Events & News


The Only Future for Ukraine Lies in Compromise – The Role of the European Union and Russia

Professor Anatol Lieven (School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University in Qatar)

4 June 2015 (Thursday)
Seminar Room 501, 5th Floor, NTU@one-North Executive Centre, 11 Slim Barracks Rise, Singapore 138664

10.30am to 12.00pm


Event Report [PDF/Print​]


The EU Centre in Singapore hosted Professor Anatol Lieven (Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar) on 4 June 2015 at the NTU Executive Centre at one-North, where he gave his insights into the crisis in Ukraine and how compromise is central to Ukraine’s economic and political future.

Prof Lieven started the talk by underlining that it would be wrong to assume that the crisis in Ukraine is just because of President Putin, and that if Putin leaves things can be resolved. It is much more deep-seated, and hence he would be referring to Russia or the Russian government so as not trivialise the issue, and to recognise the formal role that its governments – and not just its current President – had played in the events leading up to the conflict.

Prof Lieven next talked about the portrayal of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in the west – through western media it is played up as an act of Russian aggression, but he warned that this conflict has to be seen in the context of a fallen empire. He cited some examples (Nigeria, Sri Lanka, etc) to show how the end of an empire often brings with it remnant problems – some of these came immediately while others may take decades before they exploded.  In the case of Ukraine, the problem here is exacerbated by the fact that it was part of a large land empire and that after the fall of the Soviet Union it inherited pockets of ethnic Russians within its borders.

The fall of the Soviet Union – or Soviet Empire as Prof Lieven stressed – had different consequences and remedial measures in different places. In Eastern Europe and the Balkans the West was able to intervene, either militarily or politically, to end conflict and instability. In particular, the European Union (EU) was able to intervene politically through offering former Warsaw Pact member states the massive incentive of EU membership. At the same time, these states and pro-nationalist parties were able to play by the rules of the game and accept compromises such as granting citizenship to Russians in order to get into the EU and away from the Russian sphere of influence.

However, EU membership is not as strong a carrot to states in the Caucuses and certainly an impossible option for Russia. This presents a major problem for the EU – Russia is not interested in joining the EU and therefore it is rather disingenuous for the EU to ask it to play by its norms and standards. Instead, Moscow believes as a great power, it has the right to play by its own rules as other great powers such as the United States, China and India. Turning back to Ukraine, Prof Lieven reminded the audience of the long and complex history of Ukraine. Its western regions were once incorporated into Poland in the 17th century and later into Russia and Austria by the turn of the 20th century, while its eastern regions were long incorporated into Russia. It is therefore unsurprising that even today, the country has different identities and regional alignments – the east continues to look towards Russia while its western regions are more comfortable with the European Union. However, this does not necessary mean the country is always clearly divided on memberships of either sphere. Opinion polls have consistently showed that two-thirds of Ukrainians oppose NATO membership as there is a belief that Ukraine in NATO would lead to inevitable conflict with Russia. At the same time, many Ukrainians believe that NATO would not assist their country in a war – and indeed as revealed in the current crisis, despite the rhetoric, NATO has failed to assist Kiev in its conflict with Russia.

When it comes to EU membership, Ukrainians favour being part of the EU because there are concrete benefits such as freedom of movement within the European Union – currently the number of Ukranians working in Russia outnumber those in the EU by 5 to 1, and it is no surprise that many citizens would prefer to have a stronger labour relationship with the EU. However, immigration has become such a sensitive issue in many members in the EU that the appetite for enlargement is not there. Also, if EU should so-called fast tracked Ukraine’s membership to the EU, there would be other problems. How would the Union explain to other aspirants such as Turkey which have worked for a longer period to meet many of the EU’s criteria for membership?

All in all, Prof Lieven emphasized that Ukrainians who favour ties with the west or ties with Russia are evenly balanced – ideally, many Ukrainians want ties with both. Even though there are some Ukrainians who favour union with Russia, they want to have an equal Union and not be a province of Russia.

Prof Lieven then touched on other ambiguities within Ukraine – today, the country’s educated youth are disgusted by corruption and misgovernance of the Ukrainian political system and perhaps unfairly associate these problems with the Soviet legacy of authoritarianism and inefficiency. Here, there is a progressive sapping of the pro-Russian position among the youth in Ukraine since the Orange Revolution, and in some cases, those who favour a pro-Western alignment have turned into ultra-political nationalists who are less willing to compromise than some of their counterparts in Poland and the Baltics when they were acceding to the demands of EU membership. In fact, some of these young citizens have joined ultra-nationalist militias and have taken the lead to fight against pro-Russian separatists. Prof Lieven pointed out that this problem is not a new one – a CIA report in 1995 had cited the possibility of ultra-nationalist sentiments leading to a civil war within the country.

The present crisis has also been exacerbated by the zigzag policies that current and previous Ukrainian governments had employed. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Kiev has tried to extract benefits from Russia while using the west as a bulwark in preventing Ukraine from being sucked back into the Russian sphere of influence. However, here is where a major contradiction exists: since 1991 Russia has given yearly energy subsidies to Ukraine to the tune of 3-5 billion dollars, while EU aid to Ukraine after 1991 has only amounted to a total of 4 billion. What made matters worse was the decline of the Ukrainian state since 1991 and the lack of reforms put in place to orient itself to the EU has kept it reliant on Russian aid. In fact, after the fall of the Tymoschenko government, the popularly elected Viktor Yanukovych was able to gain resumption of heavily subsidised Russian gas by ceding to Moscow the use of military facilities such as Sevastopol in Crimea. .

2013 was the year were both the west and Russia overplayed their hand in the Ukraine. Putin’s administration, which was concerned about Russia being sidelined in the world of great economic powers such as China and the US, sought to create a Eurasian Union. The understanding here, Prof Lieven argues, is that Moscow needed Ukraine in this bloc for it to be taken seriously. From a purely economic point of view, Eurasian Union membership would be good for Ukraine as it exports more to Russia than to the EU. Russia’s mistake here is that it failed to see the strong opposition – which has been growing since the Orange Revolution – by the country’s disenchanted youth towards Russia. Although Victor Yanukovych was eager to move closer towards Russia, Ukraine could not make such a choice towards joining Russia without risk of disintegrating.

On the part of the EU, its policy making process in engaging Ukraine has also been poor.  The only member states that have the resources and clout to draw up external policy towards Russia are Germany and France, but the former is reluctant to come up with policy for historical reasons and the latter was embroiled in a political scandal involving its President during the height of the Ukraine crisis. Hence, the policy towards Ukraine, the offer of an association agreement was initiated by Sweden and Poland with little money and a very vague promise of membership of the EU in the distant future. Here, the EU could not compete on monetary terms with Russian money and gas. Furthermore, the EU failed to find an adequate compromise with Russia – what the EU could have done was to scale down the association agreement so that Kiev would have been able to continue its zigzag policy with Russia for the time being – after all, Russia’s package to Ukraine was worth much more to Kiev which already has major economic problems.

Opposition towards Russia had forced the ultranationalist militias onto the street to demand the resignation of Viktor Yanukovych and subsequently, the forced overthrow of the pro-Russian administration. Russia’s next mistake was to annex the Crimea which triggered sanctions in the west. It then supported anti-Kiev rebels to block the new Ukrainian administration from fully controlling the eastern regions of the country. It is here that Prof Lieven argued the western media portrayal of Vladimir Putin as a megalomaniac was incorrect – the ex-KGB man relied on veiled strategy in some of the regions such as the Donbass by letting local separatists backed by Russian soldiers control the area, so much so that Kiev has sought a ceasefire in order to prevent a full-scale war. The Franco-German brokered ceasefire agreement between Ukraine and Russia looks shaky – the ceasefire has been breached. The political part of the agreement which calls for more autonomy is not likely to happen since both sides have different ideas with regards to the automony to be granted to the eastern regions.  And to make matters worse, the Parliament has even passed a bill to criminalise the call by many citizens for their country to seek a non-aligned status. A ban on the Communist Party and rhetoric placing its status alongside the Nazis, as well as the recent appointment of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as governor of Odessa, only makes it harder for serious political compromise to be reached.

Professor Lieven then touched on the probable outcomes of the crisis in the Ukraine. The best case, but also unlikely scenario, he argued, would be for Kiev to let the Crimea and eastern regions go so that Ukrainians can then concentrate on its push towards EU membership. After all, the coal regions in the country may not be as profitable as they used to be, and Kiev would be better off developing industries in other areas.   However, Prof Lieven noted that Kiev is not likely to let this happen because of the ultra-nationalists. Furthermore, if the pro-Western government fails to halt the economic decline of the country, there is a real danger that the disenchanted youth in centre and west of Ukraine will turn towards fascist militias if they continue to suffer heavily from unemployment.

The next outcome, and most likely scenario, would be that the current conflict become  frozen in the same manner as that of Kashmir between India and Pakistan, or that of Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, such frozen conflicts can erupt and whether this status quo in the eastern regions of Ukraine will hold will depend on three things: Firstly, if Ukraine can reverse the sharp decline in its economy. Secondly it would depend on whether the Ukrainian government continues to ramp up its anti-Russian propaganda. If it does so, it would be against what some of the population wants, and infuriate Russia. This could of course alienate more of the population in Ukraine at a time when Putin is enjoying strong popularity ratings in his own country. Last but not least, it is worth looking at the outcome of the US Presidential Elections of 2016 – so far, all the major candidates from both parties seemed to be in favour of arming Ukraine.

The probable nightmare option, Prof Lieven argues, is a full-scale war between Ukraine and Russia. Of course much would depend on the economic and political factors mentioned above, as well as whether the EU and US sanctions will push Russia to the brink. Should Ukraine be armed by the US and sanctions hurt Russia to the point that it would need to take military action, Moscow could invade Ukraine and they may not stop like they did during the Georgian conflict of 2008.

Prof Lieven ended the talk by emphasizing the need for compromise in Ukraine’s future. The west must no longer ignore the desire for Ukrainians to maintain close ties with Russia, and must lead the push for a compromise by insisting that Ukraine to decentralise powers in order to allow regions to maintain their regional identities and close economic ties with Russia. Since two-thirds of Ukrainians oppose NATO membership, the EU should also offer Ukraine a clear pathway for EU membership while promising Russia that it would allow Kiev to remain non-aligned in terms of security matters – such an example would be to disallow Ukraine’s membership of NATO, as it would be deeply immoral to promise them membership without agreeing to defend it in the case of a war.