Andranik Migranyan is the director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York. He is also a professor at the Institute of International Relations in Moscow, a former member of the Public Chamber and a former member of the Russian Presidential Council.
At present, Ukraine looks like a bankrupt company that cannot save itself with the efforts of its own top management or internal resources. It is obvious that the country needs help from outside that would steer it away from further degradation, an escalation of violence and worsened confrontation with possible catastrophic consequences for Ukraine itself and for its neighbors.
There are two possible ways out of this crisis. One of them is optimistic, and fully possible. The other is pessimistic and catastrophic for Ukraine, Russia, Europe, and the international community.
Let’s start with the good one.
Leaving aside Crimea, where the situation is already fully resolved, it is obvious that neither Europe, nor the United States, nor Russia, nor even Europe and the U.S. together can save the Ukrainian economy and state on their own from the deep crisis that has overtaken the country. In all likelihood, the only good way out is a trilateral solution because it is Russia, rather than Europe or the U.S. that holds the majority stake in the Ukrainian economy. First, the Russian market is the main venue for the sale of Ukrainian goods; thus closing it would completely kill the Ukrainian economy. Second, Ukraine is entirely dependent on Russian natural gas. Third, Ukraine owes Russia a staggering $16 billion debt.
The West, of course, wants to offer Ukraine some help. But first, we must keep in mind that help via the IMF is conditional upon certain steps that are likely to worsen the economy in the short term, and second, even if the IMF manages to scrape up $15-20 billion without Russian help, this money will still be insufficient to propel the country out of the deep economic and political crisis.
So what are the necessary conditions for a trilateral U.S.-Russia-Europe agreement and what sort of program can unite their interests? I proceed from the assumption that the U.S. and the EU have a lot of influence over the present-day authorities in Kiev and that if the EU, U.S. and Russia negotiated a plan to save Ukraine, Washington and Brussels will succeed in convincing Kiev to accept it. The conditions for a trilateral deal are sufficiently well articulated by the Russian Foreign Ministry in its address to the contact group for Ukraine. By my interpretation, they boil down to the following.
First, most likely, the scheduled May elections need to be postponed, possibly until the end of the year as was previously agreed in the February 21st agreement guaranteed by European foreign ministers, and even without Viktor Yanukovich’s return to Ukraine, there are still a number of problems that need to be worked out before the elections. Second, there needs to be a series of changes to the Ukrainian constitution to make it more compatible with the country’s realities and reduce the tension between the West and South-East parts of Ukraine. Two changes are particularly important—the acceptance of Russian as a second official language and the federalization of the country that would give more autonomy to its regions. It must by now be clear to all with an open mind that Ukraine is a deeply divided state with cleavages along ethnic, language, religious, and regional lines. Thus, for the preservation of the state’s territorial integrity, it is imperative that the regions composing it enjoyed broad autonomy and decided themselves what language to use, what books to read, and how to raise their children.
A third, and very important, is the alliance-neutral status of Ukraine which must be guaranteed, as it was already once done in the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine of June 16, 1990.
And lastly, illegal paramilitary groups need to be disarmed and neutralized, and far-right nationalists from the Svoboda Party need to be removed from power structures. The Svoboda Party, by a 2012 resolution of the European Parliament was condemned as xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and racist. I would also add here "neo-fascist” in its leaders, symbols, and ideology.
Are these demands revolutionary, stunning, or unacceptable to the Europeans and the U.S.? I can answer this unequivocally in the negative. We have to note here that two similarly wise men, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, published similar opinions on the Ukrainian crisis in the Financial Times and The Washington Post, which were almost identical to those of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Brzezinski went ahead and offered outright "Finlandization” of Ukraine, while Kissinger noted the special Russian interests in Ukraine and the advisability of neutral status for the country. Their articles clearly show that Russian proposals are fully realistic, at least according to serious people like Kissinger and Brzezinski.
Can the United States, Russia, and the European Union negotiate common policy and impose it on the present-day authorities in Kiev, explaining to them that only by accepting those conditions will they receive the much needed financial aid and secure their territorial integrity, naturally excluding Crimea? From a common sense point of view, the Kievan ruling class should be grasping for such an opportunity if, of course, they can soberly and objectively judge the situation in which their country is trapped. Of course, it is rather hard to talk about common sense and a sober mind of the current political elite in Ukraine, as it is currently acrimoniously split. In the current situation, it is difficult to expect well-thought out and responsible actions. If such an offer as outlined above were to be made to the current leaders in Kiev, it would be a litmus test for exactly how much influence the armed bands and nationalists supported by the West wield over the political process. We are after all constantly bombarded by messages in the Western media of how Russia exaggerates the role of those groups and of how they control nothing. I suspect that even if fairly sober and pragmatic individuals such as Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Yulia Tymoshenko would agree to such conditions of trilateral help, they would still be unable to enforce them because today, the armed groups behind the nationalists in Kiev appear much stronger than the liberal and pro-Western politicians.
Should a trilateral deal fail, there is the possibility of a catastrophic scenario for the country that would lead to serious consequences for Ukraine, Russia, the EU, and Russia’s relations with Europe. Consider this: elections are tumultuous events even for stable countries such as America, but for failed bankrupt states such as Ukraine, they are just one more aspect of conflict and polarization, particularly when armed groups play a role in the process undeterred by weak law enforcement and state institutions. If the presidential elections happen at the end of May, the newly elected government might be even more unstable. Ukraine nowadays has not a single politician who can act as a unifying figure for society and the country. The possible candidates for president have either discredited themselves since the Orange Revolution, such as Tymoshenko, who in her role as corrupt figure surpassed even her mentor, former prime minister Pavel Lazarenko. Tymoshenko herself managed to spend some time in prison while under investigation by the Kuchma administration, fought "mercilessly” against Yuschenko, then served time under Yanukovich as well after having enriched herself with, by some modest estimates, hundreds of millions of dollars from government coffers, and finally gained a reputation not for able governance, but for able fighting of political enemies and theft.
The next potential candidate, Petro Poroshenko, also gained notoriety for his success in fights among Maydan heroes after the Orange Revolution and left some very sad memories of his governance prowess to both Yushchenko and Yanukovich.
Vitali Klitschko is, of course, a great boxer, but even Victoria Nuland did not accept him as a serious politician in the sadly famous leaked phone conversation with ambassador Pyatt. In truth, Klitschko lacks any experience in handling complex economic and socio-political problems of the sort Ukraine is encountering.
The only potential leaders left are thus far nationalist ones such as Yarosh and Tyagnibok. However, they are by definition not unifying, but polarizing figures. Thus, no matter who wins from that stack of marked cards, the next Kiev government will be incredibly shaky. Especially should Russia decide to take steps that could aggravate the crisis of the Ukrainian state.
Russia could always refuse to recognize the May elections as legitimate regardless of their results. It could decide to worsen the Ukrainian economy by closing its market to Ukrainian goods. It could also call on the East and South to refuse to participate in the elections (just like Kiev called on the Crimeans to ignore the referendum) so as to avoid granting legitimacy to the new government in Kiev since the East and South’s interests are unlikely to be taken into account by May 25 by the current government in Kiev. In addition, there are louder and louder complaints in Kharkiv, Donetsk, Odessa, and other cities in the South and East that Kiev is deaf to their demands. Considering former experience, when presidents from the East and South came to power the way Leonid Kuchma, Leonid Kravchuk, and Viktor Yanukovich did, but the issues of language and federative status remained unsolved, it is highly unlikely that the current power occupants will solve them when there is zero chance that the interests of the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine will be in any way represented in the impending electoral process. In the present-day state of nationalist hysteria and the participation of armed groups at both presidential and parliamentary elections, there is no point for the East and South to partake in the May elections.
Should this situation persist, there is no doubt the economy will only suffer more. Thus the conflict between the West and South-East, already ethnically and regionally charged, will gain a social dimension. It will become clear that the help the West and the IMF can offer is very limited—the money offered will be insufficient, while the measures taken to improve the economy will be crowned with opposite results.
This can lead to social protests against the government because of the sharp slide in living standards across the country that would exacerbate the existing tension.
There is the possibility of a third conflict that could arise both during and after the elections in Kiev. It would be between the self-proclaimed liberal pro-Western politicians in Kiev and radical nationalists with their armed groups, with the nonparticipation of the South and East in the elections. I doubt that the radicals will want to form any coalitions post-elections with the so-called pro-Westerners, but would rather try and take all the power in their hands. This can also lead to mass unrest both in Kiev and in Ukraine as a whole. Unfortunately, in such a situation, Russia would reluctantly have to intervene in the spreading chaos, ungovernability, weak institutions, and collisions between nationalists and liberals or nationalists and Russians (or Russian speakers). Such collisions could force President Putin’s hand and make him use the mandate to use force given him by the Council of the Federation to protect the lives of the Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine. In such conditions, we cannot exclude the possibility that the Russian army might be deployed to restore stability first to the left of Dniepr, where Russians and Russian speakers are the majority, then in Odessa and the South, and all the way to Transnistria. This would grant Transnistria its dream of twenty-five years to finally be part of Russia, recently expressed again in yet another referendum, in which over 90 percent of the population in Transnistria voted for rejoining Russia.
Such turn of events would not be Russia’s choice, but unfortunately, it is a very real possibility so as to prevent mass violence and civil war on the entire territory of Ukraine. The Russian side will simply be forced to make such a choice. This would naturally escalate the tension in U.S.-Russian and EU-Russian relations that would likely be followed by calls in the West for more sanctions, though I am not convinced that the threat of sanctions or isolation against Russia has any point in today’s world.
As George Will recently said on TV, the only thing we know about sanctions from recent history is that they don’t work. He offered a demonstrable example, of Cuba, right in the backyard of the mighty United States and 90 miles off the coast of Florida, where Cuba has been living in isolation and under sanctions for already 50 years. The Castro brothers and their regime are still there unchanged. With this in mind, the threats to punish and sanction a powerful nuclear power seem laughable, especially when we are no longer living in the 1990s under the unchallenged primacy of the United States, but rather in an increasingly multipolar world, in which the U.S.’s abilities are decreasing with the rise of China, India, Brazil, Turkey and others.
Thus, if even at the level of the Crimean crisis the West is already at the end of its ability to impose sanctions, I am having difficulty imagining what other sanctions it can come up with in order to "punish” Russia for its protection of Russians and Russian speakers in the East and South of Ukraine. It is hard to say what the fate of these regions will be after a potential intervention of the Russian military. They can hardly be annexed to Russia, and yet, a lot will depend on how the Kiev authorities will act, if there even will be any Kiev authorities, and on how Russia’s Western partners will behave. This is why I think that for the sake of avoiding this risky scenario, it will be good if Washington, Moscow, Berlin and Brussels already sat down to discuss the first option, the conditions for which are not so far from what the most realistic Western analysts propose, and have even to an extent been accepted by acting prime minister Yatsenyuk, who at times speaks Russian and says that the desire for wider autonomy for the East and South has to be taken into account if Kiev wishes to avoid the disintegration of Ukraine.
I would like to end the article with a few very important statements.
First, Russia does not want to escalate the conflict with the West. Second, Russia does not want a collapse of Ukraine and does not want to take over the East and South. Third, even after the imposition of sanctions by the U.S. and EU, Russia is willing to engage in constructive cooperation with the West to save the Ukrainian state. This is why the politicians in the West need to be thinking of exactly this instead of lying to the whole world and themselves about laughable and unrealizable threats of "isolating” or "punishing” a country that remains a nuclear superpower. Russia is ready to cooperate, but as President Reagan used to say, "it takes two to tango.”