Tuesday, May 26, 2015


Dipconsult 150526 Ukraine piece


Secretary of State John Kerry’s tweet (CNBC 12 May) “Had frank discussions with President Putin & FM Lavrov over key issues including Iran talks, Syria, Ukraine” is truly historic. For it could signal a determination on President Obama’s part to use the last 17 months of his presidency to usher in a period of cooperation in world affairs ending the resurgent neo-conservatives’ push for a Unipolar world dominated by the US. If – and it’s a big if - followed through, despite Republican opposition, there is real hope that the US and the EU can work together with Russia to make the Ukraine the benign hyphen joining the EU west and the Russian east of Europe that it should be instead of the present bone of contention.

Distributing the blame
Part of the Anglo/American media are presenting Kerry’s visit to Putin’s dacha in Sochi as a defeat for the Obama. But a change for the better would be a victory for both, and above all for that rare commodity, common sense. Hopefully the ‘West’s’ media will now come off its all-prevailing mantra that the Ukraine crisis is ‘all Putin’s fault’ and at last take into account what many ‘Western’ experts have long been saying about how the blame for the Ukraine crisis lies with the EU and the US as well as with Russia. There are two recent publications which deserve the attention they have not had. The first is the 10 February report of the House of Lords Committee on Foreign Affairs chaired by Lord Tugendhat. It declares that ‘Foreign Office [and by extension the EU’s] shortcomings led to a catastrophic misreading of the mood in the run-up to the Ukraine crisis’. The second is Professor Sakwa’s recent monumental work ‘Frontline Ukraine’ evenhandedly distributing blame on the EU, on President Putin, and on the US.

For months now noted historians John J. Mearsheimer, Margaret Macmillan, and Tarik Cyril Amar have faulted US and EU policies which have ignored Russia’s vital interests. As early as 8 September last year three former US Ambassadors to Russia/USSR signed a New York Times Oped headlined 'Give Diplomacy a Chance' - Jack F. Matlock, Thomas Pickering and James F. Collins. 

EU, US, Russia – their true national interests coincide
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's annual news conference of 21 January and Mr. Gorbachev's grave warning of 29 January can now be seen for what they were – indications that Russia is prepared to negotiate over the Ukraine provided its interests are respected.

Russia has a vital interest in the Ukraine, the EU has a very important interest, the US has no political interest provided the Ukraine is that benign hyphen. It was flouting Russia’s vital national interest in the Ukraine that led to the present crisis. The call for the Ukraine to join NATO was the last straw. And Mr. Putin, with his understandable all but obsessive fear of the US, if defied reaches for his sword; further defied, he uses it.

It is not only President Obama who is under pressure to end the present stand off with Russia. President Putin too, is under pressure. The assassination on 27 February of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsev, who had openly deplored the policies that had brought civil war to the Ukraine, momentarily revealed the depth of Russian middle class resentment of President Putin’s alienation of ‘the West’. Putin is popular in Russia for standing up, as any Russian President must, for Russia’s vital interests – not for a Ukrainian civil war that’s in the interest of no one – particularly the hapless Ukrainians. So if Putin is made an offer that Russia “cannot refuse”, he is likely to take it.

Prospects for agreement on the status of the Ukraine
Last year the stage was at last set for serious negotiations about the shape of a Ukrainian settlement. For the European Union (Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande) had begun direct talks about the Ukraine with Russia (President Putin) without the US being directly involved, yet with the involvement of all the Ukrainian parties. These ongoing discussions could now have far greater potential to result in negotiations to end the civil war and determine the future status of the Ukraine.

There is too, a growing awareness that neither ‘the West’ nor Russia can afford to make more enemies than they already have. They both need partners: think climate change, Iran, Syria, and ISIS. And good EU/Russia relations will largely determine whether a much needed era of cooperation replaces these times of confrontation. President Obama was right when he famously remarked that in today’s world you can’t get much done without Russia.
The shape of an agreement
In an article of mine before the annexation of the Crimea (14 March 2014), I urged that negotiations be opened which would include the lease of Russia's bases in the Crimea (Russia's No 1 vital interest in the Ukraine) being renewed in perpetuity as part of a package. It’s too late for that now, but important Russian concessions over the governance of the Crimea could still be sought in return for Russian agreement on the whole package which would include Ukraine not joining any military alliance.

Given Ukraine's economic plight due to misgovernance and corruption, any package could include the EU matching Putin's offer (since withdrawn) of $15bn in aid - the $30bn assessed as the Ukraine's minimum requirement topped up with the IMF loan. Any preferential economic treatment for the Ukraine to be granted to both the EU and Russia; a joint EU/Russia commission for the Ukraine, based in Kiev, to signal any breach of the agreement and to coordinate such an EU/Russia "Marshall Plan". Obviously, all this would need to be fleshed out, but something along these lines would provide the basis for the future status of the Ukraine. Such a proposition would likely be received with relief by most Ukrainians – but they would of course need to have the last word in a properly conducted referendum.

So all at once, after Mr. Kerry’s three hours with Mr. Lavrov and four hours with President Putin, there is a real prospect of a change of US and EU policies towards the Ukraine which could be palatable to Russia. Now is up to the EU to have its own ‘Sochi’ moment’ with Putin and Lavrov, and then work together with all the Ukrainian parties to make of the Ukraine that essential hyphen joining the east and west of Europe. 

But both the US and Russia are big ships – and big ships are hard to turn around particularly when there are those on the bridge who are trying seize the wheel: unipolar neo-conservatives in the US and the KGB ‘Silovki’ who came in when Putin arrived on the world stage. It will be hard for Kerry and Lavrov to keep the ear of their bosses. The media could do much to help them.    
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