A Deal Over Ukraine is Ugly But Unavoidable

UkraineMy Comments: Now that the University of Florida’s march to the national title game in basketball is behind us,  (Congratulations, guys, for giving us several months of enduring pleasure as we watched you grow and succeed!) it’s time to come back to earth and consider how life is likely to play out on other fronts.

What I see happening in the Ukraine and in Crimea brings, for me, a level of unease that suggests we need to really pay attention to this. It’s a reversion to what used to be the defining method of resolving conflicts that resulted in the Great War (WW1) and my fathers war, WW2. It involves some of the same players, is state on state, and could end badly for millions of people in Europe.

The dilemma for us is that we have little stomach or even ability to respond in kind to what the Russians are doing. True, not a lot of people have died, but the end game is a long way off. The internal rhetoric in this country is essentially mindless blather. There’s little, if anything, we could have done to prevent it, and now that the game is afoot, little we can do to reverse things.

All we can do is pay attention, and where possible, pull strings and hope for the best.

By Gideon Rachman / March 31, 2014

Any western leader negotiating over the fate of smaller countries in central or eastern Europe does so in the shadow of two bitter historical experiences: the Munich agreement of 1938 and the Yalta agreement of 1945. At Munich, the British and the French agreed to Adolf Hitler’s demands for the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia – without the participation of the Czech government, which was not represented at the talks. At Yalta, the British and the Americans made a deal with Josef Stalin that, de facto, accepted Soviet domination over postwar Poland and other countries under Russian occupation – again, without the participation of those concerned.

These parallels – in particular, Munich – are weighing heavily on western leaders as they attempt to chart a way forward over Ukraine. “We will not accept a path forward where the legitimate government of Ukraine is not at the table,” said John Kerry, the US secretary of state, at the conclusion of weekend talks in Paris with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.

Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, on Monday compared President Vladimir Putin’s claim that he is acting in defence of the rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine to Hitler’s claim that he was acting to defend the rights of ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia. The parallel has also been made by Mr Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton.

Yet even as Mr Kerry pledged not to strike deals over the heads of the Ukrainians, he was negotiating directly with the Russians – without a Ukrainian representative in the room. The reality is that if a Kerry-Lavrov agreement is eventually reached, accommodating Russian demands for a federal system in Ukraine and safeguards for Russian speakers, the government in Kiev will come under enormous pressure to accept it.

So are the Americans violating crucial principles in discussing the fate of Ukraine in bilateral talks with Russia? Or is some form of Russian-American negotiation both inevitable and necessary?

The bleak reality is that, as things stand, it is in the interests of both the west and Ukraine that talks are held with the Russians. To understand why, it is necessary to imagine the alternative scenario. There are at present thousands of Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s eastern border.

The US and the EU have made clear they will not go to war over Ukraine. Given that fact, a refusal to negotiate with Moscow is likely to be interpreted as a display of indifference rather than a display of strength. It could actually encourage a Russian military intervention, which would have tragic consequences for all concerned.

However, if further rounds of talks are going to be held with the Russians, it is crucial that they are not simply a fig leaf for a Munich-style capitulation. Fortunately, even though the west has made it clear that it will not fight over Ukraine, it still has real leverage over Russia. But if that leverage is to be used it has to be applied to protect principles that are genuinely defensible, both morally and in terms of the resources that the west can credibly threaten to deploy.

So what should those principles be? First, it is clear that the Russians would like the west simply to accept the annexation of Crimea as a fact – and move the discussion on to the rest of Ukraine. The west should reject this idea – a stance that would, incidentally, mark a clear difference with the Munich agreement, where the UK and France signed off on the annexation of the Sudetenland. A refusal to recognise Crimea’s legal incorporation into Russia could impose significant costs on the Kremlin. Crimea would become a black hole in terms of foreign trade and investment and a drain on Russian resources.

The second principle is to make clear that any Russian military move into eastern Ukraine would lead to a complete rupture in the west’s economic relationship with Russia. The EU is already studying the possibility of further sanctions. The nature and extent of any such measures should be spelt out as soon as possible – and they should exceed Moscow’s expectations.

Finally, the principle that the Russian government cannot demand changes in the constitution of a neighbouring state should be spelt out. That is simply too dangerous a precedent to establish.

Within that package of principles, however, there should be room for discussion of other Russian proposals – such as the idea of a federal Ukraine, guarantees for Russian speakers and an assurance that an independent Ukraine would not join Nato, or have a relationship with the EU that damaged Russia’s economic interests.

Any understanding that the Americans arrive at with the Russians cannot be imposed on the Ukrainian government in Kiev – both as a matter of principle and because Ukrainian politicians remain independent actors. Given that an informal Russian-US proposal on Ukraine would not come with the backing of a western military guarantee, or any certainty that it will be respected by Russia, the Kiev government will rightly be highly suspicious. But, unfortunately, Swiss standards of prosperity and security are not on offer.

For beleaguered Ukraine, a Russian-American deal, underpinned by the threat of the west’s economic isolation of Russia if it is violated, is probably the best prospect on offer at the moment. If that deal can be made to stick, it might just buy Ukraine the time to build a properly independent state.