EU-Russia Tug-of-War over Ukraine: A Geopolitical Perspective

Written by | Tuesday, December 24th, 2013
PROF. Jørgen Ørstrøm Møller

Ukraine is fast becoming an ideological battlefield. On one side, the Western European societal model – liberal representative democracy plus the market economy. On the other side, the old-style czarist model – repression plus oligarchic economics merging into a form of autarchy. Behind the curtain, a second conflict starts to grow in importance. Russia and its President, Vladimir Putin, adopts and applies conventional, traditional strategic thinking in the von Clausewitz tradition that War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means. The EU approach rejects Clausewitz by renouncing war seeking political objectives by pursuing political options.
It does not come as a surprise that things have deteriorated to a stage where Ukraine is on the brink of civil war with Russia almost desperately trying to prevent it from following the Central- and Eastern European countries path towards Europe after the collapse of the Soviet- and Russian Empire.
Without Ukraine, Russia will never stand a chance of becoming a great power again. Its 45 million people of which around 75 per cent is Ukrainian and around 18 per cent Russian would increase Russia’s population with 1/3. Its industrial capacity is considerable as is the case for its agricultural potential. Vast reserves of shale gas/oil have led to agreements with Shell and Chevron auguring self-sufficiency around 2020 removing the leverage supply of gas and oil gives Russia. Chinese investment in agriculture has been forthcoming reserving five per cent of the landmass for food production going to China.
These investments may not be welcome from a Russian point of view. Geographically, Russia’s southern border is exposed with Ukraine outside its sphere of interest requiring this vulnerability to be incorporated in Moscow’s military planning at a moment when Russia is busy beefing up its military presence in the Arctic. The Russian ‘nation’ or maybe it is more correct to say the Russian identity can be traced back to Kiev – not Moscow. Hence, rubbing salt into the wound over Ukraine and its people’s apparent unwillingness to link their future to Russia is a kind of cultural break or, even worse, a snub.
Superficially, the EU offer of a partnership constitutes better access to markets and the prospect of modernizing Ukraine’s economy. This might ire the Kremlin, but does not explain the intense opposition. The reason behind that stance is that a successful expansion of EU’s societal model so different from the Russian one will leave Russia isolated. In that case, the Russian leadership will find it increasingly difficult and almost impossible to stem the tide of a similar movement demanding political changes inside Russia. Preventing Ukraine from choosing this path is therefore the first line of defence – seen from the Kremlin – of its own political system. In a way, it is seen as a question of survival very much as some of the czars in the 19th century (primarily Nicholas I) saw shutting the windows towards the West as a prerequisite for political survival.
The European Union may not fully have seen this and entered into talks in 2009 with not only Ukraine, but Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova (from Russia’s perspective a manoeuver to envelop it) in the mood of extending trade concessions and economic benefits. That it would also force these countries to change their societal model may not have been overlooked, but the interpretation or understanding of how Russia would react to such a change in its ‘near abroad’ was apparently not analysed; at least no proper diplomatic preparations for the inevitable show down with Russia and confrontation with the Russian-backed rulers of Ukraine were initiated.
EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy has broken new ground in international relations by renouncing war and explicitly selecting political means to achieve political objectives mainly through its societal model. This proved tremendously successful in Central- and Eastern Europe. Looking at Ukraine, it seems almost superfluous to highlight how attractive the Western European model is in the eyes of its people. They lived first under Soviet dictatorship and then suffered from a combination of incompetence, authoritarian rulers, and kleptocracy robbing them of the country’s wealth and blocking development of a promising economy. Some observers might label it arrogance, but the core of this is that the EU, despite its flaws and shortcomings, has reached a remarkable degree of political maturity that people living at its periphery can only dream of – and they do – when comparing with their own situation.
The problem for the EU and the Ukrainian people is what surfaced in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s: There is no real answer when up against opponents choosing to play hardball by reverting to the Clausewitzian way of conducting foreign policy. Faced with Russian threats towards Ukraine, the EU does not really know what to do.
The victim of the course events has taken is obviously the Ukraine’s people. Despite its rich natural resources and economic potential, mismanagement has brought it close to economic disaster. The third quarter of 2013 saw the economy slip into recession. The financial markets do not seem interested in providing sums estimated to somewhere between USD 20 and 30 billion including natural gas payments to Russia. A loan package of USD 15 billion is discussed with the IMF, which is likely to link loans to policy steps running counter to the current regimes policies. EU may find some money in case Ukraine joins the partnership, but recalling the Eurozone’s crisis over the last five years, EU money is unlikely to be anywhere near USD 20-30 billion.
It seems most likely that after tergiversation bringing further hardship to the harshly treated and unfortunate people living there, Ukraine will end by joining the partnership with the EU. Firstly, this is what the majority of the people want. Secondly, the EU offers a large and growing market despite current problems. Russia cannot do the same being almost totally dependent on the oil price not knowing what financial resources will be at its disposal in the future. The World Bank has just downgraded its growth for 2013 to 1.3 per cent with a forecast for 2014 at 2.2 per cent.
If this becomes the trajectory, the Europeans need to brace themselves for a Russian riposte aiming at intimidating Ukraine and Europe with one stroke. Then comes the time to find out whether there actually is a Common Foreign- and Security Policy. Maybe equally important comes the time for the world to know whether the bold European attempt to end the Clautzewitzian paradigm to focus on politics and societal models can survive in the beginning of the 21st century.
For those who ponder what Russia might do, it is worthwhile noting that simultaneously with the Ukrainian crisis news were out that Russia’s armed forces have moved nuclear-capable Iskander missiles closer to Europe’s borders in response to the US-led deployment of a disputed air defence shield.

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