As is so often the case, the seemingly intractable conflict in Ukraine has largely fallen out of the headlines in recent months. It failed to reward continued media attention with concrete developments and with so much going on elsewhere, this was perhaps predictable. But more worryingly, Ukraine seems to warrant less and less political attention these days too.
This conflict is treated as if it is Ukraine’s problem alone, and not Europe’s. Ukraine’s European partners seemed to feel justified in turning their attention to other things after a ceasefire was agreed in Minsk in September 2014, but they were wrong to think this deal meant anything.
A hybrid war
In the hybrid war being fought in and over Ukraine, the ceasefire agreed at Minsk would be a joke but for the number of casualties that accrue by the day.
Donetsk airport, once a symbol of Ukraine’s progress, now testifies to the fragility of international relations and to the need to be vigilant for danger and threat. Russia continues to deny that it has sent troops or military equipment but these claims no no longer, if they ever did, stand up to scrutiny. Its campaigns of misinformation are increasingly being recognised for what they are.
The attack on the port city of Mariupol that killed around 30 people on January 24 seems finally to have woken up the West to the failure of the Minsk agreements. The European Council issued a statement two days later expressing its concern and condemning the loss of innocent lives “during the indiscriminate shelling”.
It went on to explicitly accuse Russia of supporting separatists in the region. One might have hoped that this was a sign that European leaders would no longer tolerate Russia’s evasiveness. Emergency meetings held by both NATO and the EU since then, however, suggest we can expect nothing more than an extension of what we have seen to date. EU and NATO member states have problems of their own and will not take a proactive stance on Ukraine.
Division and intolerance
In the weeks and months following the start of Euromaidan in January 2014, the Weimar Triangle states (France, Germany and Poland) sent their foreign ministers to Kiev to assist in negotiating an end to the protests and political divisions that had riven Kiev and other parts of the country.
As Ukraine continued to fracture and the conflict became ever more brutal, the EU continued to support Kiev’s position, especially against the Russians who were perceived to be, at best, failing to use their influence with the separatist rebels in the east of Ukraine.
Waves of sanctions against Russia followed and the long-awaited Association Agreement was signed with Ukraine to strengthen economic and political ties. NATO was similarly supportive of the Kiev government and the US condemned Russia in word and deed.
But the condition of Luhansk, Donetsk and now Mariupol all stand as symbols of just how ineffective that help has been. Things are so bad that, increasingly, a frozen conflict looks like being Ukraine’s best hope.EPA
Europe has other pernicious problems. Even as the upcoming Holocaust Memorial Day directed everyone to remember the dangers of racial and religious intolerance, the German Pegida movement captured headlines as thousands of anti-Islamist protesters took to the streets of major German cities.
The protests were fuelled by France’s own troubles following the terrible attacks in Paris. And now Germany is faced with the prospect of tough negotiations to prevent Greece from leaving the eurozone. Any concessions won by Greece will have ripple effects in Spain, Portugal, Italy and elsewhere. There will be little appetite to ramp up support for Ukraine. NATO will fare no better unless the US picks up the bill.
The consequences of weakness
Western European states and those organisations central to their security and prosperity have tough decisions to make. There is the matter of ending what is unquestionably a war in Ukraine. The Minsk agreements have not held. That must be acknowledged before the next steps can be taken – and those steps are likely to require military aid to Kiev.
Russia’s role in Ukraine has to be fully exposed – Moscow can no longer be allowed to hide behind denials. If much more time is spent in pondering the nature of Russia’s role rather than combating it, Ukraine will lose huge swathes of its eastern territory as the separatists push westwards to Crimea.
One can easily imagine a scenario like that being played out in South Ossetia and Abkhazia right now, where Russia is well on course to incorporating these former Georgian territories into the Russian Federation.
The messages that will be sent about sovereignty, inviolability of borders, Russian strength and Western weakness will hurtle Europe back into a time of uncertainty, instability and danger. Time is short; European leaders need to decide.
Dr Maxine David is a Lecturer in the School of Politics, University of Surrey, UK. Her research to date has focused on the foreign policies of Russia, the UK and the European Union. She was joint coordinator and co-editor of a project mapping the 27 EU Member States relations with Russia, for which she researched UK and Irish relations with Russia. In May 2013, an edited collection, National Perspectives on Russia: European Foreign Policy in the Making?, covering the entirety of the bilateral relationships, was published with Routledge. She is Co-Editor of the Journal of Contemporary European Studies (JCER).
She is particularly interested in the role of structure, both domestic and international, and its effects on the capacity of states to operate as independent actors. She is currently working on articles related to the use of Social Media in Russia, Russia's relations with the WTO and regional trading organisations as well as on Russia's interactions within the UN in relation to the crisis in Syria.
Maxine is also one of the key members of a British Academy-funded project called: On the Receiving End: towards more critical and inclusive perspectives on international intervention. As part of the Surrey team, she works with partners in Serbia and Palestine, documenting the lived experiences of those on the receiving end of interventionist actions and ensuring an exchange of knowledge and practice between the different academic communities. A Special Issue, International intervention: assembling critical perspectives, will be published in 2014, for which Maxine is acting as both Editor and co-author.
She convenes and leads modules at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, including on International Intervention, Foreign Policy Analysis, Globalisation and Eastern Europe. She is a regular guest lecturer at the American University in London, where she lectures on EU actorness in the context of a globalising world. For the past three years, she has taught a module on International Intervention at the Summer School of the Centre for Comparative Conflict Studies, Faculty of Media and Communication, Belgrade.