Why Ukraine's Security Is Key For Europe

November 12, 2020

In 2014,Ukraine became a target of external aggression. Russia illegally occupied Crimea and ignited a war in Eastern Ukraine. These events dispelled the illusion that warfare was impossible in present-day Europe.

"The year of 2014 took us back to the rhetoric that the majority of Europeans had forgotten - occupation, annexation, spheres of influences, aggression against a sovereign state, violation of territorial integrity, the list can go on and on,"

- says Hanna Shelest, Director of Security Studies Program at the Foreign Policy Council "Ukrainian Prism" and Editor-in-chief of "UA: Ukraine Analytica." In her contribution to our book Ukraine in Histories and Stories, she elaborates on how these events reflected on security perceptions across Europe:

"Russian aggression really has changed a lot. In 2008, Europe thought that the short Russian-Georgian war was merely a continuation of separatist conflicts in Georgia. It was too short and a cease-fire was negotiated so quickly, that many European politicians considered it merely an incident. In 2014, the scope and manner of the aggression caught not only Ukraine unprepared, both morally and military. However, the problem is that 2014 was not a beginning but the continuation of Moscow's long-built policy and strategy, the strategy that had introduced narratives, myths, perceptions, without the deconstructing of which it will be impossible to talk about Ukrainian security." 

So 2014 did not come out of the blue, but was rather part of an elaborate strategy of the Kremlin. For years, Russia has been destabilizing Georgia and Moldova, supporting anti-Western regimes around the world as well as radical and pro-Russian parties in the West. Hence, Ukraine's 2014 was not the beginning but a continuation of Moscow's expansion. Events of 2014 were not a "Ukraine crisis" but rather an act of foreign aggression which has taken 13,000 lives and forced 1,5 mln people to flee their homes.

An important thing to note in this context, however, is that despite all these challenges (and even thanks to them in a certain sense) Ukraine is a security provider for Europe and beyond, rather than just a beneficiary. Hanna Shelest goes on, helping us understand why this indeed is the case:

 "In order to guarantee our security we need to go beyond Russia, to debunk some of the myths it has been imposing on us for generations, to build our own resilience and reliable network of partners. But also, to demonstrate that despite the conflict, Ukraine is no longer just a security recipient, but a security provider for Europe. It has one of the 10 strongest armies in Europe, it is a NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partner, and has participated in numerous UN peacekeeping operations".... We are no longer just a recipient of security. For the last five years, Ukrainian security and military services have been protecting not only Ukrainian sovereignty and peaceful sleep.

Ukraine is no longer just a security recipient, but a security provider for Europe.

The fact that Ukraine has long not been credited with the role of a security provider stems from a bunch of different reasons, rooted in stereotypes about Ukraine, circumstances of the USSR collapse, its perception in the West, etc. Against this backdrop, Hanna Shelest once again helps us make sense of why the world, and particularly Europe, remained so insensitive to Ukraine's true potential:

"You hear less recently about Ukraine being a buffer zone -- a concept winning all popularity prizes in the 1990s and 2000s. A bridge, a buffer zone, the destiny of an in-betweener, a grey zone. You can continue this list of analogies that we've all had to face at hundreds of international conferences and in articles written by both Russian and Western authors. Unfortunately, this concept is coming back in analysis of the roots of the Russian--Ukrainian conflict.

I always asked: is it logical to call the second biggest country in Europe a buffer zone? More than a thousand kilometres from East to West, with the geographical centre of Europe located on its Western border, 46 million people -- which is far too many for a buffer zone.

As the term "buffer zone" had been receiving more and more negative comments from experts, a new term appeared recently - "in-betweenness". It's an even more ambiguous term, which demonstrates not only an absence of subjectivity, but also of the functional role assigned to it. The problem with "in-betweenness" is not only that it rejects subjectivity towards Ukraine. For me, it does not even make it an object of the foreign policy of neighbouring states.

A buffer zone, in-betweenness -- these are all clichés and narratives that were created when somebody didn't know how to deal with the situation of the collapsed Soviet Union, and were not ready to accept Ukraine to the European fold mentally, and not even institutionally. Already understanding that Ukraine is not Russia, and spheres of influence is not a concept that Europeans want to follow, they still lack the courage to oppose such Russian narratives.

Nevertheless, a buffer zone is never a secure one for you; it is never a stable and developed place.

Nevertheless, a buffer zone is never a secure one for you; it is never a stable and developed place. It is either terra incognita, or a place to stay as far away as possible for your own security. Is it what Europe wanted for Ukraine?"

It appears that it was Europe's mistake to comfortably deal with Ukraine as a terra incognita rather than support it and learn from it. It seems even a bigger one if we think that back in the day Europe was actually undertaking attempts to make friends with Russia. Shelest helps us understand why that was a stake on the wrong horse:

The problem is that when NATO has been updating its strategies, naming Russia a partner and searching for cooperation, Moscow still mentioned the Alliance as a "danger" in its strategic documents.

"The problem is that when NATO has been updating its strategies, naming Russia a partner and searching for cooperation, Moscow still mentioned the Alliance as a "danger" in its strategic documents. When the EU was introducing its neighbourhood policy, Russian official doctrines stated that they were ready to use any means to protect its interests in a so-called 'near neighbourhood'. This dichotomy is what still influences some decision-makers.

Neither Ukraine nor its partners were ready to fight in 2014, but it does not mean we did not learn how to do it, and how to do it well. But to fight effectively does not mean only to use force, it's also about building alliances, trusting in your partners, and demonstrating a different paradigm of relations between states."

One should add that this list includes knowledge and understanding of strategies that remain unseen in the battlefield itself, like propaganda, for example. Let's look into an example Shelest provides to that end:

"You cannot fight Russia" is a myth and a narrative imposed by Moscow.

"You cannot fight Russia" is a myth and a narrative imposed by Moscow. The reasons are simple. First, to start having doubts in your government and army, in their capacities. Then in your partners and strategic alliances like NATO -- will they really be ready and willing to protect you, to help you (ask Estonians, were they 100% sure whether NATO allies would introduce Article 5 of the Washington Treaty if Russian 'green men' appeared on their territory in 2014?). And finally, yet importantly, to create an image of how strong and influential, especially in military terms, Russia is, that everybody will be afraid to fight."

The seventh year into the war with Russia, Ukraine is an open textbook for others to read and learn when it comes to the Kremlin's strategies and means of warfare.

The Ukrainian case became unprecedented because it is difficult to find an international convention that the Russian Federation is not violating.

"The Ukrainian case became unprecedented because it is difficult to find an international convention that the Russian Federation is not violating. Even in cases when legislation and decisions are clear Russians still do not implement them. The latest example is the International Tribunal in Hamburg, which ruled that Russia must immediately release Ukrainian Navy sailors and ships captured illegally in November 2018 near the Kerch Strait. Moscow has not only refused to release the sailors in a timely manner, but also tried to use the issue to bargain with Paris, Berlin and Kyiv - to make European parliamentarians bring back Russian MPs to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and Ukraine to agree to sue its own sailors in accordance with Russian law, de facto recognizing the illegal annexation of Crimea," Shelest argues.

After five years, Ukrainians have learnt how to fight. Both diplomatic and military fronts are hot. Civil society is sharpening its tools. Thus, so many of us want to talk with our counterparts in Washington, Brussels or Berlin about a different Ukraine, to discuss constructive cooperation rather than fight at each available front."

This, however, should not come at the price of freezing the conflict in Donbas. Here is why, Shelest explains:

The "frozen conflict" solution is not an option. Usually it is not a conflict, which is frozen, but only its resolution.

"The "frozen conflict" solution is not an option. Usually it is not a conflict, which is frozen, but only its resolution. It can sound very provocative, but when people are not killed, the chances are less that the sides to a conflict will really search for ways to end it. History has had a lot of examples, when after a cease-fire, the parties start endless talks about talks, and for years cannot decide on simple questions that can build a road to peace. Ukraine has seen it in conflicts near its borders, for example, in Transnistria. With every new day of the "frozen conflict", you receive new ambiguity, the habit to live in a vague legal status, development of parallel structures and realities of cooperation, with criminal circles cooperating better than government ones.

The Donbas conflict is only five years long, but due to the different level of information influence that the world had even 20 years ago, we can already see how perceptions about each other are changing. To sign a cease-fire agreement is the easiest thing to do. Reconciliation and reconstruction is what will be needed for a real fight with ourselves, with the reality on the ground, with created myths."

This process of reconstruction will involve the red lines that Ukraine cannot cross, even though it will be heavily demanded to do so. One of these is going to be the issue of federalization.  Hanna Shelest explains what it's all about in this last passage taken from her contribution to the Histories and Stories from Ukraine.

"Autonomy for the separatist regions sounds so easy for our international colleagues to implement. Our German partners could not understand for a long time what is so problematic for Ukraine to accept the idea of federalisation.

The mediators proposed certain models derived from their own perception of terminology. Back in 1995, the USA, as a federal country, in which individual states enjoy broad powers, did not perceive the new constitutional structure of Bosnia and Herzegovina as something risky. The same can be said about Germany's position in the Minsk process, which saw the proposal of "federalisation" through the eyes of a well-functioning federal state, as a properly managed decentralisation of powers rather than as a mechanism for one or two regions to control the central government, which is the Russian idea behind the federalisation of Ukraine.

As far as Russia is concerned, federalisation does not mean decentralisation of the country, as in granting regions greater powers and responsibilities for the management of local issues. In their interpretation, the idea of 'federalisation' does not apply to the whole country, but rather means a separation of two particular regions, with no clear boundaries, which should have special status, in many ways greater than any administrative entities have within federal states. The idea expounded by Russia is to turn Ukraine into a dysfunctional and divided state.

On the contrary, Ukraine has been using the term 'decentralisation', which assumes administrative reform being implemented in the country. This reform should result in greater responsibilities for all regions and better distribution of financial resources. For Ukraine, which has been struggling for centuries due to its partition by other states, ideas of 'federalisation' are viewed above all from this standpoint -- not to allow new, additional divisions within the country.

Given the vast array of instruments considered above, there is no doubt that Putin's Russia is trying to rebuild an empire and prepare hybrid expansion worldwide. This happened already in the 20th century, after Ukraine lost its independence in 1921. This must never happen again for the sake of security and democracy in the whole of Europe.

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