When Muddling Through Makes Sense
The recent international agreement in Geneva does very little to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, but it has bought time for all parties involved. The Russians will likely try to consolidate their presence in the east of the country, which, contrary to Moscow’s expectations, does not seem to be enthusiastic about the prospect of becoming part of the new Russian empire.
Eastern Ukrainians are taking a wait-and-see approach. Most of them are obviously suspicious of the interim government in Kiev, which is perceived as a puppet in the hands of the highly controversial Yulia Tymoshenko. Hence, the government has had difficulties regaining control of the situation in the east by military means. Kiev is reluctant to seek a military confrontation with what by all accounts appears to be a Russian-backed uprising by a few armed militiamen. The central authorities clearly do not want to destabilize the situation further. But, it is also true that Kiev is very reluctant to put the trustworthiness of its own ill-equipped troops to the test.
Given the hardship Tymoshenko had to endure while imprisoned, it is a sad truth to recognize that she cannot be the future of the country. Her strong presence stands for the vicious cycle Ukraine has found itself in for years. Tymoshenko is part of the problem, not the solution.
Indeed, for Russians she is the perfect adversary. In order to push reluctant eastern Ukrainians into their arms, they need somebody like her, a divider rather than a unifying figure. A strong Tymoshenko helps Russian president Vladimir Putin make his case for the need to protect Russian speakers in the neighboring country.
Time is what Ukraine needs to prepare for the presidential elections at the end of May. The next president needs to have a legitimacy none of the past leaders—including Tymoshenko—has had. Since there is no Ukrainian version of Nelson Mandela on the horizon, this is a long shot. However, a more peaceful environment could help let cooler heads prevail. Voting at gunpoint never helps.
Finally, the West needs to adjust to the new reality in order to develop a real game plan. The process should start by recognizing that unless Europe intends to subsidize and completely restructure Ukraine’s economy—at great cost—for the foreseeable future, it is time to accept that the country depends on Russia. Moscow has vital interests in Ukraine, not least because Russia’s army heavily depends on parts and weapons produced by eastern Ukraine’s industrial complex. Cutting those ties would make Russia vulnerable and make its reaction unpredictable. Any degree of panic is the last thing we need at the moment. Ukraine’s oligarchs, who are presently hedging their bets, would finally side with Moscow against Kiev and the West. The reason is very simple: the weaponry they produce would be obsolete in Europe. The factories would probably be forced to close down. Employers and employees would lose and embrace the “Russian saviors.”
Time would also allow the West to send a strong signal to Moscow that the Kremlin will not call the shots for much longer. Allowing reverse flows of Russian gas from Western Europe to Ukraine is a significant step in the right direction. Western money will flow to Ukraine, but not in order to pay Russian bills.
But the most important thing is to recognize that in order to contain Putin effectively, the reality on the ground in Ukraine needs to be fully taken into account by Western powers in Europe and especially in Washington. In Washington, we sometimes tend to see this crisis through the prism of a duel between Barack Obama—and Western Europeans to some degree—and Vladimir Putin. However strong the temptation is to paint the challenge in stark colors, this would be a fatal mistake. In the absence of a quick fix, the most important thing for the West is to show a unified front and then proceed with resolve. It is the beauty of the reversible, incremental approach that Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel knows so much about.