Russian troops in Crimea
This is not my usual blog post. Instead it’s in the form of a letter that I sent to the UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, today, 23 March. I wrote the letter because I want to shed some light on the vast dangers and risks of the next stage of the crisis in Ukraine, which will revolve around President Putin’s absolute determination that free elections should not take place across west and east Ukraine in two months’ time, on 25 May. I believe Putin will go very far to stop them happening, because if he doesn’t, Ukraine will have shown that it is set on a different path from Russia, a more stable, independent and freer path, which is the last thing he wants. If you read the letter and you agree with it, please comment, share it, and send the link to William Hague’s Twitter account @WilliamJHague. Thank you.
Rt Hon Mr William Hague
23 March 2014
Four years ago, in late 2009, when I covered the presidential election of Viktor Yanukovych for Prospect magazine, I wrote this:
“Europe needs to see Ukraine as the start of a common ground between east and west. But with both Russia and the EU tugging so impatiently at the country, there has never been a moment when it is more likely to split down the banks of the great Dnieper river; for one half to go west, the other east, and a new cold conflict to begin.”
Nobody was listening.
But the situation remains, as they say, fluid, and there are other real necessities now besides sanctions against Putin’s regime and circle. The EU and an enlightened British government need to help the Ukrainians by all means possible, including miltary – with 3 Russian divisions on Ukraine’s border, it is clear that Putin will have east Ukraine if he can, and that cannot be allowed to happen. NATO and the EU must act pre-catastrophe, not post-catastrophe.
But with aggressive pro-Russian rallies in the cities and Ukrainian villagers telling the Ukrainian Army to go away, Russia is winning the propaganda war in east Ukraine too: Putin has been packing the eastern Ukrainian oblasts with his supporters since the end of the Georgia war and his street provocateurs and bussed-in thugs are well directed. Mr Yatsenyuk is a bright politician but he needs to be persuaded by you and others that he and his ministers should spend as much time in Donetsk and Kharkiv and Luhansk as he is currently spending in Brussels and Washington: talking, talking, talking all over eastern Ukraine to Ukrainians, Russians, those of mixed allegiances, persuading them in both languages that they will have a better future as part of a stable Ukraine.
Towards Russia the West must marshal its forces, as I’m sure you privately know. It is a scandal that nothing is being said or done about the theft of Ukrainian ships, planes and materiel in Crimea, and a source of deep shame that Ukraine, a nation we pledged to support via the Budapest Memorandum and a NATO Charter, cannot count on us to, for example, blockade the Black Sea Fleet until it desists from its own blockade. But the West must also marshal its arguments better: repeat and repeat that the government in Kyiv is not illegal, that Yanukovych was voted out of office by his own parliament, that this is an interim government, that elections are being organised as soon as feasible etc etc.
There is, at the most, 2 months to save Ukraine, and every day Putin by his provocations is making that more difficult. At some point he will do his best to make it completely impossible. Timothy Garton Ash described the exponential volatility of destabilisation well in his Guardian piece last Tuesday. Again, we, the EU, US, must prevent catastrophe, not react to it. Ukraine’s eastern cities need better policing, better observance (thank heavens for the OSCE) and above all much, much more political involvement from Kyiv. Financial help is needed, big-time, to help try to keep Ukraine stable, but in my view the EU should not go hell for leather to secure association agreements that seek to say “Ukraine / Moldova / Georgia is ours, not yours now”. This will only harden Russia’s own resolve to act with force.
Finally, if you want de-escalation, then the EU (and US) must find an honest way to acknowledge to Russia their own fault in bringing this situation about by ignoring Ukraine’s and Russia’s problems for two decades, then making a one-sided grab for influence. If there is ever to be a solution to this crisis, in years rather than months I suspect, it can only take place by making Ukraine the shared ground I wrote about 4 years ago.
I have written 2 pieces in the New Statesman which your advisers may find helpful.