Moscow will apply pressure until Ukraine offers unity government and constitutional guarantee of neutrality
After three weeks of pro-Russian militias taking public buildings in towns and cities throughout eastern Ukraine, a stumbling on-again-off-again effort by the Ukrainian government to retake the buildings in a few cities, and threatening manoeuvres by Russian forces along the border, on Monday the US and the European Union imposed another round of sanctions on Russia.
The American sanctions involve asset freezes and travel bans on seven individuals not previously sanctioned and 17 companies controlled by the oligarchs subjected to sanctions after the annexation of Crimea. In addition, the US revoked all existing licenses and tightened future licensing for the export of high-technology items that could be used by the Russian military. The EU levied asset freezes and travel bans on 15 individuals.
The sanctions were imposed after it became apparent the agreement reached on April 17 in Geneva had failed to de-escalate the crisis. At Geneva, the US, EU, Ukraine and Russia agreed that all illegal armed groups must be disarmed and all illegally-seized buildings and illegally-occupied streets, squares and parks vacated; that a monitoring mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, lead in implementing the de-escalation measures; and that the constitutional reform process be “inclusive, transparent and accountable [and] include the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies.”
None of that happened. The pro-Russian militias continued to hold government buildings throughout the Donetsk region and took buildings in additional cities. A military mission attached to the OSCE consisting of Ukrainian officers and European officers was detained and paraded before the media as “prisoners of war” by the self-proclaimed mayor of Slavyansk. And there has been no “broad national dialogue” about constitutional reform.
Regarding the new sanctions, President Barack Obama said, “The goal is not to go after Mr Putin personally. The goal is to change his calculus with respect to how the current actions that he’s engaging in Ukraine could have an adverse impact on the Russian economy over the long haul.” The point was “to encourage him to actually walk the walk and not just talk the talk when it comes to diplomatically resolving the crisis.”
Unlike the EU sanctions, which have had and will have no effect, the American sanctions on the 17 companies – mostly banks and energy companies – and revocation and tightening of export licensing on high-tech items with military uses will complicate business for the companies involved and perhaps impose modest costs on the economy in general.
But they won’t cause Putin to “walk the walk” – for the same reason the earlier sanctions didn’t stop the annexation of Crimea: Rightly or wrongly, he believes Kiev, controlled by the forces that have controlled it since February 22 and are likely to control it after May 25, constitutes a threat to Russia’s national interests and security. As long as Russia’s interests and security are threatened, it will continue to apply pressure on Ukraine.
The February 21 agreement between then-president Viktor Yanukovych and the leaders of the three opposition parties, negotiated by the foreign ministers of Poland, France and Germany and Putin’s personal representative after three days of violence in which more than 90 were killed, provided for the formation of a government of national unity within 10 days, constitutional reform by September, and a presidential election once that reform was completed and, in any event, no later than December.
On February 27, several days after the parliament had removed Yanukovych from office – an act Putin described as “anti-constitutional” – the parliament appointed a new government headed by Arseniy Yatseniuk. The government consisted of 10 members of two of the opposition parties, three individuals prominent in the Independence Square protests, and seven who weren’t affiliated with a party.
Whatever else could be said about it, the new government was not a “national unity” government; the Party of Regions, the largest party in the parliament and the dominant one in eastern Ukraine, was excluded and virtually all of the ministers came from Kiev or western Ukraine.
From Russia’s point of view, a parliament that could so blithely disregard the February 21 agreement might just as easily terminate the 2010 Kharkiv Pact between Ukraine and Russia that extended Russia’s lease on its Sevastopol base for the Black Sea Fleet, ending in 2017, for another 25 years. It was not a coincidence that Russian special forces began the takeover of Crimea on the day the new government took office.
The annexation of Crimea guaranteed the long-term security of the Sevastopol base. But that was only one of several concerns for Russia raised by the conduct and composition of the new Ukrainian government. Other equally important concerns remain, and until they are addressed Russia will continue to apply pressure on Kiev.
Given the current and likely future under-representation of eastern Ukraine in the central government, Russia insists that Ukraine be transformed from a highly centralised unitary state into a highly decentralised federal state in which the regions control their economy, taxes, culture, language and education.
Indeed, as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said in calling for a “deep” and “large-scale” constitutional reform, Russia believes the regions should even be able to control “their external economic and cultural relations with neighbouring countries or regions”. That, of course, would mean that if the central government opted to move closer to or join the EU, some regions could opt out – and, conversely, if some regions wished to enter Russia’s Customs Union, they could opt in.
In addition, Russia insists that Ukraine be neutral and embed its neutrality in the constitution. In early 2008, Ukraine asked to be considered for membership in Nato. At its Bucharest summit in April 2008, Nato decided against offering membership. But the possibility remained on the table, especially after the conflict four months later between Russia and Georgia. The first major legislation enacted after Yanukovych was elected president in early 2010 was a prohibition on “integration into Euro-Atlantic security and Nato membership.” But that, of course, could easily be rescinded by a future parliament.
A cursory glance at a map should suggest why for Putin, and perhaps any Russian president, Ukraine’s membership in Nato is a red line that can’t be crossed. That glance should also suggest why Ukraine’s possible membership in the EU is problematic as well.
Counting the German Democratic Republic, 12 countries controlled by communist parties prior to 1989 are now members of the EU; all are members of Nato. As Ireland, Sweden, Finland and Austria demonstrate, membership in Nato does not necessarily follow from membership in the EU. Nevertheless, there is that troublesome fact that all 12 post-Communist members of the EU are also members of Nato. That means EU membership also crosses a red line for Russia unless there is a constitutional guarantee of neutrality.
Until Ukraine transforms its structure of government to provide the regions with a substantial degree of fiscal, economic and cultural autonomy and provides a constitutional guarantee of neutrality, Russia will in all likelihood, and notwithstanding the recent sanctions, continue to do what it has been doing – not simply in order to destabilise the Kiev government, although it certainly has done that, but in order to protect and secure what it regards as its national interest.
David R Cameron is a professor of political science at Yale and director of the Programme on European Union Studies.