The hostilities in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed separatists present the most serious challenge to Euro-Atlantic security and stability since the end of the Cold War. This worst military conflict since the Yugoslav Wars of the mid-1990s has undermined core elements of the post–Cold War order and consensus.
Now well into its second year, this confrontation has challenged assumptions and arrangements about Europe’s future thought to have been central and stable since the end of the Cold War. The conflict has called into question the viability of the commitment by the signatories to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act to respect the sovereignty and borders of states in Europe. It has questioned the obligations undertaken by Euro-Atlantic states in the 1990 Charter of Paris, including to respect and develop democratic models of governance. And in a setback for efforts to prevent further nuclear proliferation, it has undermined the 1994 Budapest memorandum signed by Russia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States that provided security assurances to Ukraine in exchange for the surrender of its nuclear weapons.
The unrest in eastern Ukraine has inflamed and reignited historic conflicts and passions across the length and breadth of Eastern and Central Europe. Cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious divisions have been revived and sharpened as conflict has divided regions and groups: the return of ugly, often obscurantist nationalism has become a spark to pit neighbor against neighbor and legitimize hatred and intolerance.
The turmoil has also redivided the Euro-Atlantic region along the East-West fault line in ways thought impossible after the end of the last century’s ideological struggle. It has given rise in Russia and Europe to an emphasis on the differences between East and West and on the competition of different models for development: each side has increasingly defined itself as not the Other, pursued competing ideas of regional integration, and cast its region as a bulwark against the values of the Other, all but smothering any search for common ground.
Events in Ukraine have directly or indirectly affected citizens of every country in the Euro-Atlantic region. The conflict has upended the stability and sense of security that most had come to expect and called into question the very idea that a Euro-Atlantic security system is possible. The economic effects on Ukraine have been calamitous, but the disruption of the Western sanctions imposed on Russia for its involvement in eastern Ukraine and of Russia’s economic decline, fed by falling oil prices, has affected nearly every citizen of the region. The fighting’s toll in terms of human suffering has created more than 1.4 million internally displaced persons in Ukraine as of August 2015 and unsettled the socioeconomic structures of Ukraine and its neighbors.
If American observers are looking for a case in which their leaders’ energy, attention, and sustained effort to resolve a conflict are imperative for the peace and stability of Europe, the United States, and the Euro-Atlantic region, there is no issue more central today than Ukraine.
Understanding the End of the Cold War
The task is daunting. No current conflict evokes more emotion, tendentious analysis, and plain demagogic rhetoric than that unfolding in Ukraine. There exists no agreement on the narrative about the conflict, and there is precious little commonality even about the facts. The controversy surrounding experts’ findings regarding the 2014 downing of a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine is a case in point: Western investigators concluded the plane had been brought down by a Russian missile possibly fired from separatist-held territory, but Russia rejected this analysis.
These factors have complicated the work of all who have labored to bring this conflict under control, seek solutions consistent with internationally accepted norms, and address the real issues that have made the conflict so bitter, divisive, and threatening.
This writer is not an authority on conflict resolution, nor can he offer simple answers to the challenges the Ukraine dilemma presents today. But reflecting on present circumstances as a practitioner of diplomacy for more than three decades, an experienced manager of relations with the part of the world at the center of today’s challenge, and a student of both Soviet and post-Soviet Eurasia, he sees some points of departure that deserve consideration in defining an approach to resolve or manage this issue.
First, history matters. This is a particular challenge for Americans. As a society, Americans are impatient with the past and focused on the future. They believe in getting one problem solved to move to the next. And Americans have little appreciation for the burden history and historical memory impose on the people of Europe, particularly Eastern Europe and Eurasia.
Moreover, while many societies in Western Europe after World War II could confront and deal with many of the demons that had divided European peoples for centuries, that was not the case in the East. There, Communist rule declared such issues closed with the arrival of a new order or suppressed and ignored them and let them fester.
Second, there has never been consensus on how different peoples of the Euro-Atlantic region have understood, viewed, or absorbed the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the ideological divide between East and West, and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Perceptions about everything from the economic impact to the ideological meaning of these events and the upheaval they represented for the people involved have been traumatic and demanding for those most immediately affected and significantly confusing for those more distant from the region.
Further, across the post-Communist states there is still little agreement about how newly liberated peoples will define their societies, economies, national aspirations, and identities. Nor is there consensus or even grudging agreement about what the relations between and among the states of this region will be in the future.
Third, events at the end of the Cold War and in the quarter century since have placed extraordinary socioeconomic and political burdens on the nations and peoples that emerged from the Russian or Soviet empire and the broader Communist world. In particular, the collapse of the Soviet order demanded that citizens of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations absorb and adapt to unprecedented economic and social upheaval with little if any template or idea of how to reshape their societies while preserving their identities.
In political terms, the emergence of a dozen new post-Soviet states and the recovery of national sovereignty and independence by as many more countries in Eastern Europe placed demands on the elites of these societies without precedent. In many cases, the new states had no institutional base from which to begin the process of statehood beyond a national aspiration for independence. These countries had only a vague idea about how to establish governance for themselves and no real experience of living within the borders or with the diversity of populations that most of them had to accommodate.
What Is the Ukraine Conflict About?
With these thoughts in the background, a next question to be addressed is just what the Ukraine dilemma is. There is no step more essential than understanding what observers are facing when they discuss or try to describe the Ukraine conflict. The writer’s appreciation of this conflict owes much to a distinguished and wise Ukrainian statesman, who said that one has to begin any approach to this tragedy by accepting that it is not one conflict but a complex of at least four different yet inextricably linked conflicts that each affect the way the other three play out.
Ukraine’s present conflict is about Ukraine as a pawn, an object in a larger geopolitical struggle that has deep historic roots in old rivalries between East and West. More proximately, it is based on unresolved differences between Russia and the U.S.-led Western alliance system over the shape, nature, leadership, and structure of whatever security system will prevail across the Euro-Atlantic region.
For much of the quarter century since the Soviet collapse, the United States and its allies had unchallenged authority in shaping the approach to post–Cold War regional security and the structures that would lie at its core. This put the focus on the expansion of NATO and the European Union, an approach not openly opposed by Russia until the 2000s but equally never supported by Moscow, even at the outset. As the European institutions absorbed the nations of the former Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe and began exploration of closer ties to the new states on what was Soviet territory, Moscow hardened its position against expansion and set a redline at the former Soviet borders. The Russian-Georgian War in 2008 was a clear sign of that line.
And when Ukraine, following the ouster of its former president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, signaled a determination to link its future to the EU, Moscow reacted with the use of force, violating Ukraine’s sovereignty by annexing Crimea in March 2014 and supporting rebels in the country’s east. Preventing Ukraine from going West has been a central issue in the conflict and is at the core of its geopolitical dimension. Addressing that aspect of the conflict, along with broader questions of security between Russia and the Western alliance system, will ultimately be a requirement for any lasting resolution in Ukraine.
The conflict also has a major geoeconomic dimension. For at least a quarter century, Ukraine and its neighbors have deferred or avoided questions about the long-term orientation of Ukraine’s economy and the degree to which post-Soviet arrangements that linked Russia’s economy with that of Ukraine would be part of Ukraine’s future. As the EU’s expansion to the East was winding down in the late 2000s with the inclusion of several states in Eastern Europe, Brussels undertook a project to construct its relations with its new neighbors on the basis of arrangements it defined as an Eastern Partnership. These arrangements included new trading regimes as well as provisions promising greater openness for the movement of people and a number of commitments to political reform by aspiring partners.
Most significantly for the relations among the states concerned, in particular Ukraine, these new arrangements promised to upset the economic status quo and threatened the web of economic ties Russia had with Ukraine. Ukrainians’ interest in closer relations with the EU also appeared to challenge openly Moscow’s efforts to build a Eurasian Economic Union to offset the integration projects driven by the EU.
While this geoeconomic element is to some extent more recent and more confined to Europe than the broader geopolitical context is, it has nonetheless deepened the challenge Russia has seen in Ukraine’s actions. The Eastern Partnership amplified the threat to Russia’s economic interests and geoeconomic objectives and was seen to alter significantly the status quo of trade arrangements between Ukraine and Russia and between Ukraine and the EU, to Russia’s disadvantage.
Much of this conflict is centered on long-standing unresolved or unaddressed historic issues between Russia and Ukraine. From the earliest moments of Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the country’s relations with Russia have been complex, difficult, and often dysfunctional. Issues raised by the untangling of Russian Imperial and Soviet Communist links that had bound Ukraine’s economy, historical development, political and social institutions, and culture together for centuries have been accompanied by an uncertain and conflicted relationship for two and a half decades. A combination of cooperation and tension and of shared visions and divergent ideas has perpetuated conflict over Ukraine’s identity, fueled suspicions and distrust, and produced unstable relations with Russia.
In this context, issues from the petty to the essential have brought crisis, controversy, and calamity. And the basic question of the degree to which Ukraine defines itself as not Russia and Russia defines Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence has made the small large and the large existential in the eyes of those conducting the affairs of the two nations. What has not been achieved—and what the present crisis has only worsened—is the prospect for the normalization of relations between Russia and Ukraine in the near term, a normalization that will ultimately prove essential to the stability and security of both countries, which geography has thrown together.
Finally, but in many ways perhaps most centrally, there is the many-sided conflict within Ukraine itself. This struggle has multiple dimensions: it is a war for the definition of what it means to be Ukrainian; it is a battle for the kind of socioeconomic and political system that will prevail in the country; it is a quest to create a Ukrainian identity from the disparate parts of the country that were pushed together after World War II by the Soviet government; it is a struggle among economic elites and oligarchs for control and power over Ukraine’s resources; it is a struggle by different linguistic, cultural, and religious communities for status in a new Ukraine; and it is a struggle to determine what is often given most publicity in present times: whether Ukraine will look West to Europe or East to Eurasia.
The present conflict with Russia has reportedly brought Ukrainians outside the rebel-controlled east closer together. And the government in office since the 2013–2014 Euromaidan protests has gained support through several elections, including the free election in May 2014 of Ukraine’s current president, to take steps toward reform of Ukraine’s political and economic systems—reform that will strengthen the state and begin to address such challenges as corruption. But returns are out, the conflict is not settled, and the fate of the present leadership will depend heavily on its ability to tackle successfully at least some of those elements that have prevented Ukraine from developing effective political and economic institutions.
How Can the Ukraine Dilemma Be Resolved?
Addressing Ukraine’s present condition, then, in fact means dealing with four conflicts, and it is unlikely that any stable resolution of the Ukraine conundrum will occur without each being tackled in some effective way. In this context, it is worth considering how to settle these conflicts.
It will be essential that all parties start from the premise that Ukraine has the right and responsibility as a nation to secure agreed borders and define its own future, its own alliances and international linkages, and its own development model. The country’s future will depend first and foremost on the actions, decisions, and vision of Ukrainians themselves—on the degree to which they are able to come together in support of a united vision of their future and act on issues that endanger the stability, security, and very existence of the state.
Without minimizing the importance of outsiders’ ability to play a disruptive or constructive role, Ukraine’s leaders and people will ultimately have to find the formula that will permit the creation of an inclusive, multiethnic, multilingual, and multicultural nation—or risk unending conflict and the potential dismemberment of Ukraine as a country. The leaders will also have to find the means to focus their society and people on a viable approach to improving their living standards, creating a new economic model that limits the role of the oligarchs who presently dominate national economic and political decisionmaking, and developing the economy in ways that increase the welfare of Ukrainians across the country. The focus of all actors must remain on Ukraine itself and on encouraging and supporting its own path to building a more durable, inclusive, and viable pluralistic nation and economy.
Steady and consistent support from outsiders—the EU, the United States, and international institutions—for positive actions and effective institution building in Ukraine should be sustained and fundamental. There will be no short-term resolution of Ukraine’s condition or terms of engagement with its large Eastern neighbor.
However, unless those who are working to achieve practical and realistic outcomes for Ukraine’s domestic issues know they will have sustained economic and political support from European and American friends, their prospects will be poor. This means most of all that Washington and its allies have to maintain Ukraine and the issues it presents to the broader region as central matters of concern. And support for a positive outcome in Ukraine has to receive the resources and attention adequate to the task at hand.
At the same time, together with this support, Ukraine’s Western friends must keep the pressure on Kyiv to continue making progress on domestic reform and change that will strengthen respect and support for the national government. This pressure is needed even as Ukraine’s allies have to maintain the initiative and momentum in support of ending the fighting and then stabilizing the peace in the country’s east.
This will be the minimum to begin addressing issues between Kyiv and Moscow but will also be essential for providing Kyiv with the room to pursue other domestic priorities. Kyiv will profit from external support to the extent it can defuse issues that have divided the capital from actors in the east since the eruption of the fighting there. Building even minimal bridges through constructive action on political, cultural, economic, and other matters will be essential for beginning the process of restoring even low-level trust between the east and Ukraine’s central government.
Finally, the resolution of the Ukraine conflict will require steps to address both its geoeconomic and its geopolitical and security dimensions. To a considerable extent, the geoeconomic issues are the more amenable to resolution. They are bounded by the reality that all stakeholders in this issue are now parts of the global economic system and of global institutions such as the World Trade Organization; all are interdependent and linked by critical economic ties—energy, for example.
At the same time, various emergent trading blocs and groupings, including the potential new Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Eurasian Economic Union, are structured in ways that create conditions to the advantage of East or West. That makes the economy of a country like Ukraine an object of rivalry between the two sides. Certainly, the failure of the EU and Moscow to resolve differences about the provisions that Ukraine accepted under the Eastern Partnership was a contributing factor in increasing tensions between Kyiv and Moscow before the outbreak of hostilities. Addressing this dimension of the conflict would therefore seem a logical step to take at an early stage, with benefits for all parties involved.
Taking up the geopolitical and regional security dimensions of the conflict is more complex. One thing has become clear from the Russian-Georgian War in 2008 and Ukraine’s present conflict: the model for a new security system based on the enlargement of NATO and the EU has been unable to ensure the ultimate security outcome intended. This is primarily a function of Russian unwillingness to accept the model adopted freely by the states of Western and Eastern Europe and of Moscow’s insistence on an alternate vision that has asserted Russia’s right to predominant influence in its own sphere of interest—in practice, the former Soviet space, with the seeming exception of the Baltic states.
At this point, the one potential ray of hope comes from the fact that neither the Western idea nor the Russian approach has achieved the security that both sides have sought and require for strategic stability. That fact alone could hold the possibility that eventually the key stakeholders will determine that it is in the interests of all to come to terms on a more effective approach to building the future security of the entire region.
Such a conclusion was reached once before when the Western and Soviet blocs met in Finland to conclude the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. It would certainly be reassuring to see that East and West are somewhere near such a time again, but the present East-West relationship makes that unlikely without a major breakthrough.
The Path to a Renewed Euro-Atlantic Relationship
One glimmer of optimism for those seeking resolution of the larger East-West conflict lies in the recent reduction in fighting in eastern Ukraine and the somewhat improved potential for a negotiated settlement of Ukraine’s present tragedy. If the parties now involved in Ukraine can show a path to peace and stability for that nation, then the way may be open to a larger discussion of a more stable, cooperative, and productive relationship among all the countries of the Euro-Atlantic region.
But to achieve this outcome, Western, Russian, and Ukrainian leaders have to maintain a clear and sustained focus on Ukraine. They cannot permit the idea of another frozen conflict to become an accepted outcome or a newly divided Europe to become the new normal. Nor can they allow another crisis to deflect attention from the achievement of a Ukraine settlement. To accept the failure of the vision of a Euro-Atlantic community that assures all nations both mutual security and respect for the principles agreed to in Helsinki and Paris is to surrender to the past. Ukrainians and all those who ended the Cold War a quarter century ago deserve an outcome worthy of their accomplishment and necessary to everyone’s future.