The struggle between “the West” and Russia over Ukraine has been decided, and everyone has lost. The Ukrainian disaster itself will continue, and may well lead to further crises in relations between Russia and the West; but if so this will be one of the most tragically unnecessary disputes in modern international history, for there is literally nothing left for the West and Russia to fight about. There are no conceivable circumstances in this age of the world in which Ukraine as a whole will join either the Russian-led Eurasian Union or the European Union and NATO.
The origins of the Ukrainian conflict lie precisely in this choice – a choice that Ukraine should never have been forced to make and which was always likely to ruin the country. In 2013, Russia invited Ukraine to become a member of the Eurasian Union. In order to block this, the European Union responded with an offer of an Association Agreement with the EU: not EU membership or a realistic prospect of ever getting membership, but enough to make accession to the Eurasian Union impossible. Russia responded with a greatly increased financial offer; tens of thousands of Ukrainians began permanent demonstrations in Kiev in protest against Ukraine joining the Eurasian Union, and by early 2014 this had become the rebellion that brought down the Ukrainian government and triggered the Ukrainian conflict.
There is a lesson in this that all future Russian governments should remember: that so great is the opposition in large parts of Ukraine to membership of any Russian-dominated bloc that any move by a Ukrainian government to join such a bloc – in whatever form- will trigger mass protests that can in the end only be suppressed by mass violence. Even if at some unforeseeable point in future Ukrainian government could be brought to take such a step, the resulting deeply unstable Ukraine would not be an asset to Russia but on the contrary a permanent and crushing liability.
At least however Russia has the excuse for its mistakes and crimes in Ukraine that Ukraine genuinely is of vital importance to Russian history, identity and interests, and that the inability to bring Ukraine into the Eurasian Union leaves that organisation – a centrepiece of Russia’s entire international strategy – a feeble shadow. On the other hand, as far as Western countries are concerned, their “engagement” in Ukraine amounts to little more than amateur play-acting.
It has become embarrassingly obvious that there are no circumstances whatsoever in which the USA and NATO will fight to defend Ukraine, any more than they fought to defend Georgia in 2008. If any additional proof of this were needed, then the pitiful sums of additional US money and numbers of additional US troops allocated to Europe provide it. As for NATO’s European members, they could increase their troops and their military spending ten times over and they still wouldn’t send a single one of those soldiers to die for Ukraine.
If the Russian army has not marched and – without massively increased provocation – will not march into Kharkov, Dnipropetrovsk and Odessa, it is not for fear of anything that NATO’s military would do, but because of the much more real and effective threat of massive Western economic sanctions; and also because such a Russian move would shatter any possible basis for a future German-Russian entente, on which hopes of future European stability may ultimately rest.
It has become equally obvious that Ukraine will never join the European Union – assuming that the EU in its present form even survives the next decade or so. I do not know a single expert on European affairs who still honestly believes in Ukrainian membership as a possibility. On the side of the EU, the British vote to leave the organisation, the Dutch vote to reject a partnership agreement with Ukraine, and the steep rise in support for anti-EU nationalist parties across Western and Central Europe show conclusively that European publics simply will not accept the colossal additional financial burden of helping Ukraine to acquire EU membership. The only present or future value of Ukraine to the EU is as a source of cheap non-Muslim migrant labour – and that does not require EU membership. Indeed, the poorer Ukraine is the more such labour it will provide.
As for Ukraine, during the two and a half years since the overthrow of President Yanukovych, the country has not advanced but on the contrary declined catastrophically, for reasons that every honest and sensible Western observer should have been able to predict. The deliberate break in economic relations with Russia has devastated the Ukrainian economy and reduced Ukraine to nothing more than a provider of a few minerals to the West.
Politically, the need to maintain an implacably anti-Russian stance amidst a collapsing economy and deep discontent in the population has reduced the administration in Kiev to dependence on a combination of corrupt oligarchs – every bit as rotten as those who supported Yanukovych – and extreme nationalists. Between them they violate every one of the EU’s core principles. There is no serious sign of the emergence of powerful new democratic and reformist forces, nor is it easy to see how such forces can possibly emerge in the situation now prevailing in Ukraine.
So what the West has got in Ukraine is precisely what I warned of in a paper for the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington way back in 2004 (“Bobbing for Rotten Apples: The West, Russia and the Lands Between”) not a strong and effective buffer state against Russia, but a desperately weak liability, which cannot either be defended or defend itself and is a permanent source of potential crises.
Even worse, if the Ukrainian regime is too weak to stand up to Russia, it is also too weak to make peace with Russia, for that would tear its fragile base apart. So Kiev can neither fight nor talk – a feature that it shares with the government of another US proxy-state, Afghanistan. The West too does not dare to bring real pressure to bear on Ukraine for fear that the whole rotten edifice will collapse in ruins.
So while Western governments and the media have complained bitterly about Moscow’s refusal to disarm its proxies in the Donbas, the Ukrainian government and parliament have done nothing – and been allowed to do nothing – when it comes to implementing their side of the political conditions of the Minsk agreement, the development of a new constitution guaranteeing autonomy of the Donbas and constitutional defences for the Russian-speaking regions.
Given that neither the West nor Russia have anything of value left to win in Ukraine, rationality suggests that they should come to a reasonable agreement between themselves and then impose it on their respective Ukrainian proxies. But given the nature of the debate – to give it that name – on Ukraine in the West there seems no realistic chance of this. At least however a recognition of how non-existent the potential winnings in Ukraine really are should discourage the Russian and Western governments from making any further bets in this race.
Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and author among other books of Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry.