It isn’t easy to see how Ukraine’s future can now be determined by its people. By rejecting a negotiated peace-plan, the protesters in Maidan Square have inadvertently (but predictably) brought Russia onto the stage. Political opinion within Ukraine is increasingly polarised, partly because the parliament tried to disallow the use of Russian as a second language.
This piece is intended as a starting point for discussion, identifying the patterns of power involved. It looks at the viewpoints of three actors:
The Ukrainian people, recognising that they are not united;
The West, recognising that the EU and the US have different issues;
The Russians, recognising that what suits President Putin may not benefit the population.
The three types of power being used are economic, political and military. The legal dimension of governance seems to be in abeyance, both within Ukraine and internationally.
Western politicians are huffing and puffing, threatening economic sanctions. This well-worn pattern of power (126.96.36.199) would have entirely predictable outcomes: the economies of all the participants would be damaged, but the politicians would have covered themselves with the fig-leaf of being seen to do something. This time, though, the economic outcome might be more damaging than usual – since Russia controls the gas-tap to both Ukraine and the EU, so economic retaliation is easy and is inevitable.
Much has been written about divisions among the Ukrainian people. The protesters in Maidan Square might say that they want a united Ukraine, but Ukrainians in the east of the country don’t feel obliged to comply with a west-facing interim government that they didn’t elect. Perhaps each department of Ukraine, or at least the Crimea, should be offered a referendum, asking people whether they would prefer to become a satellite of Russia or whether they would prefer strong links to the EU. This approach might lead to the peaceful division of Ukraine into two separate countries – and they could divide the national debt in proportion to their size.
President Putin has already gained strength from the situation, and the idea of punishing him is merely comic. He has faced down protests from the EU, the UN and the US – so he appears to the Russian population as a strong leader (an image he is carefully burnishing). If sanctions are applied, he can blame the economic damage on Western aggression; the external threat from the West will help to unite the country behind him in a familiar pattern of power (6.3.6). He will be politically strengthened within Russia, and he doesn’t care about his popularity in the rest of the world. His country will lose by its reduced international respectability, but most ordinary Russians will not be able to assess the damage that he has caused.
The West has already been damaged. The Washington Post, previously a supporter of President Obama, has condemned his foreign policy as being “based on fantasy”, because he is reducing troop levels and he doesn’t appear powerful. US foreign policy has not completely adjusted to the realities of the 21st century: it has rightly discarded military force as its preferred policy option, but it is still trying to exercise global leadership by exceptionalism – instead of what has been described as “exemplarism”: throwing its weight behind a pattern of power that this website calls “responsible global citizenship” (188.8.131.52). The EU also lacks a coherent foreign policy; its only formula for relationships with its neighbours appears to be to offer them membership.
Many Russians, including President Putin, regret the collapse of the USSR; his actions now indicate a desire to return to the simple opposition of the Cold War. NATO is deciding how to respond. Moving more force to the area and setting up new bases would seem to be the heaviest response that they could safely make at this stage. It is clearly important to prevent Russia from annexing its neighbours without their consent and, since neither America nor Russia respects the UN or fully supports it, a restart of the Cold War now looks all but inevitable.
Eventually there will have to be a political resolution to this crisis. Splitting the country seems inevitable, unless the interim government is prepared to return to the negotiated peace plan (which President Putin has indicated that he would still accept). A new peace plan would be much more difficult to negotiate, because the situation is now more polarised than when the previous one was negotiated.
The protesters have the right to expect President Yanukovich to stand trial, for the deaths of the protesters and for corruption – given the well-publicised opulence of his mansion.
America and Russia ought to negotiate a better arrangement than restarting the Cold War. Reform of the UN, particularly of the Security Council, is necessary. Since both America and Russia wield vetoes they can act with impunity, and both of them have repeatedly failed to comply with their obligations under the UN Charter.