Ukraine and the Failure of Statecraft

Baker had asked Gorbachev “whether he would prefer a united Germany outside of NATO, independent and without any American troops, or whether Germany should remain part of NATO, with the assurance that NATO jurisdiction would not move one inch eastwards from its present position. Gorbachev answered that “any extension of NATO’s area would be unacceptable.

The opening quotation of this paper continues to echo around the chancelleries of Europe, Russia and the USA. It gave rise to a series of misunderstandings that went on to colour foreign policy in Russia. And it also led to crucial misunderstandings in Russia about the way in which NATO changed after 1989 into more of a group of nations seeking the advantages in mutual self defence, rather than as Cold War organization aimed at winning a conflict with Russia/USSR.

These misunderstandings cannot be kept separate from misunderstandings about the transition from Communism to Capitalism and what was required to make this a success. Various multilateral organizations influenced by the West, notably the IMF, underestimated what the micro level legal and institutional changes were needed in order to provide better mechanisms to help shore up the transition process. The IMF’s conditionality approach worked far less well than it had done with other developing economies.

That the atmosphere between Russia and the West has deteriorated has been clear for some time, propelled by Russian views that it was threatened by NATO’s eastward expansion, for which no evidence can be found. This paper explores the failures of national and international statecraft that have led up to the present situation, which can be described as a failure to accurately read and understand signals being transmitted between NATO and Russia. The view taken here is that misunderstandings on both sides, but especially by Russia, have unnecessarily increased tensions, transforming an internal conflict within Ukraine into one that now threatens the security of all nations in Europe. We consider that there are four main groups of disagreements affecting the current situation:

• Disagreements within Ukraine about the future direction of the country, and its alignment with Russia or the West.

• Disagreements between pro-western Ukrainian factions and the Russian government. Pro-western factions disagree with the premise introduced by the Primakov doctrine that Russia has seigneurial rights over its “near abroad” to determine how such territories should behave and with whom they should have relations. They disagree with Putin’s revisionist history of Ukraine which regards Russia and Ukraine as being “indivisible”.

• Disagreements between NATO and the EU on the one hand, and Russia on the other, about the rights of independent, sovereign and democratic states to join international organizations and mutual defence organizations, if they so wish, and when they so please. Additionally, there are disagreements about whether NATO “deceived” Russia by expanding East, ignoring other promises made as far back as 1990.

• Disagreements within the West as to how to assist the transition from Communist, centrally planned economies towards developed market economies complete with democracy and the rule of law. In particular disagreements, and to some extent failures, between IMF top down macro support measures, and the faltering progress of micro level legal and institutional reforms. In the course of discussing these issues particular attention will be paid to views on the “Russian grudge” against NATO, and NATO’s eastward expansion, a view that also presents Russia as a victim of western policies.

The paper considers how failures in statecraft influenced Russia’s defensive attitude towards the prospect of NATO expansion. Russian thinking remained substantially trapped in a Cold War mode, unwilling to seize opportunities presented by the global economy, remaining suspicious of Western intent, and blaming them, wrongly, on NATO.

Efforts to assist Russia making its transition to capitalism, efforts to include Russia’s interests within NATO, and proposing a forward view on a Partnership for Peace all ultimately crumbled with narrow Russian concerns around perceived threats to its security.

The ending of the Cold War showed that the goals of the containment policy (originally proposed by George F Kennan in 1947) conducted by the US and NATO against the Soviet Union had been successful. Looking forward it was hoped that Russia would move away from the Soviet model, and evolve into something closer to a liberal, democratic state, along the lines of those in Europe and North America. These hopes were shared between the US, NATO and Russian reformers within the Yeltsin government. Views gradually changed so that by the turn of the century some opinions, and particularly those of Putin cooled towards the West.

The question of NATO expansion that had proceeded relatively uneventfully in the late 19 90s, then started to intersect with internal developments in Ukraine. As is explained below, internal tensions in Ukraine, some of which preceded the break-up of the USSR, focused more and more on a disagreement between different factions in Ukrainian ruling elites about the future course of Ukraine’s development. The question being whether Ukraine should continue its close association with Russia, as part of a revised CISiv international arrangement, or whether it should converge with the EU (and NATO) in order to accelerate the same transition from Communism to capitalism as was being experienced by Russia. Ukraine chose to seek membership of the EU, as a means of forcing various changes on Ukrainian economy, politics and civil society. This would then form the basis for an “acquis communitaire”. This view is and was highly controversial in the eastern part of Ukraine.

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