Reviews

The diplomatic take on Ukraine

Former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and ex-NATO Secretary General Javier Solana painted a pessimistic picture of Ukraine’s future in Oxford University’s Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre’s Elliott Lecture. Josh Black was at St Antony’s College to hear their take on the events of the past few months.

Gwendolyn Sasse, Aleksander Kwasniewski, Javier Solana

Gwendolyn Sasse, Aleksander Kwasniewski, Javier Solana

As Ukrainians in the Crimean peninsula voted – in a referendum possibly tainted by fraud – in favour of their incorporation into the Russian Federation, two diplomats with firsthand experience of the now ancient regime said Russian meddling in the regime would continue for years to come.

Kwasniewski, who as President of Poland in 2004 played a similar role to that played by the country’s current foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, in negotiations with pro- and anti-government forces, said he believed that Putin’s intervention in the Crimea was just the first step in a campaign to destabilise the country and ensure its eventual participation in a Russian-led Customs Union. The veteran politician and EU diplomat – he made 27 trips to Ukraine in 18 months as an EU envoy – said he thought it unlikely that Putin would accept the results of elections on May 25, and might try to use economic levers to discredit the new administration, but added that those elections must be held to ensure the legitimacy of the new government in Kyiv.

Javier Solana took a firmer stance criticising the European Union’s response to the crisis provoked by protests that have occupied Kyiv’s Independence Square since November. According to Solana, the EU was “Not intelligent enough, or rapid enough, or powerful enough” to broker a Round Table agreement on Ukraine’s place in the region, with the February agreement that was set to establish a unity government inadequate in light of President Yanukoych’s flight from the capital. He added that ministers and representatives of the EU spent too much time and political will on Maidan, rather than in hard-headed negotiations, and that he feared the influence of right-wing hawks on US President Barack Obama’s thinking.

Gwendolyn Sasse, an Oxford academic who has done much research on separatist movements in Crimea in particular, said the EU’s interaction with Kyiv had been an exercise in “constructive ambiguity”, which had ultimately created a dangerous political vacuum. She described the power of the current authorities in Crimea as weakly rooted and predicted that Russia would wait and see what the response to the referendum was before deciding its next steps. Perhaps the best result of talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was that Russia would not immediately incorporate Crimea into its territory, opening the way for more talks. In light of this, rapid advances on the signing of an Association Agreement with the EU might be unwise.

Above all, Sasse said, it should be recognised that Ukraine had “come a long way” in terms of national identity, and that the country’s independence was valued by an overwhelming majority of its citizens. However, the panel discussed a number of vulnerabilities, with Kwasniewski saying that new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk should go to Eastern Ukraine before long to drum up support for the new government and that he could not understand the appointment of two oligarchs as regional governors when the economy needed modernisation. Although the figure leading presidential opinion polls at the moment – pro-European chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko – was “a very sweet oligarch”, Ukraine needed to reform its economy, before a third major uprising in a decade took a decidedly populist turn against the relatively few holders of the country’s wealth.

Following the Crimean referendum, much attention will be focused on the movements of the Russian military, with Reuters reporting a significant build up in the peninsula and exercises having been conducted close to Ukraine’s eastern borders. According to Kwasniewski, an incursion into the mainly Russian-speaking regions is unlikely, and Solana added that the OSCE would continue to provide a channel of communication without either side having to recognise the other’s position.

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