The mood was darker than the lighting, as Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, attempted to talk over the hammering of Ukrainian volunteers who were demonstrating their ability to assemble their weapons, in unison, while blindfolded. The soldiers appeared, to this observer, to be either too young or too old for combat. But they were as determined to demonstrate their commitment to the cause as she was, even if the conditions were less than ideal.
She was meeting journalists on the sidelines of September’s Yalta European Strategy meeting in Kiev, after having come out of a session where multiple voices from across Europe expressed skepticism that continued sanctions against Russia were producing results.
Some of my European colleagues asked their questions first, and their focus was on a central part of relations between Ukraine and the European Union — visa-free travel. Klympush-Tsintsadze explained that Ukraine had just received the latest memo from the European Union — all 144 conditions for visa-free travel had been met. Minor amendments would be needed in Ukraine’s process, and a possible mechanism for suspension should Ukraine cease to comply was being debated. She explained that while the association agreement is a process that could be considered political, certain benefits like visa-free travel are purely legal and technical.
In other words, there were no more reasons to require Ukrainians to use a visa to travel into the EU. All boxes had been checked.
Both Klympush-Tsintsadze and the European journalists asking her questions seemed unconvinced that such a move would ever happen. Klympush-Tsintsadze put it bluntly — since Ukraine had fulfilled all requirements, the EU members would have to take extraordinary — and extralegal — steps in order to block Ukraine from visa-free travel.
And yet here we are, two months later, and the Council of Europe has still not put Ukraine on the agenda for its meetings. Deputy head of the presidential administration of Ukraine, Kostiantyn Yeliseyev, says that could still change, and there is still hope that visa-free travel could be granted as early as November, but the inaction of the Council is echoing loudly. And while countries like Hungary, and even the chairman of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs Elmar Brokhave, have slammed the delay, it’s obvious what’s going on — the EU is torn between accepting Ukraine and angering Russia, and reluctance to anger Russia appears to be winning.
Just this morning, the EU states have preliminarily granted their approval of visa-free travel for Ukrainians on short trips, but the program will not be implemented until a mechanism for emergency suspension of the deal is put in place. Again, it is unclear how long this delay will take. In theory, the decision could be made in weeks.
The Minsk Excuse
The central excuse the world has given, at least in back rooms, for its collective lack of support for Ukraine is the Minsk protocol. On paper, the twice-renegotiated agreement calls for both sides to cease firing and pull back heavy equipment from the front lines. It requires elections to be held, according to Ukrainian law and observed by international monitors, in territory controlled by Russian-backed fighters. It also requires the withdrawal of all foreign fighters and the return control of the border to the Ukrainian military. And, ultimately, it prescribes that Ukraine grant the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk greater autonomy.
But Russian military hardware and soldiers are still fighting in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian military does not control the border. The fighting continues. The Russian-backed separatists have not abided by a single aspect of the agreement. Elections cannot be held under these circumstances, and the separatist leadership has repeatedly refused to hold elections under Ukrainian law anyway. The Ukrainian government, then, has decided that it cannot grant greater autonomy to a region that is under control of an occupying power. And that decision has been cited by some as a sign that Ukraine is not serious about abiding by the Minsk agreement.
In fact, just today the US ambassador to the OSCE, Daniel B. Baer, gave a statement in which he says OSCE observers have almost no access to the Russian-Ukrainian border but have still been able to observe “more than 30,000 individuals in military-style dress crossing just at the two checkpoints to which [the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, or SMM) has access.” On 27 occasions, the OSCE has spotted vehicles carrying deceased soldiers returning across the border into Russia.
The status quo is unacceptable. Each day, the Ukrainian military takes a pounding from the Russian-backed militants. Each day, that leaves Ukraine with a tough choice. If they return fire, the headlines will read “both sides violate ceasefire,” and if civilians die in the process, Ukraine will be held to a higher degree of scrutiny than their opponents. If they do not return fire, their soldiers will pay the price and nothing will change. If Ukraine goes on the offensive to drive invaders from their lands, it would likely trigger a wider war with the Russian military — a war Ukraine could lose — and it’s highly unlikely other countries would come to their defense.
Ukraine, to be clear, has made mistakes in navigating this impossible situation. By and large, however, they have fought a war with one of the largest militaries in the world, they have held their ground, and they have paid the price for their success.
Regardless of the conditions on the ground and the political realities in Ukraine, a growing chorus of European voices is demanding that Ukraine follow through with their end of the Minsk agreement, whether Russia and its proxies meet their end or not. The same day I spoke to Klympush-Tsintsadze, Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico said that Ukraine was honoring its commitments to the Minsk agreements less than Russia was. “It is not true that Ukraine is the good guy and Russia is the bad guy,” Reuters quoted him as saying. “Sanctions are harming the EU and Russia and they help the United States. I reject them but at the same time I won’t break the unity of the EU on that.”
Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier piled on, suggesting that sanctions should be lifted if progress was being made in the ceasefire — even if Crimea is not returned to Ukrainian rule. The German government seemed to have walked back those statements, but Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that even discussing weakening sanctions was a boon to Russia.
While Ukraine, and monitoring groups like the OSCE, are warning that they cannot hold local elections in the Donbass until the security situation improves, Ukraine has even been criticized by some for not recognizing local elections which are not internationally recognized as legitimate. Meanwhile, members of the EU parliament were blocked from traveling to the affected areas because of the security concerns. “If we are not letting EU parliament members to go to Ukrainian territory,” Klympush-Tsintsadze explained, “how can someone insist on Ukraine to pass this special status law and hold elections there?”
Many in Ukraine feel betrayed. From their point of view, the Minsk agreement is in the hands of their enemies, and their allies are now blaming the victim. Klympush-Tsintsadze cited another international agreement that the international community had brokered, Ukraine had honored, and Russia had broken — the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. At the time, Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal and guaranteed the movement of Russian troops in and out of the Russian naval bases in Crimea in exchange for security promises from the Kremlin. Russia broke that and many of its agreements with Ukraine by moving unauthorized troops into Ukrainian territory, conducting military activity on and across the border without prior warning or international observation, by failing to secure its side of the border, and, worse, by invading across it. “What will you say to Iran when you ask them not to pursue nuclear weapons?”
The European Populist Wave Has Eroded Ukraine’s Support
Two years ago, not long after Russia shipped a Buk missile system across the border and shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, Europe was united against Putin’s war machine. The US and EU passed wave after wave of sanctions against Russia, focusing on powerful Russian and Ukrainian individuals and institutions responsible for supporting or funding Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its invasion of the Donbass. While the prospects of direct military aid were more remote, Ukraine could feel confident that they had a united front behind them that would not reward Russia for its transgressions.
That was then. Since then, a wave of populism has washed over the West. Nationalist, anti-European, or openly pro-Kremlin political parties have gained power in many countries. Nationalism is creeping into power in Macedonia, Poland, Switzerland, Belgium, Finland, Latvia, Norway, Slovakia, Armenai, Lithuania, Hungary, France, and other countries across Europe. The Dutch people passed a (non-binding and moslty symbolic) referendum against Ukraine’s association with the European Union, the UK voted to leave the EU, and just this week both Bulgaria and Moldova have elected pro-Putin nationalist leaders.
And then there’s US President-elect Donald Trump. As a recent series written by The Interpreter in The Daily Beast shows, Trump has business ties to Russia, some of his advisors have direct ties to Russian state-controlled news and energy agencies, Trump has made statements that are anti-NATO, and Trump has selectively edited the Republican platform to remove support for Ukraine.
Here I should caution that we have little idea what Trump’s foreign policy will bring. What we do know is that his campaign manager who helped secure Trump the GOP nomination, Paul Manafort, worked for the subject of the revolution that brought the current Ukrainian government to power — ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. We know that Trump has opened the door to rapprochement with Putin and the dropping of sanctions, and that many experts fear a “Grand Bargain” could be cut with Russia that would give them more influence over the Eastern Hemisphere than at any point since before the end of the Cold War. And in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, Syria and beyond we have seen exactly what Russia is likely to do with that level of control.
Closer to home, there are too many elements in Europe that support rapprochement with Russia. Some believe it is better to do business with Russia than to suffer the economic costs of holding Russia accountable. Others believe sanctions have not worked and so should be dropped. Some are openly anti-European, anti-Western, and/or pro-Kremlin — the opposite of all the things the Euromaidan Revolution stands for in Ukraine.
At the end of the day, the reality is stark: Ukraine is on its own. The government in Kiev, and other nations that find themselves in similar situations, would be wise to recognize that reality. If I am wrong, and Western unity against Russian aggression remains intact, then they will have lost nothing but their reliance on outside support. If I am correct, their survival as independent nation states may depend on it.
All, however, is not lost. The Ukrainian economy has weathered the storm over the last several years. The military has fought the Russian invaders to a stand-still. The political system in Ukraine is embattled, but it is not near collapse. There is real frustration in Kiev over the lack of progress on many fronts — economics, political reform and anti-corruption measures, the military and humanitarian situation in the east — but the fear of imminent doom has all-but-faded away.
Ukraine is tough. It deserves more support, but it will survive whether or not it gets it.