The Ukraine Crisis as a Proxy Conflict: Some Solutions?

In the concluding part of a series for the PDU, Maria Mitaev suggests some ways in which the EU and other international actors might move forward in the Ukraine crisis.


Policymakers and pundits may argue about the legitimacy of both the concept of privileged geopolitical interests, as well as of the methods that states resort to pursue those, but the fait accompli of the Russian grip on some territories in its Near Abroad – along with the hearts and minds of the significant portion of the public in these countries – suggests that Brussels and Washington have to search for alternative methods of involvement.  The policy paradox of future EU enlargement in the region may be that to see a further eastward spreading of its ideals of peace, prosperity and democracy in the longer run, the EU may have to refrain from formal enlargement in the short-term.  Ukraine coupled with other EP states may indeed have to become a kind of ‘buffer zone’ to ensure cooperation or modus vivendi between Russia and the EU on the one hand and Russia and NATO on the other.  A quick and resolute formal integration into the EU structures would only further antagonise Moscow and make it further tighten its grip on Crimea (and perhaps also eastern Ukraine by extension) and Transnistria.

Furthermore, such an integration would alienate and disengage the pro-Russian elites and publics in the secessionist entities in these states.  At the same time, an equidistant relationship with Ukraine and other countries of the Eastern Partnership would on the one hand reflect the existing geopolitical cleavages in EP states and reduce the risk of polarisation of the publics in these countries.  On the other hand, it would engage Russia as opposed to pushing it into further isolation.  Moscow and Brussels should agree on a set of principles of cooperation in these countries that would, first, facilitate progress in democratic reform and economic development and, secondly, ensure the respect of the Helsinki Final Act principles, including non-interference in internal affairs.  Both Moscow and Brussels should refrain from either-us-or-them logic, but instead promote the principles of indivisible security and cooperation.  The Eastern Neighbourhood, or the ‘Near Abroad’ to use the Russian equivalent, should become a level playing field where an open competition of values and models prevails.  Soft power should become the primary policy strategy.  The EU stands to win more in the longer run in terms of getting a more democratic Russia by engaging it rather than further pushing it into isolationism.

Another paradox may be that by sending the current Russian elite into isolationism, the West may be indirectly contributing to the strengthening of their base with domestic constituency.  As Washington and Brussels lash out at the Putin administration over their actions in Crimea, the Russian leader is able to respond by building up a nationalistic rhetoric that appears to work well with the Russian electorate.  In the aftermath of the Georgian War, Russia has shown that it feels quite comfortable in its international, Western- imposed isolationism, never abandoning its self-assertiveness.  The fact that Putin’s support rises so sharply, just as in the middle of the Georgia campaign, may be a sign of the Russian public not being particularly concerned with the international isolation that has ensued following the Crimea campaign.  Ironically, in the nineteenth century, it was conflict in the Crimean Peninsula that marked Russia’s slide away from Europe and into its own petulant seclusion.  But President Putin would appear to be more concerned about retaining popularity with his domestic electorate.  His tactic on Ukraine is a win-win within his major area of concern – domestically and within the neighbourhood.  He is essentially killing two birds with one stone – boosting his support with his domestic electoral constituency and ensuring that Ukraine is unable to pursue its pro-Western integration course freely.  The economic, political and diplomatic cost of the enterprise in Ukraine may be significant, but given such benefit, Putin is apparently prepared to pay it.

Policy Recommendations

  • It remains highly important to continue working with both Ukraine and Russia to urge them to exercise military restraint and avoid a bloodbath.  A diplomatic solution should remain the only way out of the crisis.
  • The UN or the OSCE should set up a fact-finding mission that would document any human rights violations in Ukraine and thereby help establish whether there is indeed any threat to ethnic minorities or the Russian-speaking population in the country.  The results of the investigation shall determine whether intervention by the Russian Federation into the territory of the sovereign state of Ukraine had any legitimate ground.
  • An independent international commission should be established by the UN with a mandate to probe into the course of events leading to the change of power in Kyiv.  The aim of the fact-finding mission shall be to investigate the origins and the course of the events in Ukraine, including with regard to international law and human rights law, and the accusations made in that context. The geographical scope and time span of the investigation shall be sufficiently broad to determine all the possible causes of the events. The results of the investigation will be presented to Russia, the US, the EU, the OSCE and the UN, and the newly-elected authorities in Kyiv, in the form of a report.
  • Aside from rhetorical counters, there seem to be limited opportunities for the West to address the situation at the moment.  In the short- to midterm, rhetorical condemnation and further isolation of the current Russian political elite are pretty much the only policy options available.  These would not amend the Russian position on Ukraine or alter the status quo in any way though.  The only tangible result of such measures to be expected would be a freezing of dialogue with the West and more increases in gas prices for Europe.  In spite of Germany’s evolving position, even sanctions from the EU may be difficult to enlist given consensus requirement – due to EU energy and economic dependence on Russia.  In today’s increasingly globalised world, feasibility of effective economic sanctions is reduced to a minimum.  The sanctions are not to achieve any tangible result in terms of amending the Russian line of conduct and their effect remains symbolic.  Nevertheless, adopting sanctions against Russia over Crimea would send a strong signal that in the post-World War II world order, sovereign states’ borders are not to be violated.
  • Overall, there is not so much the West can do at the moment against Russia’s hard power. Given that President Putin’s Crimea campaign produces a dramatic rise in his popularity, a change of administration and subsequent change in policy direction are not to be expected in the short term.  Attempts should be made at engaging Russia and restoring trust and cooperation in bilateral frameworks.  The Russia-Western relationship should be a pragmatic partnership across strategic issues in which the interests of both sides are engaged.  In the longer run, the EU projecting its soft power in the region and engaging with people – along the lines of bottom-up approach – may have an added value as a policy strategy.  Russian policy is mainly driven by strategic calculations and its own interests and geopolitical posture in the region rather than Ukraine’s economic prosperity and welfare or quality of life of the Ukrainians.  In this sense, Ukraine is being exploited as a tool to achieve those Russian ends.  This strengthens the EU’s potential of projecting its image as a project that has key values of genuine democracy, rule of law, order, peace and welfare at its core.
  • Most immediately, if stability and security on the EU’s doorstep is to be achieved, the international community should convene a major conference on security in Eurasia.  Two major problems should be discussed: the reinvigoration of international law and the key principles of the Helsinki Final Act in particular as well as the balance of forces in Eurasia. The OSCE should become the venue for such discussions.  All member-states should sign a new edition of the Helsinki Final Act – a legally binding international document that would re-affirm their commitment to its principles, including respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, inviolability of borders and respect for the rights of minorities.  Because of the deep cleavages within the Ukrainian public on issues of foreign policy, Russia may indeed have to be granted legally binding assurances on NATO non- enlargement eastward.  This could be done in exchange for Moscow’s legally-binding commitment to withdrawal of all troops and ammo from the entire territory of Ukraine (including Crimea) that arrived there since the beginning of the crisis and repudiation of accession-related acts, meaning a return to status quo ante – coupled with a withdrawal of Russian troops and ammunition from Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and denunciation of 2008 recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  When raising the issue of revising the status quo in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the West should be prepared to revise the issue of the status of Kosovo.  Additionally, any such international Agreement should include legally binding safeguards for the protection of ethnic minorities in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.  The respect of this clause could be monitored by the OSCE by giving it a full international mandate to conduct surprise spot inspections as well as longer-term ones on the ground.  Such monitors could additionally assume the role of ensuring security and order on the ground in the short term.  The signatory parties should state their commitment to ensuring and guaranteeing stability and rule of law in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.
  • It most probably makes no sense to call a referendum in Ukraine on the question of the country’s foreign policy course, as such a plebiscite is likely to reflect and accentuate the country’s traditional, long-time divide between East and West.  Instead, this means that perhaps Russia and the EU should consider setting a partnership that accepts an equidistant Ukraine both politically and economically.  Creative ways should be explored as to how to resolve this in the legal sphere.
  • The logic of EU foreign policy has been enlargement and spreading of norms of democracy and rule of law through formal admittance of new nation-states and ensuring their technical compliance with the Copenhagen criteria.  Perhaps, the time has come to revise this strategy toward the spreading of norms without actual accession or legal adjustment, by way of cooperation agreement and social learning.
  • Finally, given the international stand-offs produced by interventions in various regions as well as the humanitarian aspect of the problem, the international community may wish to engage in meaningful discussions on the margins of the UN to further clarify the minimum threshold for a ‘humanitarian intervention’ into a sovereign state – with a possibility of codification of such norms into international treaty law.

Maria Mitaev has held professional assignments with the US State Department and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the region. Her education background includes an MA in Political Science from the Central European University (Budapest), and an MSc in Public Policy and Administration from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She wishes to note that, although this analysis remains largely prescient, some details may have been overtaken by recent events.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Project for Democratic Union or any of its other associates.

Image: ‘Putin by Platon’ courtesy of firdaus omar via Flickr, released under Creative Commons.

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