At three months since the beginning of the Kiev government military operation against anti-government rebels in Ukraine’s south-east, Europe appears to be acting to the detriment of its reputation as a peace and rule-of-law project, as well as its broader economic and trade interests and political goals in the region. The expansion of restrictive measures against the Russian Federation adopted July 17 and 29 by the European Council is meant to put further pressure on Moscow which Brussels holds responsible for the outbreak of separatism in Ukraine. Yet, by continuing to focus on the outcome of armed resistance rather than root causes of secessionist movement in Donetsk and Lugansk, Europe may unwillingly contribute to the perpetuation of violence in Ukraine, meaning that a ceasefire will become ever more distant and more victims among innocent civilians are yet to come.
While the West is contemplating further pressure, the news from the civil war zone in south-eastern Ukraine relate casualties among civilians on a daily basis. Since the beginning of the Kiev government military operation against the secessionists, there have been numerous reports of the violations of the methods of war allowed by international law (jus in bello), such as indiscriminate shelling of residential areas resulting in the killing of civilian population, the use of forbidden weapons producing indiscriminate shelling, preventing civilians from leaving the war zone to a safe heaven, killing and abduction of civilians and journalists, and other – all of which require an impartial international probe and bringing the culpable to justice. The Odessa massacre stands out as a distinct yet not less tragic episode in this crisis. By mid-July, the refugee and IDPs flight from the conflict zone has gone up to hundreds thousands, as confirmed by the UN.
These developments make procrastination on achieving a ceasefire – which Western sanctions tantamount to – an irrelevant policy tool as running counter to Europe’s values of peace, security and rule of law. What is warranted instead an immediate diplomatic intervention of urging a dialogue between the warring parties that would bring to a halt the continued bloodshed in Ukraine.
The daily death toll in Ukraine war zone is not dramatically different from that in Gaza (the latter having population density twice as high) where the international community has been inclined to focus on the humanitarian component of the crisis by urging a ceasefire. Yet, in Ukraine, the West has preferred to engage in a politics of blame game, looking for evidence of ostensible Russian military support for the rebels.
In the aftermath of the Crimea annexation, in its interpretation of the crisis Europe appears to be driven by inertia of the annexation stage. What may have been an appropriate policy option at the stage of Crimea annexation may be largely obsolete with respect to the ongoing armed stand-off between Kiev fighters and the pro-Russia separatists in Lugansk and Donetsk. Given that Moscow didn’t quite get it right in terms of international law (is anything wrong after Kosovo recognition?), Western move to adopt sanctions against Russia over Crimea annexation seemed to be not without reasoning.
It nevertheless is a misstatement that Moscow is responsible for the outbreak of separatism in Ukraine’s south-eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. Indeed, Western justification of sanctions against Moscow is poorly substantiated. The assumption underlying the policy of sanctions produced in Washington and picked up in the cabinets of European bureaucrats is that counter-Kiev movement in south-eastern Ukraine is the product of Moscow’s meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs. As it turns out, such assumption is false.
In its blame game against Russia the West is misplacing cause and effect. The current crisis was preceded by a number of strategic miscalculations or benchmark events. First, the repealing by the Ukrainian legislature on 25th February of the tolerant minority language law that granted Russian along with other languages the status of lingua franca used in the public sphere – produced by the rise to power of ultra-nationalist and extremist neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine following the overthrow of elected President Victor Yanukovitch – served to exacerbate the situation in the country.
Further, what triggered the ongoing crisis and precipitated a secessionist move by Ukraine’s south-east regions was the Kiev administration embarking on the course of rapprochement with the EU in disregard of the geopolitical preferences of about one half of Ukrainians who regard Russia as their point of reference and the subsequent U.S. and EU endorsement of the new Kiev administration as legitimate while it did not enjoy support in eastern regions of the country.
The current crisis is therefore nothing but a direct byproduct of foreign policy miscalculation by Kiev and Western bureaucrats. Once Kiev moved toward Brussels by signing the free trade and association deal with the EU, secession by Ukraine’s south-east regions traditionally supportive of a pro-Russia course was a foregone conclusion. It is therefore a major misplacement of blame when Europe is imposing sanctions against Russia over ‘undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity’ as Moscow, even if Western claims that Moscow is providing support for the rebels ultimately proved substantiated, would be merely a reacting party to the story.
Neither is the expansion of sanctions against Russia or threat thereof well justified as based on the assumption of Russia being directly manipulative of the separatists in Eastern Ukraine at the current stage of the crisis: Moscow may have an indirect political benefit in a secessionist pro-Russian movement in the east of Ukraine – not to confuse with bloodshed – but this does not stand as evidence of it being directly instigating from behind the scene; the most immediate counterfactual is that the separatists have been spiraling out of Moscow’s control on a few occasions. The alleged supply of weapons to the separatists by Moscow has not been a subject of an independent and impartial probe as of yet.
In exerting its pressure on Russia, Europe apparently is motivated by a sole immediate goal – to avoid the emergence of another pro-Moscow secessionist enclave along Russian borders – in the footsteps of the freshly Moscow-forged Crimea scenario. Perhaps even a more decisive determinant of this European drive toward sanctions is the existence in the region of the longtime secessionist entities of Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
As the Soviet Union was falling apart, republics on the periphery saw a rise of nationalism in their corresponding metropolises. This in turn triggered secessionism by Slavic-dominated and pro-Soviet regions like Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As EU and NATO made eastward advances – the latter apparently contrary to the promises made to Moscow at the time of the disintegration of the Soviet Union – Russia began to strengthen its support for the secessionist entities along its south-eastern and southern borders. By cementing separatism in Moldova and Georgia ever since, Moscow de facto was able to secure a comfortable status quo in the region — these states’ non-adherence to Western blocs of EU and NATO. In its rationale of preventing another Transnistria emerge in its Eastern Neighbourhood, Brussels is therefore poised to prevent the emergence of another pro-Russian enclave serving Moscow’s geopolitical goals in the Near Abroad.
Upon scrutiny, Europe may discover that the point of no-return on federalization of Ukraine has been passed. While the dashing of the Russian language from the public sphere may have been a stage in the crisis where things were still repairable and Ukraine’s territorial integrity and existent territorial-administrative system were unquestionable propositions, following the commencement of the military operation by Kiev and the prolonged bloodshed that ensued, the bargaining position of the south-east has been strengthened. It is difficult to imagine the attackers and the attacked co-exist in the same state again – at least at this point in time. Federalization in the form of a broad autonomy is the maximum Kiev can count on following yet-to-be-started negotiations with Donetsk and Lugansk.
The current policy of blame and sanctions imposition produces nothing but a vicious circle in which the West fails to exercise its influence over Kiev to stop its military operation against the rebels with Moscow thus having no reason to follow suit with the rebels in the secessionist quarters. Such policy is counter-productive, unreasoned and unsubstantiated, driving this tragedy into a deadlock. Moscow will not back down given what it sees as the unfair blame game being waged against it by the West. By refraining from exercising influence on Kiev as a party that initiated the armed stage of the conflict – to force it into a ceasefire – and offering unconditional support for Ukrainian actions, the West de facto becomes an accomplice in this tragedy in Ukraine.
In this crisis it is imperative to switch priorities from political or geopolitical agenda to humanitarian one, meaning the parties to the conflict should be called upon to stop fighting and engage in a meaningful dialogue. The crash on July 17 of the Malaysian passenger plane in the conflict zone leading to the death of 298 people that were on board may be a serious enough reason to do so. Although, following Europe’s turning a blind eye on daily casualties among innocent civilians within a course of three months on its doorstep, the situation now becomes reminiscent of the famous line of General Radlov from Nikita Mikhalkov’s ‘The Barber of Siberia’ – “it depends whose life it is.” Europe should demonstrate that it is able to let values based on which it was founded – that of human rights and the right to life in the first place – prevail over politics in its decision making. The people of Donetsk and Lugansk and other residential areas affected by fighting have the same right to life as the late passengers of MH17 or the residents of Amsterdam, London or Paris.
Based on the lessons from Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the only and the best thing that the West can do given the fait accompli of the bloodshed – if it really wants to avoid another grey zone a la Transnistria on Europe’s map – is to prevent Russian monopoly on peacekeeping in the area in the post-conflict stage of the Ukraine peace process, disarm all irregulars and help the warring parties embark on a democratic dialogue that will focus on a devolution of powers while making sure the new administration in Donetsk and Lugansk are truly representative of the local people, not Moscow-sponsored stooges doing Moscow’s bidding in the region. Although it begs the question whether Donetsk and Lugansk would now ever accept any Western peacekeepers on their soil after the West’s failure to stop the party that had taken away so many of their innocent civilian lives.
Brussels and Washington have had secessionist conflicts resolution in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia as part of their peace agenda in Europe’s Eastern Neighbourhood over the past decade and a half but, embarking on a competition approach with Moscow as opposed to cooperation and dismissing geopolitical preferences of a larger portion of Ukraine’s public, they may just as well have forged a new one. All that matters now is whether the cost of this policy faux pas in terms of loss of human life will not be too high.