Ukraine scenarios and Central Europe

By Edward Lucas


European policymakers are eating the ashes of their failed policy in Ukraine. Anyone who six months ago said that the Yanokovych regime would use live ammunition against protestors would have been denounced as a scaremonger. Now it is happening on the streets of a European capital.

The scenarios are bleak. Stalemate - which seemed a bitterly disappointing outcome only days ago - is now the least bad. Perhaps the authorities will decide that they cannot crush the protestors, and will draw back, meaning months of tension, jitters and uncertainty. But I think the likely scenarios are worse.

Putin wants Yanukovych to “dip his hands in blood”. Only by forcing an irreversible breach with Europe and America could the Kremlin be sure that its Ukrainian satrap would behave. At the time, I thought that would be unlikely. Yanukovych did not need to
use force against the demonstrators. They clearly lacked the critical mass to block his policy, let alone to overturn his rule. Their numbers are too small,  and their geographical focus too narrow. Western observers have been surprisingly unconcerned by the presence of the Svoboda party in the opposition’s ranks. But to many Ukrainians, the stench of right-wing extremism taints the whole opposition. The opposition demonstrators have not
achieved the reach of the “Orange” camp in the east of the country during the revolution of 2004-5. They needed to exceed it to have a chance of winning.

So the rational (and likely) response of Yanukovych would have been to let Maidan fizzle and split, using a dose of soft repression to hasten the process. Using force would reduce his options: he may have been convinced by the Putin offer in Sochi, but he surely does not want to end up like Aleksander Lukashenko in Belarus: humiliated by his country’s economic dependency on Russia.

All the possible scenarios look bleak. One is that the crackdown continues, and succeeds. Ukraine becomes another Belarus, with a demoralised and marginal opposition which touts its wares in Strasbourg, Brussels and Washington DC, but has no real role in domestic politics. We will see a dreadful roll-back of the gains of the last 10 years. The newly passed repressive laws will be used in full, not just against public protest, but
against independent media, civil society, and other institutions. Higher education will be one target: say goodbye to the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, one of the finest institutions of its kind anywhere in the region. We may see the reintroduction of a visa regime for visitors from Western countries. All kinds of foreign-related and foreign-sponsored activity will be impeded or banned.

It can get worse still. Ukraine could join the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the Kremlin’s answer to NATO. The much-mocked military integration of Russia and Belarus has proved remarkably successful (this was a big difference between the Zapad-09 and Zapad-13 exercises). If the regime in Kyiv proceeds with military and security integration with Russia, Central Europe will experience what the Baltic states have felt for several years: the icy sensation of a hard security threat.

If the prospect of a successful crackdown is bleak, the consequences of an unsuccessful one look even worse. If the regime in Kyiv tries and fails to impose its will on Western Ukraine, we could have something close to civil war on the borders of the EU. That involves not just human suffering (and quite possibly large numbers of refugees), but also economic dislocation and grave risks of outsiders being drawn in. What happens if someone - a real or invented band of nationalist guerrillas, say - attacks one of the east-west oil or gas pipelines? What happens if Russians in Crimea are targeted? It is easy to imagine the Kremlin demanding that its forces be allowed to restore order (and not much harder to imagine the Yanukovych regime accepting the “offer” of help).

It would be rash to assume that any conflict will be a clear one: in a fight between the grim skinheads of Svoboda (or still more radical groupings) and the riot police or interior-ministry troops of the regime, which side does Europe back?  It is easy to imagine the fun the Kremlin propagandists will have with the idea of EU defending the proud heirs of the Galician SS.

If a crackdown fails, Ukraine’s territorial integrity could come into question. In a continent which likes to think it has settled border questions, that raises a series of unpleasant and frightening prospects.

It would be nice to think that Europe is seized of these dangers and doing everything to avert them. I see nothing of the kind. The overwhelming political and diplomatic priority is making the Syria peace talks in Geneva succeed. That requires Russian help. The appetite for confrontation with the Kremlin (which as I have argued is the real instigator of the crackdown) has never been lower. We also have a new German government, where the new foreign minister is wedded to the idea that dialogue with Russia, not confrontation is the answer. Some, such as the new special envoy for Russia Gernot Erler,  even think that the answer to the problems of eastern Europe is explicitly to include Russia in discussions about the region’s future.