, interestingly, it is the countries geographically closest to Russia, those historically tied to Moscow, and those who are most dependant on it for gas who are also calling for a tougher approach to Mr Putin’s predatory behaviour. Lithuania, Poland or Estonia have most to lose, yet they are the ones calling for a more ambitious EU policy towards Russia.
For all its talk of reducing dependence on Russian gas and supporting Ukraine, the EU still has a long way to go before its statements are fully backed by action. Half-hearted measures aren’t enough, especially if they are supposed to make Mr Putin think twice about doing something he has decided to do a long time ago.