The Ukraine Crisis: A Story of Misperceptions, Miscalculations & Mismanagement

Written by | Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Thanos Dokos (Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy)

The Ukraine crisis is the most serious European security problem since the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. The situation has acquired alarming proportions whereby it is hard to estimate how long it will last and what consequences it will have for the West and the East. According to Simon Serfaty, it was a mistake to underestimate the demands from Russia, which was weakened after the break-up of the Soviet Union, as it is also a mistake to overestimate these demands nowadays when Russia has grown strong and ever more confident.

The inclusion of the former Eastern bloc countries into EU and NATO was perceived by Moscow as a threat to Russia’s geopolitical agenda – simply because it saw the West as unjustifiably encroaching into sphere of influence (notably in the case of the EU and U.S. support for pro-western political forces in Georgia and Ukraine). Russian high officials responded to this perceived threat from the West by consolidating the state’s power at the expense of democracy. At the same time, western observers turned a blind eye to Vladimir Putin’s clear message of defiance to the world when he dispatched military forces to support pro-Russian separatists in Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. Europe and the United States heavily underestimated the potential danger of Russian intervention in Ukraine, even though they must have been well aware of the precedent of how Moscow has traditionally treated strategically much less important countries on its doorsteps.

Also in the case of Ukraine, we need to take a closer look at the country’s history to understand the causes of the current state of affairs. Ukraine has been a major source of tensions between the East and the West since the beginning of the 21st century. The whole 20th century was marked by a complicated relationship between Kiev and Moscow. The underestimation of Ukraine as Russia’s buffer zone resulted in a strategic blunder, namely the short-sighted and not a well-thought-through EU’s offer to draw Kiev closer to the European orbit. What followed was a tactical mistake – the EU’s unconditional support of the opposition parties in Ukraine regardless of their ideological basis.

By contrast, President Putin, playing in line with “classical” realist rules in foreign policy, exploited the crisis by both annexing the Crimea and gaining massive domestic support. The internationally-recognized principle of inviolability of state borders by military force then became one of the most obvious victims of Putin’s implementation of the realist paradigm in international relations. On the other hand, in light of the Western sanctions, Putin is beginning to realize what the long-term negative consequences of the conflict are for the Russian economy. This presents an opportunity for the initiation of a diplomatic settlement of the crisis.

The West is supposed to come up with a solution that would enable it to avoid a permanent destabilization of Ukraine, save the face of the Russian leadership whilst simultaneously not appearing too soft and conciliatory. In the long run, the West should try to convince Russia to abandon its understanding of world politics as a zero-sum game and to engage Moscow in solving problems of shared interest (for example diplomatic negotiations concerning the crisis in Syria).

(The study can be downloaded here)

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