This paper is to be presented on 20th April 2017 in Warsaw at the conference on Ukraine by Matyas Benyik*
Dear Friends and Comrades,
It is a great honour to be here with you and present my paper, which will cover four points, namely:
1.) Development of the Ukrainian economic and foreign policy since 1991;
2.) The crises in Ukraine as geopolitical conflicts;
3.) „Frozen conflicts” in the post-Soviet space and their consequences;
4.) Is there a viable international, peaceful settlement process for Ukraine?
After the Soviet Union collapsed, a huge transformation occurred because of the critical role and geopolitical importance of Ukraine for both Russia and the European Union (EU). The former considers it strategically important not only as a littoral state at the Black Sea that borders on several EU member states but also a transit country for Russian gas. In turn, the EU occupies a cautious stance towards both Ukraine and Russia weighting positive and negative developments that its decisions may cause.
It is important to point out that in December of 1991, when Ukraine held a referendum about its independence, the former President of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, mentioned that he could not imagine the USSR without Ukraine. The results of the referendum in favor of independence finally caused the disintegration of USSR. The same scenario (with some different form) can be developed today, if Ukraine manages to be free from Russian influence, it would mean the beginning of Russia losing its geopolitical influence over post-Soviet space.
After the collapse of the USSR, Russia was trying to preserve its geopolitical influence as much as possible on the post-Soviet space. Russia still considers the zone as part of its strategic interests. Due to this, by ignoring the main principles of International law, Moscow was involved in a series of conflicts on the territory of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
The crisis in Ukraine can be described decisively as a geopolitical conflict between EU and Russia. The conflict can not be defined as either a Russian-US or a NATO-Russia conflict, as well as it is not a kind of continuation of the Russo-Georgian War. The emphasis is actually placed on the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU (which is actually only the equivalent of a political association without membership), consequently Ukraine does not gravitate toward either the Eurasian Economic Union or the Customs Union with Russia.
The so-called „frozen conflicts” are among the toughest challenges to Black Sea regional security, as well as to the national interests of several post-Soviet states. The conflicts are characterized by a previously not experienced massive military intervention and Russia is held responsible for the birth of the „frozen conflicts”. They include the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the conflicts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and the Transnistrian conflict in Moldova. There are differences between the first and the second generation of „frozen conflicts”. During the military operations the annexation was combined with separatism, which became not an ethnic, but rather a political separatism. The conflicts vary in scope, history and management options, but are structurally similar. Contributing factors, such as weakness of states, economic depression and external support are in place in each of the conflicts. Moreover, they create similar threats for the national security of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova.
Artificially „frozen”, or de-escalated, none of the conflicts have been fully resolved. Along with traditional geopolitical challenges, they are also sources of transnational threats.
Common wisdom holds that regional integration is one of the best possible responses to this sort of problem under given circumstances. But, despite numerous attempts to put „frozen conflicts” into the framework of different integration projects, they are still far from being resolved. Arguably, they are even further from resolution than ever before.
The development of Ukrainian policy can be characterized by the fact that Ukraine irreversibly shifted from Russia`s periphery to the EU periphery. In the nineties, Ukraine followed a so called negation policy, in which it determined what it does not want to be and what it wants to become. Ukraine did not want to be a part of the Soviet Union, it either did not want to have nuclear weapons within the country’s borders or did not want to belong to any political bloc. However, in the mid nineties, the multivectioral politics came to the fore in the Ukrainian political terminology, which was followed in 2004 by an unsuccessful opening to the West. This was the first Maidan.
The most important elements of today’s pro-Western approach of Ukraine are as follows:
the conclusion of the Association Agreement with the EU;
secession from the Commonwealth of Indepement States (CIS);
the security policy reversal;
the change of direction in foreign economic policy resulting in purchasing gas not exclusively from Russia. In fact, a higher proportion of the gas needed for Ukraine`s population is purchased now from the EU.
In terms of foreign policy priorities, Ukraine’s society is divided into two different camps with one of them following a European direction and the other one inclined to closer relations with Russia. The Ukrainian public opinion has changed greatly in recent decades. While in 2011 30-40% of the Ukrainian people would have approached the EU, in 2016 already 51% was pro-EU. This is what makes Ukraine’s stability fragile, and because of its geopolitical position, both the EU and Russia pay great attention to maintaining a high profile in any event that might radically transform the country’s orientation. In terms of destabilizing the inner situation, the media is the most influential actor in influencing public opinion or helping the government to stay in power. In this regard, Russia used the media in the Crimea to bring its inhabitants’ opinion to its side. In fact, the Ukrainian crisis started with the annexation of the Crimea and later moved to the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region.
Looking at the present crisis from a geopolitical perspective, one of the important features of Ukraine is that it is still regarded as the key to stable and secure oil and gas supplies from Russia to the EU. Nowadays, Russia suffers from the economic sanctions imposed by the EU, the US and other countries as well and it is gradually losing undisputed control over the whole Ukraine; therefore, it tries to diversify the routes of supplying energy resources via Ukraine to Europe. Taking into account that Ukraine enjoys a strategic location on the European continent, the question is: how will Russia export energy resources and which country can replace Ukraine as the transit one.
The Geopolitical Importance of Ukraine for Russia
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine became one of the main areas of competition among Russia, the United States and the European countries, especially Germany. Russia considered Ukraine as its backyard for a long time, because it transports gas and oil via Ukraine to Western countries. Due to this fact, Ukraine’s loyalty was crucial for the Russian economy to boost without interruptions.
The proximity of Ukraine naturally provides for lower oil and gas prices in comparison to other European countries. Nowadays, apart from being under political and economic pressure, Ukraine is suffering from Russian aggression as a result of which large parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are occupied.
The Geopolitical Importance of Ukraine for the EU
The importance of Ukraine’s location for both Russia and the West in terms of geopolitical calculations is already mentioned. Cultural differences between Ukraine’s two parts create a civilizational divide as well. Pro-European and pro-Russian moods in the West and East accordingly were actively discussed after the Orange Revolution of 2004. Western Ukraine is characterized by deeper cultural, linguistic, economic ties with the East European members of the EU; in turn, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and the Crimea always maintained closer ties with Russia. About half of the Ukrainians mistakenly believe that membership in the EU will bring them social prosperity, economic development and political stability. On the other hand, from the EU perspective, Ukraine serves as a buffer between the European countries and Russia.
It is also an important fact that according to the Association Agreement Ukraine began to build its economic relations and carried foreign trade more and more on the existing methodologies and standards modeled in the EU. This way a certain degree of economic integration is smuggled into the association.
Recent events in Ukraine have shown to the international community that about half of the Ukrainians expressed their readiness to protect the independence of the country and European identity despite the enormous losses. Since the spring of 2014 Ukraine has lost nearly 7% of its territory, 15% of the population, the death toll is estimated to be between 10 and 25 thousand. The war situation forced many Ukrainian families and citizens to move to other areas of Ukraine. In the wake of the internal migration more than 1,255,700 people was ousted from their homes. In addition, many people have moved to Russia, while only few migrated to Poland. However, it is strange that a mass migration to Western Europe is not observed.
At the same time, one of the main problems is that the separatist forces are supported by Russia in Crimea and Eastern provinces of Ukraine. Taking the strategic location of Ukraine into account, it is the key country between Russia and the EU. Besides that, it holds a significant position due to its entrance into the Black Sea and border with several EU member states; it is still the major transit country for Russian gas. Moreover, Russia still believes that Ukraine is its backyard, thus without it, Russia is not able to stay influential in the eyes of the international community. Also, Ukraine was important to Russia in terms of security calculations with its military and Black Sea Navy, based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol under a mutual agreement between the two states. At the same time, Russia is looking forward to increasing the size of its Navy on the Black Sea, which is perceived as a piece of its national security system and a factor of regional predominance in conflict with NATO. Russia also wants to prevent agreements that open the door to the EU. For the Europeans, the real meaning of the invitation does not mean joining the organization but making a decisive and critical civilizational choice.
The Geopolitical Importance of Ukraine for the United States
The importance of Ukraine`s geopolitics for the United States lies in the fact that many countries have an interest in Ukraine, but none more so than Russia does. However, despite the opinion prevalent in Kyiv, definitive geopolitical change in Ukraine is still under doubt. The United States recognizes the importance of Ukraine as a counterbalance to Russia’s influence but is unenthusiastic about taking serious risks.
The US has been trying to influence Ukraine but is currently pursuing extremely cautious behaviour because it definitely knows that local unrest may bring instability to the whole continent and the world as well, as is the case with East Ukraine.
Moreover, current events in Ukraine prove that nowadays the country represents one of the main centers of international politics. Probably, those factors have forced the West to think seriously about adopting sanctions against Russia (in comparison to 2008, when Russia pursued an aggressive policy against Georgia).
The current crisis in Ukraine still stays unclear in terms of the prospective challenges it will bring not only for itself but also for the world community as well. On the geopolitical map, while looking at this picture, we can clearly see that the crisis has been continuing between Russia, the EU and the United States because of their clashing interests.
The Ukraine crisis has had profound impacts on regional dynamics in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia as well. These impacts have, however, been ambiguous. On the one hand Russia has developed its influence through extension of the Eurasian Economic Union. On the other hand, Russia’s closest regional allies have suffered from the economic impacts which many see as a direct result of Russia’s precipitous actions. Russian unpredictability has also led nearby countries to look to alternative relationships, with each other but also with China, Iran, Turkey and India. The standing of the EU does not seem to have improved, however, and in countries where the EU has traditionally had a strong influence – Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Moldova – anti-EU sentiments have notably increased. While this has important implications for the EU’s international politics, the areas for development policy prioritised in the Wider Europe and similar initiatives are just as, if not more, relevant in the new circumstances as in the past.
Finally, I wish to mention the main steps of an international peace settlement efforts, namely the Minsk I, the Minsk Memorandum and the Minsk II, the Paris Agreement and the Berlin summit.
The main channels of the Minsk process are as follows:
the trilateral contact group in Minsk – the leaders of the key players and their representatives meet each other;
the so-called Normandy format is an ad hoc forum of high level leaders of Germany, Russia, France and Ukraine. The expansion of the format has been proposed and discussed throughout 2016. Last October President Putin said that Moscow did not oppose the inclusion of the United States;
and the Russian-US consultations.
When Minsk II was concluded in February 2015, the first iteration of a negotiated settlement, Minsk I, had irrevocably frayed. A major debate about the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine was under way in Washington, with the intent of helping Kyiv to establish a better balance of forces on the Donbas battlefield and deter further separatist/Russian attacks. The Kremlin wanted to head off the prospect of the United States unilaterally arming the Ukrainian military. Putin, therefore, preemptively moved to rupture this debate by switching to the diplomatic track. He negotiated a new Minsk agreement with Germany and France that put considerable emphasis on political concessions from Ukraine in addition to concluding another cease-fire. Moscow’s initiative was greatly facilitated by the fact that Germany opposed arming Ukraine for fear of further escalating the conflict with Russia.
The February 2015 Minsk II settlement that was to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region has yet to be implemented. There is little sign that Moscow wants a settlement, apparently preferring a „simmering” rather than „frozen” conflict, where it can turn the heat up or down to pressure Kyiv, and prevent Ukraine from allying with the West by associating with the EU and, the Kremlin fears, ultimately by joining NATO. Russian president Vladimir Putin has stalled on Russia’s compliance with the Minsk II agreement, waiting to see if these developments will weaken Western resolve and allow Moscow a freer hand in Ukraine.
In 2017, sustaining the diplomatic momentum around Minsk II will become especially difficult. In Ukraine, President Petro Poroshenko’s popularity is eroding. The country remains dependent on Western loans and assistance, and thus on the (already overstretched) goodwill of Western governments. The ongoing conflict distracts the Ukrainian government from much-needed domestic reforms, including tackling the culture of corruption that permeates Ukraine’s politics and economics. In Europe, key constituencies have pushed to end EU sanctions that impede trade and business relations with Russia, although Germany has thus far managed to maintain a unified EU stance.
Moscow prefers to use the conflict to destabilize Ukraine. The Ukrainian government argues that it should not be expected to implement political elements of Minsk II until Russia and the separatists implement the security provisions for a cease-fire and withdrawal of heavy weapons from the line of contact. If the security provisions are implemented, however, the Ukrainian government does not have sufficient parliamentary support to pass a constitutional amendment devolving governmental authorities to the separatist Donbass entities, in line with Minsk II. In sum, the process has little prospect of success unless there is a major change in Kremlin policy and an improvement in Kyiv’s political capacity.
Dr. Póti, L., Három évvel a Majdan után: az ukrajnai válság mérlege (Three Years after Maidan, Balance of Ukranian Crisis), Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Budapest, Hungary, 30 November 2016.
Girgin, D. Geopolitical Issues in the Current Crisis Between Ukraine and Russia
Journal of Social Sciences; Volume 4, Issue 1, 2015
*Matyas Benyik is the Chairman of the civil society organisation called ATTAC Hungary, which is a national chapter of the international ATTAC movement for democratic control of financial markets and their institutions. Prior to holding this position he worked for decades in different Hungarian foreign trading companies and was posted twice as a commercial attaché to the foreign service in Turkey and Syria. His career has been closley connected to practical foreign trade deals since the end of the 1970s. Being an economist and a social scientist, a qualified international economic expert, he is specialized in trade policy issues and economic integrations. He participated in several national and international campaigns against GATS and WTO, as well as antiwar, antifascist, anti-poverty issues.