It's clear that the West will not come to defend Ukraine against Russia militarily, said Ulrich Speck, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.
It's better to put the field of the conflict on the field of statebuilding where there is more opportunity for Ukraine. If Ukraine works with the West on that level- to build a strong state- Russia has nothing to offer.
Nataliya Gumenyuk spoke with Ulrich Speck at the Hromadske studio in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Read the full transcript:
Now there is the discussion about the Minsk agreement, but what is really the strategy to solve the situation, what would work in the long term in your opinion? What else apart from this agreement need to be and might be done?
The Minsk agreement could be an opportunity, but we saw in the past there were many agreements, and we also know from Putin, that he doesn’t want to be limited by any agreement, so he wants to keep all options open, and Minsk agreement looks as he has used this to create another opportunity to be in a position where he can restart the war any time, because the border’s not sealed, [he can restart] the war in a way he did in the past, by using proxies. So Minsk could be a step in the right direction if the Russian side respects it, and then Ukraine may have a window of opportunity, which means that the war is not in the main focus of Ukrainian politics any more and not in the main focus of the West any more. As long as this logic of war dominates (we talk about escalation, nuclear weapons, arming; many people in Ukraine die for nothing, which is horrible: yes, they died to defend the border, but there hasn’t been any larger movement [“…any larger purpose” is better here, IMHO]), so if these killings end, and if there’s a pause for Ukrainian State to focus on other issues (the burning issues are anti-corruption reform and institution building), if this comes with Minsk too, if there an opportunity to push these questions of war and territorial integrity at least a little bit on the back burner, then it has been a success under very bad conditions.
What will be a clear priority then and what can be this strategy, because we understand that something like a military option might be considered as a tactical measure? What can be considered on the strategic level for the EU and Ukraine to get out of this?
The EU is not here to defend Ukraine militarily, it simply won’t do it. It’s clear that the West ends militarily at the NATO border, and neither Germany, nor USA will come here with ground troops and defend Ukraine militarily, that’s unfortunate, but that’s the reality. I don’t think that the military side is the key, the key is control over Ukraine, this is what Putin wants, and he’s using just Donbas, attacks, the military side of the conflict in order to put stress on Ukraine and in order to have ultimately a failed state, the failed Ukraine, so that he potentially could control your country [as it was in USSR]. That might be his strategy, and the counter-strategy then would be to put the conflict on the field where the West is much better, where Ukraine has many more opportunities, which is the field of state-building, economy reforms. If we work on that level, Russia has nothing to offer. It has nothing to offer to people of Donbas, especially now with low oil prices and sanctions. The western strategy is to create the space that allows Ukraine to develop itself into a better state.
Sometimes you hear talks about the financial aid, and support with visa-free regime, and other initiatives. Is this the strategy, or should it be somehow broader?
I would say these are all elements of the broader strategy. It’s true that these are individual measures at the moment; there’s the DCFTA (EU-Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area) as a part of the Association Agreement, there’s the process of (hopefully soon-to-be implemented) visa-free travel. You could call it a broader strategy of engagement. The problem is now that the West is not fully committed to that, we don’t see yet enough support. I think there are some positive developments on the side of emergency financial help from IMF, and I’m pretty sure the West will not let Ukraine fall financially down. But this is all about the emergency help. What we need is the long-term investment in state-building…
What is that?
It is what Germans do in Kosovo, sending judges, people who really sit in offices with officials and teach them how to administer the country. They introduce western standards not just on paper but also in terms of real assisting. I think there’s still a lot that could be done, and I hope it will be.
Are there any discussions about it in Brussels, in the European capitals? How do you assess the current development and the current vision?
There’s the Support Group for Ukraine in the European Commission, there’s the EU Advisory Mission for Civilian Security Sector Reform here in Kyiv, led by Kalman Mizsei. So, it’s starting, but it’s also a first step for those who are working on the Ukrainian question.
What are the biggest obstacles for them?
It’s a lack of support in the member states, there’s still no full commitment.
Why should the member states care at this point?
Well, why should they care indeed? Ask Angela Merkel and she would say that this is about the European peace order. And I would add: it’s not just about the peace in Europe, it’s also about the character of Russia. If we let Russia get away with this, it will probably transform into a power, that is looking for territorial conquests in other parts of world: there’s Kazakhstan, Transnistria, Moldova. If being at war with neighbours becomes a part of Russian identity, it’s very likely for someone like Putin to try it elsewhere. At the moment his ratings go down he may decide that it’s time for another conflict. We, as the West, need to raise the costs of such deeds, and on the other side we need to make him understand that he cannot control sovereign countries any more. We also need to make sure that the order of 90-91, when the Soviet Union broke down, has become permanent, because Putin is questioning this order and is trying to revise it, so the task of Russian neighbours and the West is to make Russia understand, that it is a nation state with borders and not an empire any more, that can control politics in neighbouring countries at its will.
When we talk about the sanctions and consequences, what are they? What else can be done? A lot of people say it will work in a long run, but is there something stronger?
At the moment, let’s just wait how Minsk-2 plays out, but, of course, there’s a potential for escalation and more sanctions – SWIFT is one of them. But, as far as I know, there’s some caution regarding SWIFT: people think that if you kick Russia out of SWIFT, nobody knows any more what’s going on in the country, because with SWIFT we have some information about payments in Russia, so there are some downsides. And, of course, the economic sanctions are already a miracle, because, as we know, not every EU member state is in favour of sanctions. Yes, we have pushed sanctions to a high level. It could be more, I think there were sanctions in preparation against Russian deputy defence minister, but I don’t think that you will reach an entirely new level of sanctions. There are some talks, but this would bring Europe in a very-very tough conflict with Russia. The situation is that now you can have both the sanctions and an opportunity to do business with Russian Federation: work with it on Iran, have the pipelines running. This is all still working, and I don’t see a variant where it would be stopped besides an open war and having hundreds of thousands Russian troops invading other countries. I don’t think the sanctions is something where the massive escalation to be expected.
How united or divided is the European Union, and what are the roles of Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the Southern countries, the Nordic countries in this regard?
I would say, that the readiness to confront Russia is something very new for Europe, because for twenty years we tried to change this region by working with Russia and hoping that by modernising Russia the whole space would somehow become more liberal, more involved in a market economy, more democratic. This has failed, so now the EU in one year switched from cooperation to confrontation with Russia. Initially you had a very weak group of countries working for it against a big majority. The countries that are more in favour for sanctions are, of course, the Baltic countries, Poland, and the key state here is Germany. It was the country with a multitude of Putin-sympathisers and openness towards Russian position, and now the large majority of Germans are in favour of sanctions. France was brought in by Merkel and Steinmeier into the Normandy format talks, because it’s important to have an EU majority, and when you have Germany and France, it’s very likely that the other member states will agree. Scandinavians and Britain are largely in favour of the policy of stronger and more confrontational approach, but Spain, Italy, many countries in South-East Europe, like Hungary and Czech Republic are rather sceptical about sanctions. So, this confrontational approach to Russia and the strong support for the Ukrainian position, that we saw in the last several months is a minority position in the EU. As long as the fear of continuing the fighting in Donbas is there, it’s very likely that the sanctions will be renewed, but we’ll see the strong battle, starting in March and lasting till June, about the renewal of sanctions, because you need all 28 EU member states for it. And we have some questions on the position of Greece. There’s a massive Russian lobby trying to undercut the sanctions, working with right- and left-wing parties (it’s Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain). But I would say if the situation remains as tense as it is now, the EU would be united behind the sanctions.
And how united is Germany? What is the difference between Steinmeier, and Merkel, and the other political parties?
Germany is united. There are no illusions among the policy makers about the current regime in Russia and the character of the conflict. Where Merkel and Steinmeier have some differences is rather in the emphasis. Angela Merkel is leading the negotiations, she is more on the side of confrontation, whether Steinmeier is more on the side of communication with Russia and this attempt to somehow save working relationships with Russia. There have been differences in the past, but there’s no question about the unity of German coalition.
Some say the United States are more confrontational than other countries, many will claim that it isn’t true, and it’s Merkel and Hollande who go to Moscow.
In the US you have very different camps: there are those who think they have to save great power relations with Russia and don’t really care about Ukraine, they are rather interest in managing global politics (and some people still think they can do this), but otherwise there is also a widespread feeling that what Russia’s doing in Ukraine is unacceptable, and if the US is still a global power and a global policeman to a certain extent, it needs to do something. Obama and Merkel have a very close cooperation on Ukraine: they are on the phone, they agree on the measures, strategies and tactics. All this talk about the rift between the US and the EU during the Munich Security Conference has been overdramatised. It’s not there, as we saw when Merkel went to the White House. Obama trusts Merkel very much, and he’s just happy to give Germany the lead on Russia.
You spent some time in Kyiv talking to our policy makers, people from the civil society. What’s your judgement and impression from this short stay? What has changed in your mind after the visit?
First, I enjoyed the city and that great espresso that you have on every corner. When you read so much about Ukraine, the questions about where this country would go, is it on the right path. If you just walk on streets and look at these nice and decent people, you just get the impression that this is a part of Europe, and this is the civil society that’s working. Look at the interaction between drivers in the traffic, this is a very civil way to behave: respecting other people. But on the broader question of where is this country going, I’m not the one to ask that, because people here know much better. There’s a general impression that even now with the huge stress on Ukraine with the situation in Donbas, this country is not giving up on itself. There’s so much positive energy and will, and also the idea that this is the responsibility of people to improve the situation in the country themselves, not like after the Orange Revolution, when you had a change in leadership, and afterwards the civil society went back into their lives. Now you have a whole range of initiatives. I am optimistic [about Ukraine].