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Commentary | 11 March 2014

Russia and Europe have to rescue Ukraine together

Ukraine is sick now. And it is not a minor cold, but a dangerous fever.

Problems rooted in the complicated history of the Ukrainian people have deepened recently due to irresponsible policies of the country’s leadership saturated with demagogy, corruption, greed, mismanagement and unmitigated personal ambition. All the leaders of the modern Ukrainian state: Kravchuk, Kuchma, Yuchschenko, Timoshenko, Yanukovich and their cronies and associates contributed in their specific ways to the deep crisis that finally erupted in the country.

As it often happens, the first to make full use of the crisis turned out to be extreme nationalistic groups. What happened in Kyiv in late February is nothing more and nothing less than a violent change of power by political radicals, which had been planning the coup d’état for a long time and had not even tried to camouflage their intentions (in order to get the proof it is suffice just to visit their public web sites).

Nobody should deny that Victor Yanukovich has to accept a part of responsibility for the crisis, but nobody should either deny that the legitimate President was deprived of power through unconstitutional and non-peaceful means. Were external forces a part of this change of power? An external involvement cannot be denied, but it is clear that such an involvement was not the key factor in the events in Kyiv.

What were the immediate decisions of radicals, who hijacked power in Kyiv? They started with curtailing minority rights, including language rights, demanded to ban disagreeable political parties and called for lustrations. This model tested in Kyiv should have been used in Ukraine at large.

Could Russia under the circumstances remain an idle by-stander watching the evident abuse of power? Could Russia disregard fates of millions of its compatriots and ethnic Russians living in Ukraine? The Russian actions that caused such a passionate reaction in the West were guided by one intention only: to send a clear message to new authorities in Kyiv that they should no longer pursue their reckless and irresponsible course, that they have to take into account and to respect positions and feelings of Ukrainians in all regions of the country. My Western colleagues trying to justify NATO bombings of Yugoslavia , the use of military force in other regions of the world with no UN Security Council mandate, have many times assured me that for them the most important task had been to exercise the ‘responsibility to protect’ the local population. But why cannot the principle of ‘responsibility to protect’ be applied to Ukraine today? It should be noted in passing that no Russian decisions and actions have gone beyond the provisions or relevant international agreements.

Sometimes it is argued that the crisis in Ukraine is rooted in the Russia’s intention to deprive Ukraine of its “European choice”. The issue of the “European choice” was not the main cause of the crisis, it rather turned out to detonate it, letting the radicals in Ukraine to ‘internationalize’ county’s domestic problems. However, the arguments about the “European choice” do not hold water.

First of all, Ukraine has always been and remains a European state, which in no means deprives it of extensive relations with states in other parts of the world. This is more than natural in the age of globalization. Second, if the “choice’ means the EU membership, this issue is not on the agenda and it will not be put on the agenda in any foreseeable future. Third, Ukraine cannot count on a financial assistance from EU that would match the assistance rendered by Brussels to accession countries of Central Europe; the European Union today is not capable to digest a country with the population of 46 million and an attached package of fundamental social, economic, infrastructural and other problems. Fourth, if the ‘choice’ boiled down to European values, than one should note that Ukraine accepted these values a long time ago by joining the Council of Europe and OSCE.

And if these values are not adhered to, this is not because somebody is trying to prevent Ukraine from adhering but rather due to the current level of the political culture and the immaturity of the Ukrainian political class.
Theological speculations about the “European choice” have resulted in a false dilemma presented to Kyiv: to associate itself with Brussels or to stay with Moscow. It is not that important today who was the first – Brussels or Moscow – to define the Ukrainian dilemma in this rigid way. But the fact is that this had been done. And the net result was that instead of being a part of the solution, Russia and the European Union turned out to be a part of the problem.

It would be premature to come up with any final judgments about the results of the Ukrainian crisis or about its international consequences. The deaths of dozens of people in the streets of Kyiv are already too high a price for any political transformation. But it looks evident that the implications of the crisis may well be of a long term nature – not only for Ukraine itself, but for the relations between the East and the West of the European continent. The crisis has already resulted in a powerful explosion of the Cold war style rhetoric on both sides. As if some politicians got nostalgic about the past century and are trying to use a great chance to get back there competing with each other in the intricacy of mutual accusations. The vicious spiral of hostility, if not stopped, can seriously damage relations between Russian and the European Union, Russia and the United States, reduce the efficiency of our joint efforts to confront new threats and challenges common to all of us. And, of course, such a confrontation would make any lasting settlement in Ukraine even more difficult, if possible at all.

It is in the interests of both Russia and Europe to prevent this scenario from happening. After all, Moscow and Brussels should be interested in maintaining the Ukrainian sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, in restoring law and order in Ukraine. Without achieving these goals it would be impossible to resolve the ongoing crisis, to assist the Ukrainian people in building a stable and prosperous country that would secure its rightful place in the European family. We have to urgently move away from mutual accusations to elaborating specific ways through which Ukraine – together with active and coordinated Russian and EU assistance – can introduce the needed political and economic reforms to stabilize the situation, to get back to a normal life and to start implementing structural changes in its economy and social life.

At the same time, Moscow, Brussels and Washington should learn their own lessons from the crisis. They should accelerate the work to overcome the residual legacy of the Cold War that prevents all of us from building a new system of international relations of the XXI century. Among other things, it is indispensable to make a serious political investment into shaping a modern indivisible and inclusive security system in the Euro-Atlantic space.


This article was first published on El Mundo and on the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) website on 5 March 2014.To read the article on the RIAC website visit

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.