When in Kiev recently I asked many Ukrainians how they thought the raging political and now violent conflict would end. All said they had no idea, but one of them said he had eight scenarios, which included the nightmare cases of civil war and territorial disintegration of the state. The past 24 hours have seen poor Ukraine and the beautiful city of Kiev slide into these worst case scenarios.
In addition to the big fight going on right now in the Maidan, we should take note of what is happening elsewhere in the country. The governor of Lviv has been booted out of office, and the regional authorities there say they take no further instructions from president Viktor Yanukovych, and his Party of the Regions is banned locally. The prime minister of Crimea says he has 15,000 Ukrainian Russians ready to intervene as a well prepared militia force.
Those at the barricades in Kiev believe they fight for a revolution. But the overwhelming lesson from the history of revolutionary situations, from Paris 1789 to Cairo 2011, via Russia 1917, China 1911 and Iran 1979, is that unless strong and sound fresh governance structures are immediately put into place, the political dynamics lead to catastrophic radicalisation, chaos and conflict. This model of revolution is already on the move in Ukraine. To paraphrase George Santayana, European leaders from Brussels to Moscow as well as Kiev must now “remember history before seeing it repeated”, since Ukraine itself seems incapable of disarming.
The tragedy is that this was a conflict that did not have to happen. Of course Yanukovych has been an utterly incompetent, undemocratic and corrupt leader, and he has to go in a year’s time if not before. His presidency began by agreeing a 25-year extension for Russia’s lease on the Sevastopol naval base in exchange for a supposed gas price discount, which left Ukraine soon after paying even more than Germany. He has brought the Ukrainian economy to the brink of bankruptcy, and a few weeks ago passed into law sweeping repressive measures against the EuroMaidan, as the protests have become known.
This so infuriated the people that he had to repeal them a week later. But the whole uprising was triggered by Moscow’s pressuring Kiev to drop the Association Agreement with the EU in favour of the Russian-led customs union. This was a huge miscalculation by Russian president Vladimir Putin, to suppose he could perform a quiet repeat of his Armenian operation of last September.
Regardless of when or how Yanukovych cedes effective power, his legacy will present huge and urgent problems for his successors, who would presumably consist of some configuration of the present opposition leadership. The new government will be immediately confronted with the consequences of the financial and economic deals done by Yanukovych with Putin. Ukraine owes a lot of money to both Gazprom and the Russian state, and the current gas-price discount of one-third and continued Russian funding are vulnerable to being discontinued at Moscow’s discretion.
EU to step in?
The EU, elected by the Ukrainian street as honorary sponsor of the EuroMaidan, has to prepare for this contingency. Emergency situations require emergency measures, which EU institutions and member states are advised to formulate now. The measures should be strong, immediate and comprehensible to Ukrainian citizens, and based on the steps outlined below.
First the EU should help the Ukrainian economy offset the new punitive Russian trade sanctions, which could well be intensified, by immediately implementing of key elements in the not-yet-signed Association Agreement (incorporating the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement). The latter would consist of the suppression of EU import duties on Ukrainian products on day one, whereas Ukrainian duties would only be gradually phased out. This would give an immediate stimulus for Ukrainian industries to make a new push to export to European markets.
The new Ukrainian leaders would sign the Association Agreement without delay. There would be also an understanding that the two parties would negotiate over those provisions in the Agreement that most worry the Ukrainian side with a view to working out remedial or compensatory measures where justified.
Second, the EU should signal to the IMF its willingness to increase its co-financing for a bail-out operation to the extent of 50%, rather than the token sum of some $600 million offered so far; or to contribute comparable sums to an international coalition including the US, which has been discussed.
Finally, the EU should signal to Russia its interest in pursuing without further delay the proposition of free trade with the customs union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan – to which Putin expressed openness at the EU-Russia summit in Brussels on January 28th – on the understanding that Ukraine would be free to enter into a free trade agreement with the EU as well as the Russia-led customs union.
The legal/technical problems due to Belarus and Kazakhstan not yet being members of the WTO can be sorted out in due course, since the negotiations would take considerable time. Nevertheless, the start of these negotiations would be a strategically important political opening towards Russia, picking up on Putin’s slogan of “Lisbon to Vladivostok”, but converting it now into a “Lisbon-Kiev-Vladivostok”.
There is even a chance that the Kremlin is sufficiently worried about Ukraine spinning out of control that it would welcome a move from confrontation to cooperation in its relations with the EU over their common neighbourhood.
The critical factor then would be the response of Russia, which has presumably already given up on Yanukovych being able to resume effective control. He would thus go in any case at some point. The key question for the Kremlin is which scenario they would like least, an escalating civil war and chaotically disintegrating Ukraine, or a single, democratic Ukrainian state. If the former scenario continues to develop, where would the political dynamics lead, for Ukraine, Europe, Russia, and especially for Russia’s place in the world, with the ‘law of unintended consequences’ set to have a field-day?