The West has mishandled its relationships with Ukraine and with Russia. President Putin’s annexation of Crimea now looks irreversible – despite the West’s protests. The West appears impotent, whilst President Putin has considerably increased his domestic popularity. The West’s all-too-familiar catalogue of errors includes the failure to respect other countries as having equal rights, inconsistent adherence to international law, and an abject failure to think strategically – preferring to play for easy headlines at home.
President Putin has garnered critical media coverage in the West, and Western politicians have predictably postured – forgetting that they are in no position, morally or legally, to tell him what he ought to do. Thinking of Russia as an enemy, and treating it like one, may be a popular attitude with Western voters but it is not a sensible way of conducting relationships. It must have appeared to Russia that the West planned to woo Ukraine into joining the EU and possibly NATO. It would be hard for Russia to accept having Sevastopol, which is important as a warm-water port, in a NATO country. President Putin has been provoked into action.
As President Putin has pointed out, the West’s claim that he has broken international law is hypocritical. And international law has become a toothless force, with a permanently-divided Security Council whose members are clearly pursuing their own interests rather than maintaining peace.
Ukraine’s interim government has no more legitimacy than the self-appointed government of Crimea. The Kiev ‘government’ has made it clear that it is not looking after the interests of its Russian-speaking population – so it is hardly surprising that the latter have run for cover. What is left of Ukraine needs an inclusive constitution which protects the interests of all its citizens – perhaps a federal structure would be appropriate, and it is not necessarily a disadvantage that Russia would favour such a solution.
The world is now understandably nervous about President Putin’s further intentions. It has been pointed out that we seem to be slipping back inexorably into a new Cold War, and driving Russia into the arms of China. A stable future for Ukraine would require some form of neutrality, as suggested by Anatol Lieven for example, but this might only be possible now for the rest of Ukraine – without Crimea.
The economic ties between Russia and the West should be mutually beneficial, not turned into weapons for sanctions. The EU, NATO and Russia would benefit from a normalisation of relations. The respective politicians have allowed their dislike of each other’s politics, and their desire to score domestic political points, to deflect them from policies that are everyone’s interests. They should start to negotiate on Ukraine’s future, as equals – without posturing.