By Jonathan Power*
As Russia/Nato passions are stirring once again, we should wind the clock back to seven years ago when the Ukraine crisis began. What’s it all about?
The demonstrators in the Maidan, the central square of the capital, Kiev, were motivated by the arguments over a trade agreement with the EU, then being negotiated.
They were ardently for it but the government under Russian pressure had done a somersault and re-orientated its trade policy towards the Moscow-sponsored Eurasian Economic Union. In truth, Ukraine could have had both—just as the UK, until Brexit, had the EU and was negotiating the North Atlantic Free Trade Area simultaneously. But the EU and the US threw their weight behind the demonstrators and said Ukraine couldn’t face both ways.
After a few days the demonstrations turned violent. Although the Western press was slow to catch on, the demonstrators had been infiltrated by neo-fascists who fired first at the police and second at the more peaceful demonstrators. Some of the neo-fascists in the Svoboda and Right Sector parties, who trace their pedigree back to Nazi times, became snipers, firing from the 11th floor windows of the adjacent Hotel Ukraine. A BBC film aired footage of this. So did an Italian documentary. Nevertheless, Nato countries have ignored the evidence for this and have accused the then pro-Russian government of President Wiktor Yanukovych of instigating the shootings.
It’s now seven years since dissident militias threw off the yoke of the central government in Kiev and declared their de-facto independence. They were supported by Russian troops which at first president Vladimir Putin denied and then later admitted. It was the Russians who supplied the missile launcher that accidentally shot down a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet. Altogether 17,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in this conflict.
Negotiations, brokered by Germany and France, have been held on and off for seven years. The parameters of a settlement are easily put: in return for Donbass being granted a large amount of autonomy (it could be approximately the same as Scotland has today) Russian troops would withdraw and the militias disbanded.
Nevertheless, the gap between the positions of Moscow and Kiev appears almost impossible to bridge, not least because the central government has been slow to reform itself in the way that the Western negotiators have demanded. The US and the EU have tried to encourage it to move faster but rather than using economic and military pressure to get it to the starting line they have taken a soft approach, indeed sometimes going the wrong way with the US’s supply of sophisticated armaments to the Kiev government—a move which has really got under the Russians’ skin. It seems to have no rationale other than being needlessly macho.
Ukraine could never go to battle with Russian troops on its own. Worryingly, Nato is now trying to make out that Russia’s latest troop movements are a precursor to a Russian invasion. There is no real evidence that President Vladimir would be so stupid.
There is one very appealing way to cut through the impasse. It is for Kiev to act unilaterally and announce it is giving up Donbass. Why not? It is a drain on Ukraine, both politically and economically and Donbass offers little to the rest of Ukraine except territory. Even now in the present day semi-frozen conflict Kiev is benefiting. It no longer has to subsidise what is in effect a rust belt of decaying industries and where unemployment is massive and inflation has soared. Nor does it have to deal with the region’s disproportionate number of corrupt oligarchs, political elites, and criminal gangs.
Moreover, without the Donbass participating in Kiev’s decision making, the centre has been freer to push ahead with economic reforms and improving the quality of its governance. Indeed, much of the economic burden has fallen on Russia. No wonder that Kiev sometimes gives the impression it likes the status quo.
President Putin has created his own imbroglio and Russian popular support for Donbass has withered. The fighting has stalemated, and the costs appear to increase every year. The alternative of Russia invading Donbass and taking it over is a non-starter as far as the Kremlin is concerned. It would only inherit an economic stew that it would be burdened with for years to come. It would create a Ukrainian resistance movement and millions of refugees. I suspect that a majority of Russians have “Donbass fatigue”.
Thus if Kiev ended its sovereignty over Donbass unilaterally it would be checkmate for Russia and a win for Ukraine. Since the Cold War ended Kiev has had an uneasy relationship with Donbass that has long been part of Russian culture, religion and mainly speaks that language. It should be happy to part ways.
Ukraine should count the benefits of letting Donbass go. The government could cut the costs for its military and no longer need to import expensive weaponry. If it succeeded in negotiations in winning Donbass back, the economist Anders Aslund estimates it would cost 20 billion US dollars to put Donbass on its feet again when Ukraine’s entire annual budget is around 26 million.
The environmental damage caused by the fighting is immense. The rust-belt factories are even more run down. Health services have been degraded. Infrastructure has been neglected. There are 35,000 separatist soldiers. They have to be demobbed and then retrained for civilian jobs- another significant expense. Even then the tens of thousands of weapons in circulation would have to be run to ground. Inevitably some of these soldiers, enjoying combat, would remain a thorn in Ukraine’s side. Does the Kiev government need such an expensive mess? Surely not.
If Donbass were integrated back into Ukraine several million anti-Western voters would be added to Ukraine’s already divisive mix. Indeed, only because they no longer appear on Ukraine’s voter rolls Ukraine has been more able to pass the reforms of the last five years. The Donbass-based oligarchs would regain their foothold.
The one trouble with these arguments for letting the Donbass go is that Putin in his heart may not want eternal responsibility for the Donbass, with all its flaws and troubles. Faced with Kiev saying it no longer wants the Donbass what would he do? In this situation he may capitulate to Kiev. Then Kiev would have no choice but to initiate a slow process of re-integration, despite the cost.
On the positive side, in time, as the fighting passed into a distant memory, Ukraine could be considered for membership of BOTH the Eurasian Economic Union and the European Union. At the moment that is frozen which does Ukraine no good at all.
It’s a paradox but true: if Kiev says it is prepared to let Donbass secede it will keep it and the Russians will go.
About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com