The joint statement released by the United States, European Union, Ukraine, and Russia on April 17 after negotiations in Geneva has done little to bring the Ukrainian crisis to an end. It laid out a number of “concrete steps to deescalate tensions and restore security for all citizens.” Among these steps were the disarming of all illegal armed groups and the return to their owners of all illegally occupied buildings. Neither of these steps has yet been taken, and neither seems likely to be taken soon.
The Geneva meeting appeared to reflect a desire on all sides to avoid escalation to armed conflict. After the meeting there was a short lull in the conflict: no more buildings were seized by pro-Russian protestors in the east, and Kiev suspended its anti-separatist operation for Easter. How long the lull will continue is unclear. During a raid on a checkpoint near Slaviansk on the night of April 19, several men were killed, in circumstances that remain unclear. That has raised the tension in an already tense situation, with resulting charges and countercharges. It is not hard to imagine an incident of this kind sparking wider clashes. The crisis appears to have unleashed forces that the relevant governments may not be in a position to control.
The Geneva statement declared that the process of drawing up a new constitution for Ukraine would be “inclusive, transparent, and accountable.” A new constitution will have to be agreed on if there is to be a peaceful resolution of the crisis. This will not be easy. Russia wants a constitutional commitment to neutrality on the part of Ukraine. But it also wants a federalized Ukraine in which the provinces have considerable autonomy. This would give Moscow the ability to exercise a veto on Kiev’s policies through its close ties with the eastern provinces. Drawing up a new constitution will be a highly complex political task, but there is no good alternative. Finding an institutional balance between the eastern and western parts of Ukraine is the only way to hold together what is left of the country.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, an estimated 25 million Russians were left outside the borders of the new Russian state. I remember a conversation in 1990 with Ernest Gellner, the great scholar of nationalism, about the possibility that the Soviet Union would break up. He fervently hoped that would not happen because he feared it would result in a replay of the 1930s when Nazi Germany used ethnic nationalism to justify the incorporation of Austria and the Sudetenland into the Third Reich.
Many people shared Gellner’s fear, but the internal borders of the republics in the Soviet Union were largely accepted as the borders of the fifteen new independent states, though there are important “frozen conflicts” in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova. One contentious issue was Crimea, which had been part of the Russian Federation until 1954, when Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine. That did not seem significant at the time, since no one foresaw the Soviet breakup. After the Soviet collapse some Russian politicians called for the return of Crimea, but previous Russian governments recognized Crimea as part of Ukraine.
That has now changed. In his March 18 speech announcing that Russia would annex Crimea, Putin claimed the right to intervene in other countries in defense of ethnic Russians. This claim has created anxiety not only in Ukraine, but also in other countries with significant Russian minorities, including Estonia and Latvia—both members of the EU and of NATO—as well as Kazakhstan and Moldova. In his “Direct Line” television broadcast on April 17, Putin exacerbated those anxieties by noting that “Novorossiya” (an old term for the south and east of Ukraine) were transferred to Ukraine in 1920. “Why?” he asked. “God knows” was his answer, implying there was no good reason for the transfer.
Ukraine faced a difficult task of state building when it became independent in 1991. It is a complex society with important divisions in language, religion, economic structure, and historical legacy. As long as the international context was favorable, Ukraine was able to manage these differences. That became increasingly difficult, however, as the country became the focus of a competition for influence between Russia and the West—a competition that became more intense after the Orange Revolution in 2004. Putin appears to have taken seriously the possibility that in Russia a similar revolution, aided by the West, might be triggered by the mass mobilization of protest. When large demonstrations took place in Moscow in 2011 and 2012 demanding free and fair elections, Putin accused the participants of trying to transplant the Orange Revolution to Russia.
Over the past three years, Russia has wanted Ukraine to join a proposed Eurasian Union, in which Russia would be the dominant power. The Western powers have wanted to draw Ukraine closer to the West through an association agreement with the European Union. It was this choice that precipitated the political crisis that erupted in November, when President Yanukovich turned down an agreement with the EU in favor of a deal with Russia. Yanukovich proved incapable of managing the crisis. He reached an agreement with the opposition on February 21 but fled to Russia the next day when the agreement fell through.
A week later Russian troops and pro-Russian activists seized key buildings in Crimea. The decision to annex Crimea does not appear to have been planned beforehand. Putin, after all, was trying to project a different image of Russia at the Sochi Winter Olympics. But the fall of the Yanukovich government created not only a danger (Russia might lose Sevastopol, where its Black Sea fleet is based) but also an opportunity to seize Crimea while there was no effective government in Kiev.
This crisis could perhaps have been avoided. Russia and the Western powers could have agreed on a framework within which Ukraine could develop independently. Zbigniew Brzezinski has proposed an arrangement akin to “Finlandization,” whereby Ukraine could order its internal affairs as it wanted to while remaining neutral in the struggle for influence between Russia and the European Union. Something like this will still have to be arranged if Ukraine is to remain a coherent state with the capacity to develop economically and politically.
Russia now holds the initiative. Its special forces—the so-called “little green men” (zelenye chelovechki)—are evidently active in eastern Ukraine, though it is difficult to be precise about the extent of their role. The forty thousand troops Russia has assembled close to the Ukrainian border are both a warning to Kiev not to try to reestablish control over the eastern provinces and an encouragement to the pro-Russian elements there.
Russia is trying to prevent the interim government in Kiev from establishing its rule across the country. Russia clearly hopes that this will give it more influence over the drafting of the new constitution. If that isn’t enough, Russian forces can occupy the eastern provinces as “peacekeepers.” Russia can always threaten to incorporate those provinces into Russia, but annexation does not appear to be the most desirable outcome from the Russian point of view, because it would leave a deeply anti-Russian Ukraine, which might well be incorporated into NATO.
Western powers are now in a reactive mode. They have made it clear that they will not use military force in defense of Ukraine. They are taking steps to demonstrate their commitment to the security of Poland and the Baltic states, which are members of NATO. They are attempting to influence Russian policy by the threat of further sanctions. They are giving economic aid and political support to Ukraine, while also trying to negotiate an end to the crisis. These are, generally, the right things to do. The Western powers must now decide what is the right way to do them.
Opinion polls indicate that most people in the east of Ukraine do not want to be annexed by Russia, but they are also suspicious of Kiev and want a much greater decentralization of power. The interim government in Kiev says it is willing to grant greater power to the regions. This suggests that a bargain could be reached about the constitutional order in Ukraine. But the obstacles to agreement have grown sharply in recent weeks. Inside Ukraine, suspicion and mistrust have increased, and the relationship between Washington and Moscow is toxic to a degree unknown since before Gorbachev came to power in 1985.
The Ukrainian crisis is a tragedy. It threatens the viability of Ukraine as a sovereign state. It is leading to a strengthening of authoritarianism in Russia, with the state seeking legitimacy on the basis of nationalism rather than democracy. It marks a great failure on the part of the European Union and the United States in their approach to Russia. There will inevitably be soul-searching in Washington and Brussels about how we ever came to this pass. The most urgent task, however, is to resolve the current crisis. Defining our future relations with Russia will also be a major challenge, for although Russia can be removed from the G-8, it cannot be banished from European or world politics.