Ukraine’s Сoncerns about the West

02:36 PM 12-11-2014

The policy brief focuses on the fears that Ukraine has in relation to the West. It is aimed at analyzing the issue of different visions which Kyiv and the West have on the Russian intervention in Ukraine; the causes of insufficient trust of Kyiv towards the Western partners and the issue of Ukraine as a first stage of conflict deterioration in Europe.The Policy Briefs are available in PDF format for downloading.
Leonid Litra
Taking a deeper look at the events in Eastern Europe, one could say that we are witnessing a de-colonization process: Ukraine’s fight for real independence has only started and with Russian involvement it has become a fight for the state’s very existence. A country with important resources and great economic potential is on the edge of bankruptcy after years of deeply corrupted and irresponsible political incumbent and now it is facing a de-facto non-declared Russian aggression. The evolution of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict raises many questions, including the one on whether the West itself is part of Ukraine’s fears and in which areas do Kyiv and its Western partners have different views?

Where does the West not understand Ukraine?
The political crisis in Ukraine followed by the Russian intervention came unexpectedly for too many states and leaders, including Ukraine itself. Attempts for a settlement took place on the side of the European Union, the United States and some international organizations. The results of these attempts should not be underestimated. The elections of the President and the new parliament were held and have been recognized globally, including by Russia. A fragile ceasefire is in place despite Russia-backed rebels’ daily breaches. The parliamentary elections took place, including partial voting in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Moreover, a roadmap for de-escalation conventionally called the Minsk Protocol was agreed. Therefore, Ukraine has got a half-measure implementation of several issues. However, what lacks is the certainty that Russia will not fuel the violent scenario further and will not continue seizing new territories.
In order to be able to predict or deter Russia’s further actions one has to understand the region, look into its history and be aware of what Moscow is capable of. Currently, Ukraine has several concerns persisting in its assumption of the situation. A quite important one is that the EU and to a less extent the US do not understand what Russia is able to do and when it is bluffing. Besides, the old Europe has lost the feeling of the security threats or is pretending to have done so. A story that best illustrates the aforesaid feeling has happened in December 2013 when Maidan only started and some discussions about the possibility that Russia might get involved if the Yanukovych regime falls already existed. In a private meeting, a diplomat from one of the EU countries deemed the Russian involvement unreal and after the question about how likely was the Russian intervention in Crimea, the diplomat replied that it was impossible, as it was illegal. Ever since, the expectations that Russia’s actions would be in line with its legal commitments under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 or the Russia-Ukraine agreement do not longer exist. Despite the fact that the failure to guarantee security and territorial integrity of the country for giving up its nuclear arsenal would involve changes in the debate on non-proliferation, the short-term concern is not about the nuclear warfare proliferation, but rather about respecting the recent agreements, such as the one signed in Minsk.
Traditionally, agreements are respected in two cases: when the parties trust each other or when the agreement between two parties is guaranteed by a state or a group of states that would apply coercive measures in case it is not respected. The Minsk Protocol is partially respected; nevertheless, Russia’s recent actions aimed at blocking the OSCE decision (Glavcom 2014) that would empower the OSCE observers to monitor Ukraine’s border with Russia show clearly that the sole conclusion of an agreement does not solve the situation, especially when the problem of border control is amongst the most urgent and important issues. Another telling example is the immediate Russian recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk so-called elections in contradiction to the commitments of the Minsk Protocol, not speaking about the fact that only few of 12 points of the protocol were partially fulfilled so far and mainly by the Ukrainian side (OSCE 2014).
The issue of respecting the agreements and the capacity of Ukraine to withstand the Russian intervention are to the large extent depending on the West’s attitude. Inside Ukraine it is difficult to understand why the West is so reluctant to supply the country with armaments and military equipment. Arming Ukraine is not about generating a large-scale war with Russia, as the West seems to fear; it is about creating the deterrence mechanism. On the one hand, position of the EU is that Russia would be able to occupy as much territory as Ukraine will allow. However, on the other hand, this view does not urge the EU countries and the US to revise their stance on providing any military (lethal) support. The Western argumentation is that first, the conflict between Ukraine and Russia can be worked out politically, and second, that supplying Ukraine with the armaments is not going to solve the problem, since Russia could occupy the entire country anyway, if they wish so. Indeed, Ukraine is also problematic as armaments receiving country due to the allegations on low integrity of some military staff that would be liable to corruption. Still, unlike the Russia-Ukraine conflict, this is the kind of difficulty that can be resolved politically in quite a short term; of course, if the demanding process of advancing on the path of democratic reforms is not continuously disrupted by the ongoing military clashes.
Over the last 9 months, the Ukraine-EU cooperation has been quite dynamic and changed significantly after Yanukovych’s fall. At the same time, Kyiv does not fully trust the EU: it cannot help but see that Russia remains an attractive business partner for the EU states and that the EU keeps an indulgent position towards Russia in many business related areas, just to mention the Mistral deal. Contrary to the Kremlin’s claim, the position of “Russia’s understanders” has been quite prevailing among some of the European politicians since the beginning of the conflict. It is precisely the Western concern for not challenging Russia’s perception of its own interests that has been one of the main catalysts of the Kremlin’s actions (The Washington Post 2014). The red lines of Russian actions in Ukraine were constantly moved by the EU in order to avoid its involvement in the conflict. The annexation of Crimea should have been the most important reason to mobilize the Western response to Russia; however, the real reaction of the West, especially of the EU, came after the MH17 Malaysian plane has been shot down.
The potential trade-off arrangement between Russia and the West is another reason of concern. Ukraine needs strong international assistance and the EU has mobilized an important financial support for Ukraine. Nonetheless, money should not displace principled positions, as we have learned from not so distant past, when Ukraine used to trade principles for financial benefits. The concern in Kyiv that the West might end up accepting the status quo, i.e. the prolonged Russian dominance over Ukraine and its “near abroad”, in return of Moscow’s cooperation in fighting the Islamic state or other threats perceived by the West, is “in the air” (The New York Review of Books 2014). In addition, one of the important topics that are discussed in Kyiv is the cancelation of the Western sanctions against Russia, since it appears that Ukraine has a different vision of when the sanctions should be off. While the US and the EU believe that the sanctions against Moscow could be lifted if Russia does not escalate the situation in the Eastern Ukraine and offers full control of border with Ukraine, in Kyiv, the Crimea issue stays on the agenda, even though Kyiv itself seems to be little vocal about the issue of Crimea.
Despite quite an open Russian narrative on Ukraine, regarding the NATO, the US and particularly the European NATO members as a threat, the West have been unable to articulate an immediate and long-term policy to roll back Russia’s actions in Ukraine. There are many debates on whether only the NATO disturbs Putin or is the EU also an issue. Regardless the reluctance to think about Russian confrontational policy towards the EU, the latter has finally started to admit that it is also targeted. The EU’s normative approach and “soft power” created indeed significant difficulties for the Kremlin to project its policies and power in the post-Soviet area and beyond. Therefore, the EU is now second on the list after the NATO.
Putin’s Valdai speech in which he positioned the US as a core problem also draws attention to the key EU players, which are, according to Putin, under the US influence, but might “wake up” and become situational partners in creating the new world order convenient to Russia (Slon 2014). However, the trends of the European public opinion do not show support of this direction; on the contrary, it is becoming less Russian friendly with 58% of the Europeans agreeing to provide economic and political support to Ukraine even if there is a risk of escalating the conflict with Russia (Transatlantic Trends 2014). That has also encouraged the EU states to acknowledge that Russia represents a threat to stability of the region and has induced them to be more cautious in their dialogues with Moscow. Subsequently, it is perceived in Kyiv. Still, what is not perceived in Kyiv is that the Western European states fully realise the security threat that Russia is posing to them, even if some states, especially the Baltic countries, have already witnessed the revanchist discourse and provocative actions on the side of the Kremlin. The speech on Russian minorities in the Baltic states; the kidnapping of an Estonian officer or violation of Finnish, Swedish and Baltic airspace by Russian jets are all issues that need to be considered.

The failure to roll back the Russian actions in Ukraine and to help the new political leadership as well as the civil society to build functioning governance based on the rule of law in Ukraine will have serious implications on the region. It is not only such countries as Georgia or Moldova that would severely suffer from potential inability of Ukraine to tackle the Russian intervention. It is likely to have implications on the Baltic States or even Poland that are quite often mentioned in the discourse of the Russian political establishment, not to mention the long-term implications on potential democratic transformation of Russia itself.
The challenge to Europe comes through Ukraine, but does not stop in Ukraine. Therefore, the opportunity for the West to keep the region away from greater deterioration goes also through Ukraine by actually supporting the building of a functional democratic state able to defend its territory. For instance, consultations of the West with Ukraine on lifting the sanctions would be a good step in order to avoid Ukraine’s concerns regarding potential trade-offs, to increase the propensity of Russia to negotiations and to cement the trust between Ukraine and the West. That kind of support is necessary for Ukraine and its society, since Ukraine strives to qualify through its democratic reforms.

1. ‘Россия заблокировала расширение мандата миссии ОБСЕ по контролю за границей’, Glavcom, 22 October 2014. Available from:
2. For a detailed explanation see Anne Applebaum, ‘The myth of Russian humiliation’, The Washington Post, 17 October 2014. Available from:
3. George Soros, ‘Wake Up, Europe’, The New York Review of Books 23 October 2014. Available from:
4. OSCE 2014, So-called elections not in line with Minsk Protocol, says OSCE Chair, calling for enhanced efforts and dialogue to implement all commitments. Available from:
5. Tatyana Stanovaya, ‘Валдайская речь: новая внешнеполитическая доктрина Путина’, Slon 24 October 2014. Available from:
6. Transatlantic Trends 2014, Survey: Transatlantic Majorities Want to Provide Economic and Political Support for Ukraine Even at Risk of Continued Conflict with Russia – But not Arms. Available from:

This policy brief appeared within the project “European think-tanks meeting for the sustainable democratic Ukraine” supported by the International Renaissance Foundation.

The author Leonid Litra would like to thank Carmen Claudin, Associate Senior Researcher at Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB), for providing review for the current policy brief.

Cartoon: © 06.03.2014