by Gordon M. Hahn
In a way he is. Increasingly, grudgingly, gradually and as quietly as possible, the Barack Obama Administration and Europe are accommodating Moscow and pressuring Kiev to do the same with regard to many of Moscow’s key positions on the Ukraine crisis. For example, the West is pressuring President Petro Poroshenko to grant the Donbass significant political and economic autonomy. At the May 6th Minsk 2 contact group meeting, Kiev was successfully nudged to agree to begin negotiating directly with the Donbass rebels on this as well as other issues. Kiev’s recent, failed albeit, efforts to rein in its neo-fascists from groups like Right Sector suggest similar Western efforts on this front. The U.S., British and other military training missions to Kiev have raised the costs of allowing the neo-fascists to continue their lawlessness too high for the West in PR terms. In addition, the West has ceased the hyperbolic and hysterical rhetoric about Putin being today’s Hitler, fascist Russia, ‘Russia’s war’ in Ukraine, ‘Russia’s invasion’ in eastern Ukraine (it was a temporary and targeted military intervention in Donbas), Putin’s intention to recreate the USSR, and the like. These changes in Western posture were manifested by US Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Sochi to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Putin.
It is very likely that the Western retreat is a consequence of a certain recognition of at least some of the following hard facts about the Ukraine crisis and its making.
Those hard facts include the following.
First, the evidence is becoming increasingly irrefutable that the Maidan revolution, though initially peaceful, was hijacked by radical neo-fascists and ultra-nationalists who broke initiated the 20 February 2014 ‘snipers’ massacre on the Maidan killing police and then both police and demonstraors before the police or special forces fired on demonstrators. Hence, the West was hasty, opportunistic and plainly wrong in promoting the version of events that placed the blame for the massacre solely on Yanukovich and his police.
Second, it was these radical forces who seized power illegally and violated the 21 February 2014 agreement that established a transition pact or roadmap for a regime transformation and the removal of Yanukovich by the end of the year sponsored by Germany, France, Poland, and Russia. Hence the West was wrong in engaging hastily and aggressively robust ‘democracy-promotion’ (for ‘dual use’ as revolutionary mobilizational and organizational tactics and strategy) and European integration in a country having both a rising nationalist, anti-Russian tide and objects of vital national security interest to Moscow and located on Russia’s border. The West was also wrong in denying the role of neo-fascism in the revolutionary coup, as Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland did at congressional hearings on the Ukraine crisis.
Third, despite some military intervention on the part of Moscow, the war in Ukraine was started by Kiev, which declared and started its ‘anti-terrorist operation’ before anyone in the Donbas fired a shot at a representative of the Maidan regime. Hence, the West was wrong in pushing relations with Russia to the brink by deploying insulting rhetoric and false propaganda devices such as the expression “Putin’s war” and by imposing sanctions after Putin’s overreraction by seizing Crimea.
Fourth, the West failed to understand Ukraine’s complexity, in particular, the deep civilizational differences that existed between western and eastern Ukraine and which the West encouraged Kiev in constructing and maximizing. Hence, the West was wrong in thinking it could build a new Ukraine on a unilateral, purely Western basis without taking the interests of Russia and the Russian-oriented portion of Ukraine’s population or splitting the country apart.
Fifth, with time, familiarity with the Maidan regime has bred suspicions in the West. NATO lamented that Ukraine’s Defense Ministry is unwilling to reform. The West and international lending and development institutions are increasingly aware that there is little political will in Kiev to impose the kind of austerity program they require. This week’s resignation of the Ukrainian-American first deputy economic development minister Sasha Borovik over Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s unwillingness to reform the economy rapidly enough is another sign. Politically, the Rada is often run in a less than democratic matter to push reforms through that later are not implemented, and the Maidan regime is allowing neo-fascists, like Right Sector, to maraud across the country attacking journalists and people tied to the old regime, seizing property, and intimidating opposition figures. Moreover, Poroshenko and other officials are steeped in corruption, and the present anti-corruption campaign is being used to target political opponents rather than root out all ‘corruptionaires.’ Hence, the West was wrong in thinking that the leaders of the Maidan opposition were significantly or even at all better than the Yanukovich regime. This casts the utility of Western policies such as democracy-promotion and support for regime change in doubt.
Sixth, Ukraine’s integration with Europe is bogged down as Moscow and others warned Kiev it would be. EU membership for Ukraine is a very long-term prospect. Implementation of the EU–Ukraine agreement will be delayed because the parties have agreed to negotiate its stipulations and implementation with Moscow in order to take into account Russian economic and trade interests, as Putin requested before the original European effort to have Kiev sign over Moscow’s head and without taking its interests into account. Furthermore, even the most basic agreement which would allow Ukrainians visa-free travel to EU countries is at best a mid-term prospect. Hence, Moscow was right and the West was wrong in urging Yanukovich to sign the EU agreement in October 2013, Yanukovich’s postponement of which set off the Maidan demonstrations that has led to the worst Russian-Western crisis since the end of the Cold War at a time when Russian-Western cooperation is sorely needed from Iran to Iraq to Syria and other issues.
Seventh, Russia is the regional power in central Eurasia and a major power in Eurasia writ large and globally. No matter what costs the West is prepared to bear in acting unilaterally in Ukraine, Georgia or elsewhere along Russia’s borders, Russia is prepared to accept greater costs and exert greater effort to protect its interests in the region. Hence, the West was wrong in acting unilaterally against Russian interests and not expecting a costly response from Moscow.
Despite these realizations, we are from out of the woods. Either side on the ground – Kiev or Donbass – can re-start the war by provocation or miscalaculation. Once the war re-starts, Russian-Western relations will revert to the brinkmanship of the past year, with pressure from hardliners on both sides to escalate the conflict by intervening in greater force. Also, a Western or Russian misstep can lead to a broader European war with the potential ensuing consequences on the table, including the nuclear option. This will be an especially dangerous time, especially if a Republican other than Rand Paul wins the White House. Therefore, Moscow and especially Washington must intensify efforts to push the Donbass and Kiev to move much more quickly on the military, political and economic stipulations of Minsk 2, before this last best chance is lost. And all sides should, however difficult it is, focus less on winning and more on maintaining the peace and ‘satisficing’ their basic security, political, and economic requirements. Even if it means Putin is or is perceived to be the winner.
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation. He is also Analyst/Consultant for ‘Russia Other Points of View’ (www.russiaotherpointsofview.com) and an Adjunct Professor and Senior Researcher at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and its Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program, Monterey, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics. Dr. Hahn has been a visiting scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. (2011-2013), the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. (1995 and 2005), and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, San Francisco State, and St. Petersburg State (Russia) Universities.