How the clueless EU has fuelled the Ukraine crisis

If the Europeans are depending on America alone to defend their borders, then Washington will tire of defending them, says Alan Philps.

Stephen Walt, the Harvard professor of international relations, tried his hand this week at writing a five-minute degree course in his subject, to help students who had spent their university years studying finance or engineering and were perplexed at how the world works.

Most of international politics can be summed up in three words, he wrote on the Foreign Policy website: fear, greed and stupidity. But the key message his instant graduates should take with them was this: “The people in charge usually don’t know what they are doing.”

Professor Walt’s wisdom is clearly applicable when it come to understanding the crisis over Ukraine, which this weekend will hold a presidential election in an attempt to restore order to a country seemingly headed for civil war. Fear, greed and stupidity have all played their part in the crisis. But any objective analysis must conclude that the leadership of the European Union should take the prize for not having a clue what they were getting themselves into.

The crisis blew up in November last year over what might seem a technical issue: whether Ukraine, a country whose name means “borderland” and which has been disputed between Russia and Europe for centuries, should sign a trade and aid deal – a so-called Association Agreement - with Brussels.

As a notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional country, Ukraine was not being offered membership of the European Union – just some money and trade advantages in return for taking harsh medicine to modernise its economy. In the end, the then President, Viktor Yanukovich, got a more attractive offer from Moscow, including cuts in the price it pays for Russian gas and said No to Brussels

Reaction in Brussels to this slap in the face was muted. No political careers depended on the success of the Association Agreement, and there was not much money to throw at Ukraine.

In Kiev, however, pro-European activists set up a protest camp to demand the government align itself with the West. As the weeks passed, the battles with the riot police escalated, ultranationalist militias joined and eventually Mr Yanukovich was forced to flee in disgrace. In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin refused to accept what he called an illegal coup. Backed by a propaganda onslaught describing the new government as “fascists”, he seized the Crimean peninsula for Russia. Since then the Ukrainian government has lost control of much of the east of the country, home to a powerful and restive Russian-speaking minority.

On the positive side, the election of a new president should reveal the Russian claims that the Ukrainian government is “fascist” for what they are. The candidate for the right-wing Svoboda party, Oleh Tyahnybok, is expected to win less than two per cent of the vote, according to opinion polls. The next president is likely to be the businessman, Petro Poroshenko, who made a fortune from confectionery.

Voters are clearly hoping that Mr Poroshenko will actually know what to do to put the country together again. That cannot be said of the European leadership, which more than ever is subject to Professor’s Walt’s dictum that the people in charge don’t know what they are doing.

Responsibility in Europe is split a dozen ways so that no one has to take the blame. Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, has stated that there was “no geopolitical or strategic objective” in the proposed Association Agreement with Ukraine.

That suggests that the European Union treats even its most sensitive engagements on Russia’s borders as a bland technical process. This is not to say that Mr Putin was right to annexe Crimea, which is clearly contrary to international law. But it is astounding that the geopolitical ramifications of this negotiation were not weighed up.

As the crisis has progressed, the dithering among European leaders has deepened. Attention naturally has turned to Germany, the dominant country in Europe, to take a lead. But Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is a cautious politician, and her caution has been reinforced by the business lobby. The debate in Germany has generally been about losing jobs if sanctions are imposed on Russia, and the danger of disruption to Russian energy supplies.

A deeper issue is that Germany, which embraced pacifism after defeat in 1945, is still reluctant to be seen to wield any power abroad, even in a defensive posture. So profound is the lack of confidence that Germany is unwilling to take any step unless it is accepted by all that it is the right one, and cannot raise memories of the Second World War. This is a comforting recipe for doing nothing.

In response to Mr Putin’s seizure of Crimea and threats to invade eastern Ukraine, the United States has despatched contingents of airborne troops to Poland and the three Baltic states on Russia’s western border as tokens of the Nato alliance’s determination to defend them. The clear aim is to stop Mr Putin invading to protect his “compatriots” – the large minorities of Russian settlers.

Meanwhile, not a single German soldier has moved to join the Americans. Mr Putin can easily draw a conclusion that he has freer hand in Europe than he thought. The Europeans are not ready to match force with force. If the Europeans are depending on America alone to defend their borders, then Washington will tire of defending such flaccid allies.

With the Crimean seizure, Mr Putin proved to be a master tactician. It was a quick and decisive win. But the confrontation he has stirred up in the east of the country between Russian-speakers and Ukrainian nationalists, is open-ended and potentially much more serious. His goal may be to destabilise Ukraine and keep it – as for the past 20 years of independence – a quasi failed state. But his strategy is still unclear. If he is being led by nationalist hardliners at home and their pawns in eastern Ukraine, he may not be able to stop what he has started, which could be a disaster for the whole region.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter @aphilps

Published: May 22, 2014 04:00 AM

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