On 4th August, the world marked 100 years since World War I, a conflict that resulted in 16 million deaths and was in many ways a prerequisite for Word War II.
A century later, a new conflict is brewing, this time between Russia and Western countries, with Ukraine being the hotspot of military activity. Ever since a wave of demonstrations and civil unrest broke out in Kiev on 21 November 2013, Western leaders have blamed Russia for the escalation of conflict, imposing economic sanctions on the country. However one of the primary reasons for the intensification and continuation of this crisis is a complete lack of an attempt to understand Russia’s position. Instead of looking to communicate and engage with Russia to find a mutually beneficial solution, Western policy seems to be based on threatening Russia to do as the West tells them, or else bear the brunt of further sanctions. There has been a complete disregard towards Russia’s side of the story.
Russia is understandably aggravated about the events that took place in Ukraine, and for being blamed for the crisis. From their point of view, it is the West (primarily America) that is responsible for the situation Ukraine finds itself in. Russia is convinced that it was a Western organised coup that toppled former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich and led to the pro-Western Petro Poroshenko being chosen as the new leader. The Kremlin is certain that the US is pulling the strings in Kiev right now. It has good reasons to believe this.
Firstly, there are the billions of dollars and euros that the West has been providing to Ukraine for the past decade to promote Western ideology. This has been done through funding “pro-European” organisations and individuals. European Commission’s “Financial Transparency” website indicates that €496 million has been given to these groups between 2004 and 2013. During the Euromaidan protests in Kiev, scores of American and EU politicians visited Ukraine for “talks” with the opposition and openly encouraged protesters to keep going until they achieve their aims. Since the coup, the US administration has been open about providing financial and military aid to the new government in Kiev. To comprehend how Russia must have felt about these developments, one simply has to ask themselves how would the West react if Russia were to provide €496 million to the Euro-sceptic parties in Europe and have Russian politicians openly visit the EU during the recent European elections and call on the public to vote against the establishment. How would the EU and American leaders react if after the European elections, Russia provided financial support to parties like UKIP in the UK and Front National in France? The West would have been enraged if these events took place, yet they expect Russia to not react when the West did it in Ukraine. Add in the fact that the US has been carrying out regime changes all over the world ever since it became a hegemon in 1945, coupled with suggestions that the primary objective of the US is to overthrow Putin’s government, it becomes clear why the Kremlin feels indignant and unfairly treated, and is unlikely to alter its stance because of Western sanctions. For the Kremlin, this is a matter of Russia’s survival as an independent state, free from Western influence.
If a diplomatic solution is to be found, then three parties – Russia, Ukraine and the EU – need to have a discussion on how to come up with a solution that is favourable to all sides. The United States should not partake in these discussions, as this is a matter for the European continent.
For now, rather than talking to the Kremlin, the West’s policy is based primarily on the hope that Mr. Putin will eventually change course or that elite and public support for him will fracture. This policy is not in Europe’s interests. Already the EU has been feeling the negative effects of fractured relations with Russia. Germany reported a hefty drop in industrial orders. Meanwhile, Italy reported that it had fallen back into recession after two quarters of falling output. In London, the FTSE 100 index was down by more than 90 points – a drop of 1.4%. Shares were down by more than 1% in Paris and Frankfurt, and by more than 2% in Milan. Now that Russia has also imposed sanctions on Western agricultural produce, Europe’s fragile economy will be shaken even more.
Rather than continuing on the path that spirals towards complete breakdown of cooperation, the EU should be working towards re-establishing real channels of communication with Mr. Putin. From Kremlin’s point of view, Russia wants to see a cease-fire in Ukraine and Kiev honouring its commitments to transfer power to regional governments in the east. Long-term, a conversation about the future of Ukraine should be held between Russia and the West. A neutral Ukraine that cooperates with both the EU and Russia would be favourable. From Europe’s point of view, these proposals would not undermine their position and aims (unless their real objectives are an anti-Russia Ukraine and NATO presence on the Ukrainian territory). Kiev’s government would still be run by a pro-Western President and Ukraine would remain intact, with more autonomy for the eastern regions.
Refusal to even consider discussing these proposals with Russia would confirm Kremlin’s fears that the West is not interested in a diplomatic solution, and simply wants to undermine and weaken Russia. Such a confirmation would result in a point of no return – a humanitarian disaster in Ukraine and unfixable relations between Russia and the West.
As the world remembers the tragic consequences of WW1 a century ago, understanding how to avoid similar conflicts in the future is imperative. A diplomatic solution to the Ukrainian crisis is still alive but is slowly fizzling out as the weeks go by. Discussions need to take place urgently. A failure to do so will result in no other option but to use military means to solve the conflict. This would not be beneficial to anyone.
Alexander Clackson is the founder of Global Political Insight, a London-based think tank and a political media organisation.