Sanctions, threats, military action and no dialog: a sad record of Western actions and the Ukrainian interim government during the crisis. In doing so, they in fact act towards the Kremlin’s favor. An op-ed by Stefan Bernhardt
What began as protests on the Maidan in Kiev has by now become a hard trial for the whole of Ukraine that threatens to tear the country apart. The sanction policies of the EU and the USA have achieved nothing. Crimea has now become a part of the Russian Federation. Eastern Ukraine is still on the drift towards a civil war because the interim government decided to employ the military against the separatists, one of many bad decisions that not only aggravated the situation needlessly, but also helped Moscow.
The EU’s actions are akin to those during the Russian-Georgian war in 2008: hysterical and powerless. Nevertheless it tries to portray strength, worsening everything . In order to prevent the re-incorporation of Crimea to Russia, the EU adopted a threatening posture with its sanctions. More than entry bans or account blocking, however, was impossible. Economic sanctions hurt the EU just as much as they hurt Russia; still, the EU decided on senseless sanctions that have never impressed Moscow in the first place instead of negotiating and making an offer to the Kremlin for Crimea.
This would have defused the course of the conflict more than threats. The result: Crimea is now a part of the Russian Federation. This is a success for the Kremlin since it resolved the conflict with Ukraine about the Russian black sea fleet’s deployment and increased the popularity of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Why the EU master tacticians preferred senseless, symbolic actions over negotiations in the first place would remain their secret.
Now, Eastern Ukraine is the focal point in the Ukraine crisis. The EU’s actions have encouraged the pro-Russian separatists to believe that only Russia could protect their interests – even towards Kiev. While the pro-Western interim government decided to use military action against the separatists, the EU’s role appears even more confused than before. While Russia, supporting the pro-Russian separatists, is sanctioned with further non-sense entry bans and account blockings, and while the EU does not talk with the separatists or even criticize Kiev for its military action with many deaths, the EU tries to portray itself as a mediator. However, mediators in any conflict should be neutral as well as objective – not biased like the EU – so that all conflict parties can trust them.
Ironically, Ukraine’s interim government failed in just the master discipline that it worked hard for after the Soviet Union’s collapse and that has made the Ukrainian people take to the streets oftentimes already: Sitting there and doing nothing. The amateurish actions of the interim government can hardly be surpassed in incompetence and generates both the sympathy and support in Eastern Ukraine to turn towards Russia.
The interim government undermined its credibility on the first day already. The new government broke the Maidan compromise with Viktor Yanukovych by overthrowing him as a president despite planned reelections; but with the Eastern Ukrainian Party of Regions it did not form a government of national unity, either. The Russian-speaking people had to fear for their minority rights again, too, when the government threatened to abolish Russian as an official language in one of its first bills. This led to resentment in Eastern Ukraine.
Eventually, more and more mistakes of Kiev that followed improved Russia’s popularity in Eastern Ukraine. Whereas the separatists had been a minority at first, they could now very well be the majority. Connecting the referendum about Eastern Ukraine’s independence with the presidential elections in order to legitimate the presidential elections and feign a concession to the Eastern Ukrainians – a plan that was easy to see through.
Ultimately, the offer arrived too late and lasted only for a short time: Shortly thereafter, the so-called anti-terror operation against Eastern Ukraine was ordered by the interim president. The military action of Kiev against Eastern Ukraine is likely to have brought more sympathy for the separatists and the Kremlin rather than anything else. For when a government directs a military operation against the people, it must expect their alienation – even of those who are in fact on the government’s side. Above all, no legitimate presidential election is possible with ongoing fights in Eastern Ukraine. Indeed, the Eastern Ukrainians may not have taken part in the election at all, but it would still have been their own free decision. With the military operation, carrying out an election is impossible. In doing so, Kiev itself deprived the presidential elections of the necessary legitimacy.
The Kremlin wins
With the EU and the Ukrainian interim government as its enemies, Moscow will not need any allies. The limited reaction of Russia after the Eastern Ukrainian referendum about the independence made clear that the Kremlin is not very interested in Eastern Ukraine. Even before this, however, Russian actions in Eastern Crimea were nothing like those on Crimea. The Ukrainian interim government, along with the EU, has created the dynamic of receding popularity of Kiev and rising sympathy for Moscow as well as the increasing risk of a civil war almost single-handedly. The only chance to prevent more deaths is to listen to the separatists and negotiate, but also to replace the interim government with more competent people by no later than after the Ukrainian presidential elections.