I was once taken to task by Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, for describing the countries lying between Russia and the EU – Ukraine and the other post-Soviet states to the north and south – as an ‘arc of instability’. The latest conflict in Ukraine, alongside unresolved disputes and simmering tensions from Belarus down through Moldova and across the Caucasus, underlines the latent risks to European stability in this arc. The West risks paying a high price for ignoring it.
Whatever the short-term outcome to the Ukrainian crisis – and there are many variables in the period up to the elections scheduled for 25 May – a lasting solution is not within sight. Ukraine is not a ‘prize’ to be won or lost by Russia or the EU. Ukraine, in its current state, is a liability, as shown by the costs of the mooted bail-out, some $15 billion from the IMF. It is a problem to which a lasting solution must come from within the country, but which will also require the active cooperation of both Russia and the West.
Two decades have been wasted in Ukraine. The euphoria of independence was not followed by a drive to develop a modern economy or a just state. A potentially prosperous country has been so mismanaged by administrations of differing hues that Ukraine’s economy has been the lowest performer in Central and Eastern Europe, falling behind Russia, even behind Belarus, and far behind Poland.
Despite that, a reversion to rule by Moscow has no attractions. Personal links with Russia are multifarious, trade with Russia is the norm, Russian investment in Ukraine – in banking, telecoms, natural resources, heavy industry – is huge and a peaceful and open border is highly desirable. But, for the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians, including native Russian-speakers, hard-won national sovereignty must not be surrendered.
It was striking that on 26 February Ukraine’s first two presidents, Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, who enjoyed good relations with Moscow, joined Viktor Yushchenko in demanding an end to Russian interference in Crimea. The Russian authorities, hurt and angry, are rattling their sabres. They should pause for thought and remember some of the lessons of the past. Were Russia forcibly to infringe upon Ukraine’s sovereignty, the consequences for Russia itself would be very painful: a manifest breach of international law, a profound alienation from the West and a relationship with their largest post-Soviet neighbour which, over time, would prove unmanageable. This would weaken, not strengthen, Russia.
For the West, two lessons need to be learned. The first is that Ukraine needs tough love. There is no point in pouring funds into Ukraine unless strict conditionality is applied. That would lead to more wasted decades. Ukraine needs a proper system of justice and institutions strong enough to bear down on corruption and provide decent and equitable governance. The new leadership in Kyiv will need to build a national consensus that bridges east and west, and that deals firmly with the extremist elements which have appeared on both sides of the barricades. These messages need to be buttressed by much more high-level attention from EU members than hitherto. While flitting in and out of Moscow over the years, most European leaders have been conspicuous by their absence from Kyiv.
When the immediate crisis subsides, it is high time that Western leaders gave more thought to the wider issue of European security and stability. This will not be the last time that the after-shocks of the USSR’s implosion cause tremors across Europe. The ‘arc of instability’ will remain just that for at least another generation.
There is a gaping hole in European security architecture: there is no forum in which to negotiate quiet solutions to simmering issues before they boil over, or to manage issues collectively when they do. It is all to the good that European leaders have been on the telephone to Vladimir Putin in recent days, but it is not sufficient. If this crisis can be resolved without a fundamental breach, ways need to be found of pre-empting the next one; of enabling all of the interested parties to argue out their differences in private rather than shouting threatening messages through megaphones.
For years the Russians have complained that they have been excluded from European security arrangements. They have a point, but it is also one which applies to other post-Soviet states. The aspirations of the EU and NATO in the 1990s to build a strategic partnership with Russia proved to be unattainable. The Russia-NATO Council has had some modestly useful results, but this does not change the fact that NATO is a military alliance, not a security forum, and does not include Ukraine. The OSCE includes all of the right countries, including the US, and in theory might have filled the role. But it has for years been sidetracked onto third-order issues and largely forgotten.
Up to now, Western governments, not without reason, have been sceptical of Russian security initiatives, such as those put forward by then-president Dimitry Medvedev after the Georgian conflict. The proposals were vague, and sounded too much like an attempt to limit the sovereignty of small states by negotiating over their heads. That is not a good reason for the West to fail to engage with the issue and put forward thoughts of its own.
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