On December 5th 1994 the so called Budapest Memorandum has been signed. London, Washington and Moscow commited themselves to respect the independence and sovereign borders of Ukraine. On February 28th 2014 Russian soldiers occupied the Ukrainian peninsular of Crimea. The agreement was broken leaving the world on a path into the remake of a conflict that seemed to be overcome for 25 years. But that is not solely due to the Russian aggression, Europe, too, has done its bit that led into that mess.
The crisis in the Ukraine has been going on for more than three months now. During its course the EU has repeatedly made huge mistakes. On February 21st, however, the Union had a big moment, when the foreign ministers of Poland, Germany and France brokered an agreement between then-President Viktor Yanukovich and the opposition that had Russian approval and would end the bloodshed on the streets of Kiev.
Unfortunately however, the agreement did not even last for a day. Protesters charged the presidential palace, forcing Yanukovich to escape from Kiev and a new government has been formed. But instead of insisting on the adherence of the agreement, Europe reacted in a way it is used to react in such circumstances: with complacency.
Commentators seemed to agree that the Ukrainians eventually made the right choice and Yulia Timoshenko, freed from prison, will lead the country into a bright future in the bowels of Europe. Polictians and the media celebrated a victory against the demon in Moscow and took only little notice that a major part of the Ukrainian population were everything but satisfied with that development. In the meanwhile the new government add some more fuel to the fire by drafting a law that would ban Russian as an official language.
The support for the new government could turn out to be major blow for the EU. Lately rumors have been spread that snipers of the Maidan were not serving the orders of Yanukovich, but of somebody in the new government. The Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet report that to Catherine Ashton in what was meant to be a confidential phonecall.
Furthermore, while Yulia Timoshenko was the star on this week’s EPP congress in Dublin, everybody who has a little insight into her biography will have serious doubts that she of all the people will be the right person to tackle the corrupt and cleptocratic deficiencies that have kept the country from propering for so long.
However, the whole episode that has taken place in Europe ever since the ousting of President Yanukovich exemplifies to what extend Europe’s foreign policy is subjected to popular and inbound symbolic politics rather than seriously dealing with immediate geopolitical dangers. The latter would have been obvious, tough.
Ever since the end of the Cold war Moscow had to witness how major parts of its former sphere of influence turned to the West. Basically all of its former satellites and even former Soviet parts became members of both the NATO and the European Union. In addition to that those countries were offered balistic missle defence. Be it legitimate or not: Russia considered this to be a geopolitical aggression and never left any doubt about that. For Moscow, the Ukraine marked the red line and with the ousting of Yanukovich that red line has ultimately been crossed.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s now justification for the invasion of the Crimea. It is illegal, it violates both the Budapest Memorandum and international law. Also the suggestion on the part of Russia, that the soldiers on the peninsular cannot be identified for being Russian, since they are not wearing national emblems and badges of rank, is not only flimsy but a violation of international law in itself.
But that Moscow is even ready to sacrifice its standing within the international community that it has been working for very hard over the last years can be taken for a signal on how serious it is about the Ukraine and how unyielding it is likly to proceed.
Europe on the other side stired into this escalation with its eyes open and gives little hope to have learned the necessary lessons. On Thursday the heads of state and goverment took first action. Sanctions should press Moscow to join Kiev in a special contact group within the OSCE to come to an agreement that would end this conflict.
By doing so, the Union continues its mistake that has also led to the escalation in the first place: It ignores the geopolitical dimensions of this conflict. It is not Kiev and Moscow that has to deal with each other to overcome the crisis, but Brussels and Moscow. I wrote about this before: The only effective and lasting solution has to be an agreement between Russia and the European Union, commiting themselves to keep Ukraine out any geopolitical ambitions, whatsoever.
What is required now is a new version of the Budapest Memorandum. But contrary to the original one from 1994 it has to be accompanied by clear mechanisms to keep each other accountable. And it has to be set within an institutional framework. The OSCE, since it was established in order to deal with exactly that sort of crisis, is the obvious place for that. And yes, in order get Russia to such an agreement, sanctions could serve as a leverage for the EU.
Russia won’t give in so easily in this conflict. Therefore an agreement between Brussels and Moscow is inevitable. The only question is to what extend the crisis has to further escalate for the European leaders until they finally rethink their strategy. Yes, Putin has gone way to far. But right now is not the time to call for revenge or punishment. Today, Europe is in its most serious international crisis ever since the end of the Cold War. Prudence has to be the order of the day. Further escalation and a hardening of the fronts has to be avoid by all means.