February 22, 2015
While the western world is proud of its exhausted peace doves Merkel and Hollande, Kiev is facing an incredibly difficult task. The only winner of the Minsk-talks last week is Putin; he finally pushed back the EU and NATO from his borders, writes Coen van de Ven.
Coen van de Ven is a Dutch journalist and editor of Europe’s Footsteps, a project publishing analysis and in-depth coverage on issues concerning Europe’s global challenges.
After shaking and gently nodding the head for Merkel, Putin steps firmly forwards, reaches out and shakes the hand of a visibly affected president of the Ukraine, Petro Porosjenko. German counsellor Merkel stays in the middle and even smiles, as if she is the kindergarten teacher who just brought bully and victim together. The bully, Putin, is obviously more controlled and relaxed about this event than its Ukrainian counterpart.
And of course he is. Vladimir Putin has proven himself a master strategist since the start of the Ukraine conflict in 2014. Last week again in Minsk where he achieved the best outcome for Russia when it comes to the situation in the Ukraine: the country will stay divided.
But while the ink dries, everybody knows that it won’t be calm in the near future. And that is exactly what Putin wants since the borders between the western liberal world and his autocratic regime has incredibly shrunken since the 90s.
In order to find a same level of polarisation between the west and east, we have to go back to the cold war. When this ideological war came to an end in 1991, the west considered this as a victory for western democratic and humanistic values. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama, even stated in his book ‘The End of History’ that the end of the cold war was not only “the passing of a particular period of post-war history,” but also the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” A well spread idea in the western world that soon resonated in eastern parts of Europe where joining the NATO and the EU became a trend.
Russia had to watch this with great disquiet but wasn’t strong enough to act. During the NATO-bombing of the Serbian army, president Boris Yeltsin couldn’t do more than commenting: “This is the first sign of what could happen when NATO comes right up to the Russian Federation’s borders.”
When Putin succeeded Yeltsin in 1999, he found his country nearly neighbouring the liberal world. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic had become members of NATO while Finland and Austria had joined European Union.
“During the negotiations on the unification of Germany they gave assurances that NATO would not extend its zone of operation to the east,” Gorbachev wrote in his memoirs about this. It reflects the strong feeling a lot of Russians, in and outside theDuma, have about the ‘broken promise’ of the west.
Although there was never an in black and white immortalized promise. But according to released German states documents, the western world gave Russia the impression that there won’t be more expansion after the reunification of Germany: “We are aware that NATO membership for a unified Germany raises complicated questions. For us, however, one thing is certain: NATO will not expand to the east,” said Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the German foreign minister at the time. According to the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union in de 90s, the Russians were told that membership of Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland, was off the table.
Russia warns the west
Nowadays nearly the whole of Europe is member of NATO, the EU or at least one of them. So when NATO formally announced in 2008, that it was considering Georgia and the Ukraine as members, Moscow was quick in its response: “Georgia’s and Ukraine’s membership in the alliance is a huge strategic mistake which would have most serious consequences for pan-European security,” foreign minister Alexander Grushko said. In the same year, Russia gave a strong warning when it crossed the borders of Georgia.
But it wasn’t enough to stop the marching to the east of NATO and the EU. Although it slowed down the relation with Georgia, the Ukraine was still at top of the list and when the EU unveiled its ‘Eastern Partnership’ initiative, Russia again saw this as a direct attack on Russia’s interest in the region. Sergey Lavrov, foreign minister of Russia, accused the EU of creating a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. And when one takes in account that these moves come together with a years of aid towards democratic individuals and organization, the Russian response on the Ukraine-crisis isn’t a surprise anymore.
Yanukovych caved to Russian pressure and refused to sign an economic deal with the EU. Protesters draped the Maidan Square in Kiev with European and Ukrainian flags, side by side. Again supported and encouraged by the west. Russia on the other hand saw its chance to pull the Ukraine back to a more ‘Russian-atmosphere’ while pretending to protect the Russian minority. A beautiful story for back home where Russians got the feeling that their big leader is protecting their people, in fact Putin’s moves are part of a bigger strategy to finally push back the NATO and the EU out of the Russian territory.
Kiev is facing difficult tasks
The latest ceasefire fits perfectly into this strategy. It provides Kiev with an incredibly difficult task and ensures that the country will stay divided the coming years.
First of all, the latest front line between the two groups will be graduate in the direction of a real border, which means that Kiev has to accept the loss of ground which was occupied the last weeks. The two days between signing and starting the ceasefire have resulted in rebels creating an even more strategic position. Despite the fact that rebels have to accept that this land will formally stay ‘Ukraine’, they are the ones who will control it. Kiev has to come up with a new constitution wherein extensive self-government is guaranteed for the regions occupied by separatists.
Kiev remains disappointed. Although The Minsk Treaty promises to give the Eastern border areas back to Ukrainian control, but the conditions are high and aren’t likely to be met any time soon. The separatists have to be involved in the process and that gives them a tool to usurp more power. And maybe even more worrying: with separatist control over parts of the border, the Russians can keep throwing weapons over the fence if they feel like it.
Russia has achieved exactly what it did before in Georgia: it tore apart the country shrewdly. And since the EU and NATO aren’t very eager to embrace divided countries, the appetite for Ukrainian integration is gone.
Putin will surely be satisfied.
This piece was originally published on Europe’s Footsteps. Read more here.