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In search of “policy”

January 23, 2015

Two pointed questions today relating to the grand scheme of things – and before going any further, the term “policy” should not be considered as synonymous to the term “strategy”, for they are quite different things.

Has anybody identified a definitive policy for Ukraine from “The West”?

Has anybody identified a definitive policy for Russia from “The West”?

Over the past month we have witnessed a far more overt (deliberately so it appears) presence of the Russian military in eastern Ukraine – to the point where the Russian military no longer bothers to paint over its armoured vehicle markings, or Russian troops remove their insignia.  Fighting has intensified by orders of magnitude as regular military has faced regular military.  A clear escalation by any definition.  A conventional war, albeit contained in a small theatre, is being waged within a broader and multifaceted aggressive engagement.

Western cash continues to drip into Ukraine in amounts sufficient to avoid default – but no more.  Perhaps rightly considering almost no reforms of note, and even less effective implementation thus far.  This despite tremendous amounts of reform rhetoric from the Ukrainian leadership.

Western military aid consists of yet to occur training, some intelligence sharing, a few lightly armoured vehicles for the regular Russian artillery and mortars to use as target practice, together with warm woolly socks, tents, night vision equipment and really little else as far as deliveries recorded in the public domain are concerned.  There may be more, quietly and discretely being supplied that nobody is acknowledging, but seemingly not enough to help the Ukrainians on the front line actually hold the front line when faced with Russian regulars.

That said, it may also be that the font line fails to hold, not due to the courage and determination of the Ukrainian rank and file, but due to the poor political/military leadership by which it is led, aggravated  quite simply by the result of years of mismatched military spending.

It may be, that perhaps the Ukrainian policy is to let the Donbas go, but with the appearance at least, of not wanting to do so officially.  It would remove the remnants of the electorate that would vote for what has risen from the Party Regions, insuring pro-western electoral victories for years to come.  Thus it would be necessary to make the Kremlin believe that there is no need to drop further violent military/proxy anchors in other areas of Ukraine yet – sustaining the appearance that the Donbas is acting as the anchor The Kremlin wanted it to be.  During this time, should Ukraine find any competent political/military leadership, it may actually rebuild and recover enough to hold a new line if and when the Donbas is released, or alternatively retaken .  That at least would be a strategy, bordering upon policy deliverables for eastern Ukraine in either case, even if something Kyiv could never admit to.

Last Sunday during an interview by a Dutch journalist in Odessa, it was repeatedly stated “The West” could no longer remain halfway in and halfway out regarding Ukraine, but required to commit to a definitive and robust policy – “The West” also has to arrive at a definitive Russia policy too.  (They are not one and the same thing, despite some obvious overlap.)

Since that interview, the Donbas, if not yet having fallen entirely to the Kremlin forces, it is very close to doing so – and without any public western response whatsoever, other than more collective tutting.  It is not as though “The West” is blind to what is going on.  Lithuania (once again) making it exceptionally clear that “The West” does know exactly what is going on at the last UNSC meeting.  To be fair, any reasonably intelligent person knows what is going on, and has done so for a very long time.  Those that would continue to claim Kremlin non-involvement are those who deliberately want to deny/ignore all evidence to the contrary, such is their want.

But let us be very blunt.  Any expectations that the Minsk Agreement will be carried out in full by the Kremlin (or proxies) is currently bordering upon the delusional – for it would be delusional to expect The Kremlin to allow Ukraine control of its own borders once again, effectively “surrounding” The Kremlin proxies (and regular forces) in the Donbas, and also severely hampering/severing supply routes to them.

If it were to even consider returning border control to Ukraine, it would be on the proviso of a large Russian regular garrison being permanently situated in the Donbas (under whatever pretext is politically expedient) to insure the weak Kremlin political puppet structures did not wobble and/or fall, together with a right of unobstructed logistical supply to the region.  A forcibly agreed occupation.

If the point of the events of the past weeks – and particularly this last week – is to force a peace upon Kyiv, it is not a peace that will be forced in line with the existing Minsk Agreements, for they simply do not suit The Kremlin.  Any forced peace will be to new agreements far more to the liking of The Kremlin, which sooner or later without far more robust assistance from “The West”, Kyiv may eventually be forced to agree to.  If no new Kremlin friendly agreements are reached, the war in eastern Ukraine will remain somewhere between warm and hot indefinitely, and certainly throughout 2015.

The current “wait and see” strategy relating to existing sanctions would possibly work regarding eastern Ukraine if the facts on the ground had not just seen The Donbas effectively leave Ukrainian control in a broadly not dissimilar manner to that which saw Crimea taken from Ukrainian control (not that the illegal annexation of the Donbas into the Russian Federation is at all likely to happen).  If the strategy of “wait and see” is in lieu of a policy and/or lack of other (palatable and consensus driven) options, then The Kremlin, should it wish to, will be at the Dnepro river long before Mr Putin pays any serious attention to the Russian economy as the priority over his geopolitical goals.  The Kremlin clearly still retains the political will to bear any pain of existing sanctions and oil price issues for a good deal longer.

Fortunately, the Kremlin probably has no need to reach the Dnepro, and the sanctions imposed appear to have had the effect of containing any thoughts of doing so, when aggravated by the drop in oil price – for now.  However, the only “off ramp” the Kremlin will take is one of its own construction whilst the current incumbent remains in office – and leave office in 2015 he won’t.  Thus the current Kremlin actions are not going to change this year – regardless of the Russian economy.  Short of a Khrushchev-esque coup within the Kremlin in the (near) future, it seems highly unlikely the current Kremlin position will change during the current incumbent occupation of the office of President.

Whatever the case, “wait and see” is not a policy for any that claim to be a regional or global player, any more than “hope for the best” or “muddle through somehow”.  As a strategy, it is only effective as part of a policy – of which none is apparent.

Nobody is expecting western troops fighting on Ukrainian soil – that heavy lifting and blood letting will be Ukrainian.  But arming David with a slightly larger and more pointed stone (or a bag of stones) when facing an aggressive Goliath, would be helpful now that the Russian military is actively in the game on the front line.

Likewise, nobody is expecting charity for the Ukrainian economy.  However, what has currently come from “The West” is more or less than enough to maintain the already onerous status quo when (even a defensive) war costs a good deal of treasure to fight.

As there is currently not the unity for it to collectively go any further than it has already gone regarding Russia and sanctions, so strategic options are few, and a definitive Russia policy is something few seemingly want to address over and above a return to business as usual at some point in the future, it has to be noted that this halfway house is perhaps the worst of all options in the absence of policy.

A return to business as usual is not going to happen on EU terms whilst the Kremlin remains under its current management.  The most worrisome issue with the much (and rightly) criticised “Mogherini Paper” is that it continues to display a woeful understanding of the Kremlin and its regional/global view.  There are no quick fixes to such fundamentally differing European and Kremlin views unless the EU is to sell its (values) soul to accommodate those of the Kremlin.  The Kremlin will not change its policy of reasserting its self-perceived right to a sphere of influence.  Thus for the EU to meaningfully accommodate the Kremlin destroys any collective claims to “shared values” and returns the EU to nothing more than a large, Member only, trading block.  So the question again;  has anybody identified a definitive policy for Russia from “The West”?

With regards to Ukraine, there are options, as there always is with willing partners – though many options will require conditionality to insure the feckless Ukrainian political class actually stop talking/promising and start doing/delivering (and effectively implementing) – but those options are seemingly not part of a formulated policy with an agreed vision of the Ukrainian future amongst EU Member States.

If and when Ukraine ever manages to implement the Association Agreement (and DCFTA) entirely, what comes thereafter by way of agreed entry into – or prevention of – Ukraine to the European clubs remains far from decided.  It matters not that invoking Article 49 rights, or the successful conclusion of the 31 Acquis Communautaire chapters if pursued by Ukraine, are currently over the immediate horizon.  By the time that occurs, the EU may not be the same animal it is now – and Ukraine may not want to join what it has morphed into anyway.  What matters is there is no agreed policy for if and when Ukraine successfully negotiates all the hurdles and expects to realise its current aspirations.  That Ukraine will eventually pursue Article 49 and the AC currently seems certain should it be able to resist Kremlin aggression – and it won’t do that alone.  So the question again.  Has anybody identified a definitive policy for Ukraine from “The West”?  Remaining half committed is not a policy that helps Ukraine or the EU and its Members States.

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