The “Consequences” for Ukraine and the Transatlantic Partnership

After months of tension, outbreaks of horrific violence, and political concessions, we have witnessed an extraordinary transformation of Ukraine, as the symbolic Maidan Nezalezhnosti—or Independence Square—has transitioned from protest zone to war zone to uneasy political truce. It is difficult to imagine that a mere 24 hours ago we feared that Ukraine had tragically slid toward a devastating civil war. Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych had lost control over portions of his country and seemed poised to allow the military to become involved in the crisis. With the signing of a new agreement between Yanukovych and opposition leaders this morning, the violence has currently subsided. The question remains, however, will this last?
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have been protesting in the now blood-soaked Maidan since demonstrations began on November 21 have always known what has been at stake: their future—a future that is anchored in the West rather than chained to the East. These citizens are willing to fight and die for this future as well as risk the breakup of their country.
President Obama suggested this week that “there will be consequences if people step over the line,” should the Ukrainian military or government forces become actively involved in the crisis. The United States has slapped visa sanctions on 20 Ukrainians. Further measures have neither been articulated nor are future U.S. financial and humanitarian assistance packages to Ukraine in the immediate offing.
The European Union—having previously resisted calls for sanctions and opting against international mediation—sprang into action by announcing visa sanctions, asset freezes, and a ban on certain equipment that could be used against demonstrators. The foreign ministers of Poland, Germany, and France were deployed to Kyiv and produced an effective shuttle diplomacy effort in cooperation with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s recently appointed envoy to the crisis, human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin. This effort, combined with political desertions from Yanukovych’s party, have produced a signed agreement by both Yanukovych and opposition leadership that will stem the slide toward the abyss of civil war for now. Yet it is far from certain, after the extent of bloodshed and violence suffered, whether this concession will be fully accepted and embraced by the Ukrainian people.
It was a missed opportunity that neither Secretary of State John Kerry nor his able deputy, Bill Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, joined Ministers Radoslaw Sikorski, Laurent Fabius, and Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Kyiv. Mr. Kerry was in Paris with the French foreign minister before he left for Kyiv. Such a “quartet” of foreign ministers would have been a powerful symbol of transatlantic unity in the crisis.
If—and it is a big if—the announced political transition process begins to take hold, there must be concerted transatlantic action over the coming weeks, months, and yes, years. Some immediate steps that could be considered include joint EU, U.S., and Russian funding of a special appeal by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to provide medical and humanitarian assistance to all affected parties of the conflict. If invited and should conditions allow, the European Union should consider sending an unarmed monitoring mission to Kyiv, similar to its current monitoring mission in Georgia, to begin to rebuild confidence between the parties.
Politically, the new agreement to return the Ukrainian constitution to the pre-2004 balance of powers between the president and parliament is promising. The timing of early elections, to occur no later than December, seems too long and too uncertain a political path after the last several days of extraordinary violence. This is true for both a highly fragmented opposition, particularly with the return of Julia Tymoshenko to the political scene, and for Yanukovych, his family, and his inner circle.
Should the political tensions diminish, full attention must be given to Ukraine’s solvency. An IMF team must return to Ukraine with a focus on immediate economic stabilization measures. The United States and the European Union should reprogram aid funds designed to help Ukraine’s economic recovery in close coordination with the IMF. The European Union should eliminate tariff and trade restrictions to help alleviate likely trade reprisals and natural gas reductions from Russia. The United States and Europe will never equal the economic power that Russia has over Ukraine, but they must offer support toward reform and improved management over the Ukrainian economy.
A decade ago there was a belief that, after a century of conflict, Europe was “free, whole and at peace” following historical expansions of NATO and the European Union to Central and Eastern Europe. If this belief was not shattered in 2008 during the Georgian-Russian conflict, now it has been completely shattered by the crisis in Ukraine.
The magnetism of the West is no longer sufficient as a policy. A new transatlantic approach toward this region is urgently needed because the previous policy has failed. The United States would like Europe’s Eastern neighborhood to be Europe’s sole responsibility. Without question, Europe must take a more pro-active and strategic role in its Eastern neighbors. This stated, while Europe has come late and reluctantly to this conclusion, its recent level of senior engagement is encouraging, as is its potential financial assistance (the carrot) and the implementation of future sanctions (the stick) toward the region.
But the United States needs to remain equally engaged on both diplomatic and financial fronts in the region after the cameras switch to the next international crisis. Ukraine and Europe’s Eastern neighbors border both the European Union and NATO. The United States has its own responsibility in this region as a strong and consistent partner to the Union, not dropping in when a crisis erupts only to leave the cleanup to others. Interestingly, it may have been the Ukrainian military’s long-standing relationship with NATO, the United States and its close partnership with the Polish military that ultimately prevented further loss of life and potential civil war. U.S. engagement makes a difference.
Unfortunately, the European Union and the United States view Ukraine through the lens of a restive and resurgent Russia, which gives both sides pause to take pro-active steps. The Eastern neighborhood was never included as part of the U.S.-Russia reset policy, but it must now be addressed and clarified. This crisis and future U.S. policy toward the region should be viewed through the lens that transatlantic interests are best served by a Ukraine that looks toward Europe and the United States for inspiration and becomes a stable and prosperous country on the border of the European Union and NATO. Tragically, Putin’s Russia will never see Ukraine in this light, but that should not deter transatlantic policy.
While this may not be a Cold War chessboard, as President Obama noted this week, let us be very clear on what it is: lines and spheres of influence have been drawn in this region (for quite some time), and these lines have dramatically hardened. President Obama and many in Europe may not wish to see it this way, but this new division in Europe has “consequences” for American and European national interests, and we need a new and sustained transatlantic policy approach to fully address them.
Heather A. Conley is a senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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