6th March 2014 – by Sven Biscop* - europeangeostrategy.org
Rather than its adroitness, the Ukrainian crisis highlights the failure of Russian strategy.
Russian long-term strategy failed, for the model of society and the type of relationship on offer were evidently not appealing at all to the mass of demonstrators who forced Yanukovich to come to terms. By contrast, the social model associated with the European Union (EU) – though in austerity times it is in fact not always applied within the Union – clearly appeals much more to many Ukrainians. They feel that European governments protect and provide for their citizens and expect their government to do the same.
Once Yanukovich fled the country, immediately after three EU Member States had brokered an agreement, Russian short-term strategy failed as well. Either Yanukovich decided to leave the scene without giving prior warning to Moscow, which means Russia lost control, or his great escape was part of the Russian plan, in which case it was faulty, for the resulting vacuum was immediately filled by the opposition.
Subsequent Russian military action in the Crimea is an over-reaction attempting to mask the weakness of Moscow’s position. That does not render it less of a crisis, which does threaten the peace in Europe. But it does mean that a solution can be found, as long as the Russian government is permitted to save face.
Not all of its objectives are necessarily unreasonable. But having built its domestic power base on the image of external power, it cannot allow that image to be pierced. Especially not in what it persists in presenting to its own public as its sphere of influence. To that end it prefers to grab what actually it could receive by asking politely.
Europe and the United States (US) have their own concerns with their image and legitimacy though, so they too want to appear resolute in the face of the crisis. Targeted sanctions such as travel restrictions and freezing of assets can serve that purpose, signaling at the same time resolve in addressing the crisis and prudence in wishing to avoid escalation. Energy need not now come into play. Moscow and Brussels know that they are so dependent upon each other that both would be unduly hurt by a freezing of energy deliveries. Europe more in the short term, but Russia more in the long term, for Europe represents a far greater share of its exports than Russia of Europe’s imports.
A military solution there certainly is not. Too much posturing through NATO can only be counter-productive, making it more difficult for Russia to back out. Precisely because Russia must maintain the image – or mirage – of its sphere of influence, NATO is not the right conduit to manage the crisis in Ukraine (as it was not in Georgia in 2008).
Crisis diplomacy at the highest level by the EU, unequivocally backed by the most relevant Member States, and the US, is the only option to broker a deal. An agreement certainly seems possible. Russia’s lease on the naval base in Sevastopol can be guaranteed by the Ukrainian interim government. Elections in Ukraine as a whole and a referendum on independence or increased autonomy in the Crimea can both be pushed back and held on the same day, under international observation. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), where Russia, the EU and the US are all represented, could organise this. Future governments can enact strong guarantees of minority rights (another area in which the OSCE has great expertise).
In this ‘Crimean war’, the only brigade that has to charge therefore is the diplomatic brigade.
* Prof. Sven Biscop is a Senior Editor of European Geostrategy. He is also Director of the ‘Europe in the World Programme’ at Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels. He writes here in a personal capacity.