So it looks as if Putin is, I’m glad to say, not a raving and unreasoning imperialist after all. OK, so he may be a careful and calculating imperialist of sorts, but his performance at his press conference on the Ukrainian crisis, while not closing out any options, clearly indicated that Russia was not eagerly after the annexation of Crimea. I’m reassured that my early instincts, which I confess I did begin to question (not least under a heavy barrage of Russoskeptics, ably assisted by lunatic Kremlin I-hope-not-always-mouthpiece Sergei Markov) seem to have been right. Moscow’s aim is to influence Ukrainian policy, not territorial conquest (yes, I know Crimea’s parliament just voted to hold a referendum on this; I’ll take this as serious when it’s the Russian Duma saying this, instead).
To be sure, I suspect that the first instinct was a combination of anger, outrage and over-reaction after Yanukovych fell, but there has been time for some consideration. And, even if Angela Merkel does believe that Putin is “in another world” (not something that unusual for leaders, especially those who have been in office long enough to surround themselves with yes-men), his Kremlin still seems able to shape this one, too.
But now that the Crimea is firmly and unquestionably under Russian control (we can safely dismiss those bizarre claims that it is “volunteer self-defence forces” who are wandering around in Russian uniforms, with Russian guns, in Russian vehicles), the conflict seems to have settled into a stalemate. Russia has actually stood down some of its forces along the Ukrainian border; it is clear there will be no imminent blitzkrieg. The West hints at sanctions, talks of consequences, suspends the kind of cooperation that has some political but no practical impact (so NATO won’t let the Russian navy help escort Syrian chemical weapons to destruction; I doubt Putin will lose any sleep over that). So how to break the stalemate?
This is not something that is going to be thrashed out by Kerry and Lavrov. Not even that world-bestriding colossus William Hague will sort this one. The terrible, unfair, difficult but inescapable answer is that it is now down to Kyiv actively to find some way to move things forward. Prime Minister Yatsenyuk has made encouraging noises about the need for a “win-win game where both Ukrainian and Russian interests are considered” and further autonomy for Crimea. However, beyond that, I feel that at the very least Kyiv needs to make certain other commitments.
1. To maintain the current status and agreement of the Black Sea Fleet. Did Tymoshenka call for it to be withdrawn? I’ve only so far seen that claimed on Russian news sites and it would be a very unhelpful populist demand if so, but given provenance, I’m willing for the moment to assume the agreement isn’t being challenged.
2. Conclusively rule out any change to the dual-language status. Trying to impose Ukrainian on the Russian-speaking areas is an obvious and unnecessary irritant.
3. To extend the autonomy status offer to other parts of Ukraine, notably the east. I can understand why Kyiv does not want to grant greater powers to areas questioning its writ and legitimacy, but it needs to take the long view. Ultimately, Ukraine’s future lies westward and eventually ethnic Russians (who even now are not in the main seeking to become part of Russia) will become reconciled to the nation’s tectonic shift. But as a measure to reassure Moscow that it will have allies and agents within the Ukrainian body politic (as well as to provide implicit protection for dirty local elites who may fear a with-hunt), this would be invaluable.
4. Formally rule out NATO membership. Seriously, it wouldn’t happen for the foreseeable future anyway, so just explicitly take it off the table, even if only to deprive alarmists in Russia of this card.
5. Either ruling out signing the EU Trade Agreement or committing to trying to join that and Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union. OK, Ukraine would largely like the former, and combining the two might be impossible. But all things change and in any case Ukraine would not be able to join the EU any time soon. There are other ways of allowing closer EU-Ukrainian economic ties that don’t hit Putin’s sore spots and Ukraine has to trade with Russia anyway. (Edit: yes, I know you can’t actually, formally join both, I mean trying to find some way of bridging the gap rather than letting it be an either/or “who’s my bestest friend?” choice.)
Is it fair to ask Kyiv to make concessions to a country which has invaded part of its country on specious grounds? Of course not. But sadly fairness is not an especially powerful geopolitical force.
It’s a time for pragmatism, for a deal that provides enough reassurance that Putin can feel he has not “lost” Ukraine just because of Yanukovych’s ouster and can claim “peace with honour”–but without undermining the territorial and political integrity of Ukraine. This is not “letting Putin” win, not least because issues such as autonomy for the east and language rights are being pushed also by Ukrainians. Russia’s efforts to assert and maintain regional hegemony may look successful, but are ultimately doomed. History is not marching that way. It would behove Kyiv, in my opinion, to accept that long-term comfort and for the moment to do what it can to de-escalate the conflict.
Of course, that presupposes that the new government feels it can make concessions, that it does not fear the Maidan more than the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade. My greatest fear is that Moscow, the West and Kyiv alike are locked into positions from which they cannot reach far enough to find common ground.
This article was originally posted in In Moscow’s Shadows.