Late 2016 and early 2017 saw the emergence of a possibly new information campaign aimed to prepare ground for Ukraine’s future geopolitical U-turn. The campaign’s actors argue that Ukraine should seek reconciliation with Russia, abandoning its pro-EU and pro-NATO choice and considering the annexation of Crimea as a fait accompli.
Signs of this new discourse are numerous. One of Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarchs, Victor Pinchuk, published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, calling for “painful compromises” for peace with Russia, mainly renouncing its NATO and EU hopes, and putting the Crimean issue on hold for decades.
Inside Ukraine, Vasyl Filipchuk, a former diplomat and now head of a Ukrainian think-tank, proposed a similar vision in his long-read piece on Apostroph. Similar arguments on Ukraine’s “neutrality” were expressed by Yuriy Romanenko, a widely read blogger, on his website Hvylya.
This comes on top of an increased number of media resources calling – or even demanding – reconciliation with Russia. Ukrainian media watchdog Detektor Media analyzed this new narrative with fake petitions, sites, and appeals in the name of Ukraine’s working class to restore economic ties with Russia.
Finally, the website Korrespondent.net gave the floor to a blog of Victor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s ousted president, in which he provides his “interpretation” of the Maidan events as an initially planned conspiracy by Western powers (later the blog was removed).
All this makes one think about a new way of a concerted media campaign, designed to shift public opinion in Ukraine and in the West and calling to bring Ukraine back to a pre-Maidan epoch, as a neutral Russian satellite – but this time without Crimea and Donbas.
We believe that the implementation of this scenario might bring painful consequences to Ukraine and the West alike. And here is why:
- Neutrality would not deter, but would likely encourage further aggression. – The above-mentioned proponents of Ukraine’s U-turn call Ukraine to reestablish its neutral (non-aligned) status, saying this will restore the broken geopolitical balance. However, neutrality has never been a guarantee against aggression if the neutral state is an object of a powerful neighbor’s geopolitical interest. Ukraine was a non-aligned country in 2014, when it became the victim of Russian aggression both in Crimea and in Donbas. Moldova’s neutrality (secured by the constitution in 1994) demanded by Russia to settle the Transnistrian conflict did nothing to bring Transnistria back. Georgia’s “red light” to NATO membership in April 2008 (Bucharest NATO summit) did not save it from Russian aggression in August 2008 – but rather instigated it. Historically, neutrality did not save Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands and Norway from Nazi aggression during the World War II. It does not help if the aggressor is willing to achieve its goals – but only leaves a possible victim without protection.
- Accepting the Crimean annexation can provoke further acts of aggression worldwide. – Accepting the Crimean annexation, i.e. the brutal violation of international law under fake democratic procedures, can open up something of a Pandora’s box. It can provoke a spillover effect of illegal annexations and interventions in many other parts of the world. This can turn international order into a house of cards. The Munich “deal” and annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 can be a good example of what comes next if the aggressor is appeased.
- “Painful concessions” can provoke tensions and further regional instability. – If the scenario of “painful concessions” is played out in Ukraine, it will provoke serious waves of protest inside Ukraine. Public opinion polls suggest that the majority of Ukraine’s population back NATO integration (44% say it is the “basic option” for Ukraine’s security, compared to 26% that support a non-aligned status), and only 22,5% of citizens are ready to accept peace at any price. It is highly probable that many citizens will perceive “painful concessions” as a “soft capitulation”. This will substantially weaken the position of current Ukrainian authorities and enhance the position of the far-right and nationalist forces, which can lead to serious statewide tensions and growing internal instability. If the neighboring countries react to growing instability by intervening militarily, this can be the beginning of a large-scale war on the European continent.
- NATO integration makes Ukraine more capable of repelling Russian aggression on its own. – Regardless of NATO membership, mere cooperation with NATO is already bringing Ukraine ostensible benefits. Its army is being modernized and is better prepared to repel Russian aggression in Donbas. This makes Ukraine capable of fighting aggression with its own forces, without external military help.
- Without the incentive of EU membership, Ukraine’s reforms would roll back. – Proponents of Ukraine’s “painful concessions” argue that Ukraine needs to renounce its EU integration aspirations. However, by far, an EU integration prospect has been the key driver for reforms in Ukraine. Removal of this dream for Europe will stop reforms, as it will destroy its key orientation. Without the pressure to correspond to European standards and practices, Ukraine will go on being a feudal, oligarch-ruled state in Russia’s influence. Instead, a democratic and successful Ukraine would help democratize Russia and curb authoritarian power.
- Appeasement had previously emboldened Russia to further aggression.– Calls for trade-off with Russia ignore the rules of the Kremlin’s games today. They are rules of “zoopolitics”: the Kremlin considers states as quasi-animals fighting for survival, in which only force can rule. The West’s blindness to Russia’s blatant violation of international law in Georgia encouraged Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. If today Ukraine is given up, it is likely to encourage Russia’s expansionist policy further.
- Previous deals with Russia didn’t hold.– Advocates of Ukraine’s concessions argue that Ukraine needs a new deal with Russia, which will also guarantee its security. However, there exists no evidence that Russia, a country that has violated the Budapest memorandum (the guarantee of Ukraine’s security after it gave up nuclear weapons), the Helsinki Accords and the UN Charter, will keep its word in the future.
- “Concessions” reject both Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. – The West’s mantra following Russian aggression in 2014 consisted in its full respect for Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity”. However, the advocates for “painful concessions” want to reject both Ukraine’s territorial integrity (and accept Crimea as Russian) and Ukraine’s sovereignty (leave Kyiv fully to Russian influence).
- The victim should not be forced to change; the aggressor should. – The advocates of a “U-turn” use excessive energy to argue why Ukraine has to change. However, they are silent about the changes and concessions that Russia has to make – as a country responsible for Ukraine’s destabilization. Russia, in turn, says it is not a side of the conflict in Ukraine, but a “third party”. But the paradox is that this “third party” demands concessions as if it was fully engaged party.
- Any peace plan should include retributions. – Russia is internationally recognized as a country that illegally annexed Crimea and is behind the Donbas separatists. In this case, it should be held accountable for initiating the war, and therefore should be made financially responsible for damages of the war. The advocates of a U-turn are silent about this.
Authors: Volodymyr Yermolenko, Director of European projects at Internews Ukraine and journalist at Hromadske and Alya Shandra, Editor-in-Chief of Euromaidan Press.
This text is a part of the UkraineWorld group initiative, which unites a number of Ukrainian foreign policy experts and journalists. The authors thank Sergiy Sydorenko, Kateryna Zarembo, Daria Gaidai, Natalya Popovych, Kostiantyn Kvurt and Natalya Kononenko for their help and advice in preparing the material.It represents a popular opinion among a large group of Ukrainian experts.