Anti-government protestors in Ukraine. (Photo:Getty)
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Western weakness and indecision has fanned the flames in Ukraine

The West's politicians have emboldened Vladimir Putin with their mistakes and indecision. They need to send a signal he can't ignore.

Western leaders are trying their best to sound tough as they wait to find out if Russia sticks to the Minsk agreement and halts its land grab in eastern Ukraine. President Obama has threatened a “strong reaction” if the ceasefire is breached. Chancellor Merkel says Europe is ready to impose new sanctions. The debate about arming Ukraine rumbles on in Washington. Yet this hardly amounts to a turning point. We have already been through 12 months of ‘red line’ ultimatums, incremental sanctions and penny-packet support for Ukraine. The West is no closer to forcing Vladimir Putin to think again than it was a year ago when he seized Crimea.

This makes a nonsense of the idea, skilfully encouraged by the Kremlin, that its intervention was provoked by Western efforts to lure Ukraine into its camp. The real story of EU and US policy towards Ukraine over the last decade has been one of lethargy and indifference. The much-cited 2008 NATO declaration that Ukraine “will join” was a sop designed to make up for the fact that it had just been denied a Membership Action Plan. The EU Association Agreement that Putin induced President Yanukovych to abandon, triggering the Ukrainian leader’s downfall, was offered as an alternative to membership because the EU had become too weary and self-absorbed to contemplate further enlargement.

A West that really wanted to integrate Ukraine would have seized the opportunity offered by the 2004 Orange Revolution to embrace its Euro-Atlantic aspirations and help it to complete its democratic transition. Instead its leaders were told to go away and turn their country into a fully-fledged democracy without the political guidance and financial support given to other former communist countries as part of the EU accession process. Their failure is widely lamented. But the bigger failure – of Western responsibility – is barely acknowledged.

Western disinterest consigned Ukraine to a state of geopolitical limbo, encouraging Putin to believe that he could claw it back into Russia’s sphere of influence by force. The full implications of this only became apparent after the shooting started and policy makers in Europe and America suddenly realised the scale of his irredentist ambitions. They may not have been willing to say yes to Ukraine’s desire to join Western institutions, but they couldn’t acquiesce in the armed partition of Europe and the return of empire without abandoning the principles on which the post-Cold War security order had been built. This was a war about something far bigger than the future of Ukraine.

Every time the West has fluffed its policy towards Ukraine with half-measures and empty words, the bill for repairing the damage has risen.

The cost of failing to support democratic change with the incentive of EU accession was to drive despairing Ukrainians back into the arms of Viktor Yanukovych. The unwillingness of the EU to match its proposed Association Agreement with a package of financial support for Ukraine allowed Putin to scupper it with a $15bn bribe. Now the West is forced to provide £40bn in loans and guarantees to rescue Ukraine’s economy from the resulting chaos.

The bill will go on rising as long as the West prevaricates, and with potentially more serious consequences. Some see the conflict as a vindication of NATO’s decision to keep Ukraine at arms length; imagine if we had accepted a treaty commitment to defend its border with Russia. Well, we may not have to imagine much longer if success in Ukraine emboldens Putin to try something similar in the Baltic States where we do have a NATO commitment. To behave as if our own security in not at stake in Donetsk and Luhansk is recklessly complacent.

The West should be doing far more to support Ukraine, if for no other reason than self-interest. The immediate priority should be to help its economy. If Russian guns have fallen silent for now, it is partly because Putin’s goal of destabilising Ukraine is currently being achieved by economic means. Some financial aid has already been provided, but there is a risk that Western strategy is repeating the mistakes of the EU’s efforts to deal with the Eurozone crisis of always being a day late and a dollar short. The latest IMF package is already being overtaken as the economic outlook continues to worsen, and Ukraine has seen little enough of the money that has been promised as it is. George Soros is right to argue that a willingness to support Ukraine financially is a key test of Western resolve. Sufficient funds should be provided to get Ukraine’s economy off life support and into recovery.

Another crucial area is energy where Russian leverage has frequently been used to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty. The government in Kiev has set a target of becoming independent of Russian gas supply by 2017, a goal that could be achieved this year if the EU enforced its own competition rules and forced Gazprom to release unused pipeline capacity in Slovakia to facilitate the reverse flow of gas to Ukraine. Instead, the European Commission brokered a deal last October that forced Ukraine to buy overpriced Russian gas and pay $3bn of disputed debt. This has rewarded Russia and pushed Ukraine to the edge of bankruptcy, increasing the cost of the Western bailout. EU policy should be changed to one of supporting Ukraine’s energy independence in the shortest achievable timescale.

It is also time that the West resolved to bolster Ukraine’s defence with modern military equipment. The UK, along with the US and Russia, gave a solemn commitment to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity when the country gave up its stockpile of Soviet nuclear missiles in 1994. If we are not prepared to make good that commitment with our own forces, the very least we should be prepared to do is to help the Ukrainian armed forces to do it for themselves. The current policy of allowing aggression to succeed in the name of peace is as dishonourable now as it was in the Balkans twenty years ago.

In the face of criticism that his Ukraine policy is failing, President Obama insists that he is playing the long game. But what he likes to call “strategic patience” looks to Putin much more like strategic indecision. He draws even more strength from the EU’s weak and hesitant approach. Western policy will keep failing and the cost will keep rising until European and American leaders send a signal of intent that Russia can’t ignore.


David Clark is the editor of Shifting Grounds.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.