A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Svitlana KobzarHead of the Department of International Affairs at Vesalius College, Vrije Universiteit Brussel
No, the West has not forgotten Ukraine. However, the policy agendas of the EU and the United States are crowded. The UK’s June 23 vote on whether to stay in or leave the EU looms large on policymakers’ minds. In many member states, the populist rhetoric surrounding the refugee crisis has fueled support for the far-right groups that are increasingly capturing mainstream voters. The 2016 U.S. presidential election only reinforces the far-right trend and galvanizes support for further isolationism, xenophobia, and populism. Without a doubt, these issues distract from the policy focus needed to help Ukraine succeed.
Nevertheless, during such challenging times, it is worth remembering the successes of the West. The war in Ukraine has reinvigorated transatlantic ties. So far, despite the shrinking support for sanctions among some member states, the EU’s united stance on assisting Ukraine sent a strong message to Russia. Even though the EU’s policy has not persuaded Russia to withdraw its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, unity among EU countries is likely to have become a factor in Russia’s policy calculations. The EU, its individual members, and the United States have been crucial in Ukraine’s reform process thus far, not least because all these actors share the same objective: strengthening the Ukrainian democratic state.
The West needs to capitalize on its successes and pave the way to a challenging dossier that requires long-term commitment. Supporting state building will remain among the core tasks ahead. The key now is to stay loyal to this objective while becoming more flexible in providing assistance and coordinating well among core international donors.
Anna KorbutDeputy chief editor at The Ukrainian Week
There is no impression in Ukraine that the West has forgotten it. Instead, an understanding is developing that the West is not a homogeneous entity but a group of countries and voices with different interests, principles, domestic political challenges, and levels of farsightedness.
Ukrainians see the severe challenges the West is facing. There is also an understanding that the West, for the most part, continues to see Russia, unlike Ukraine, as a strategically important country—even if not necessarily in a positive sense. This is the context in which Ukraine has to act politically and diplomatically, at least for now. And there is an acknowledgment that it is in Ukraine’s crucial interest to continue transformations, no matter how the West’s positions on Ukraine and Russia develop in the medium to long term.
In addition, Ukrainians do see many signs of EU and U.S. support, from sanctions against Russia and pressure for reforms in Ukraine to aid and more active interaction on the level of societies. However, the growing rhetoric in the West of going back to cooperation with Russia—even though it hasn’t changed its policy on Ukraine or respect for international norms—as well as pressure for Ukraine to take extremely dangerous steps, such as elections in the occupied parts of the eastern Donbas region without proper security conditions there, alert and discourage many pro-Ukrainian, pro-change, and pro-Western people.
If pushed further, these actors will have a strong radicalizing and alienating effect on Ukrainian society. And they will arm anti-Western forces and voters with the argument “See, the West doesn’t care about you or your aspiration for change.”
John KornblumSenior counselor at Noerr LLP
In one way, yes. Ukraine has been pushed onto the diplomatic back burner by daunting challenges ranging from Syria to the self-proclaimed Islamic State to refugees to China. The inability of the Ukrainian government to put its own house in order also contributes.
But this is not all bad. In the shambles of the era since former president Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainians have found a sense of identity that they had not been able to build during their first quarter century of independence. Watching the Ukrainian national football team give the Germans a hard test in the Euro 2016 championship on June 12 gave hope that something real is emerging. Something more important than any diplomatic initiative could ever be.
Much of this has been helped along by Ukraine’s secret ally. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s angry, anti-Western rhetoric has awakened many Europeans to realities they had ignored for decades. It has also begun to shake the Americans out of their strategic stupor.
But there is still a long way to go. U.S. President Barack Obama still cannot remember why Ukraine is important. Germans seem to fear their own weakness more than the Russians. Without American involvement, Germany will continue to putter with visions of new Russia-friendly security systems. Deterrence and civil society will be lost in the fog.
Mikhail MinakovKyiv-based professor, political analyst, and consultant
As expected, the West has too much on its plate to be constantly focused on Ukraine. The West may not have forgotten Ukraine, but it definitely seems distracted.
The United States is now diving into a self-absorbed period of presidential election campaigning. Even though the major candidates mention the Ukraine crisis and the Russian threat in their speeches, Washington will not be able to properly pay attention to Eastern Europe before June 2017.
In the EU, internal discussions about the union’s sanctions on Russia show that Europe is increasingly divided on Ukraine’s account. Voices from France, Italy, and Hungary demand discussion of the sanction regime. The Kremlin’s symbolic gestures of minimizing bloodshed in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region since September 2015 and of releasing captured Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko in May 2016 have somewhat eased the tension in Brussels, Berlin, and Warsaw. Meanwhile, the postponement of the EU’s regime of visa-free travel for Ukraine causes desperation among Ukrainians.
However, not everyone is desperate about the West’s decreased attention on Ukraine. The Donbas war is slowly intensifying. Russian-backed separatists continue their state-building efforts and make sure the Minsk process aimed at ending the conflict is lost in endless discussions.
Ukrainian power elites are gradually showing their appetites for uncontrolled power and property. A four-month-long political crisis ended in the consolidation of power in the hands of President Petro Poroshenko. The president’s group now has a majority in the parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, and is in full control of Ukraine’s executive branch, law enforcement agencies, and court system.
The less attention the West pays to the East, the greater the risks for peace and democratic progress in Ukraine and the region.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
Yes, because there are too many other issues.
Paris burns while unions protest against France’s new labor law. Russian hooligans clash during the Euro 2016 football cup: French police say they were organized to stir up trouble. A lone-wolf terrorist acts in Paris as people are still mourning for those killed in the June 12 shooting in Orlando. Just a few days before a possible British exit from the EU, markets tumble, refugees fill Europe’s beaches, Virginia Raggi of Italy’s populist Five Star Movement is favored to be the next mayor of Rome, and the U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has his eyes on the White House.
The world no longer cares about Ukraine. The kleptocracy running Kyiv now has zero sympathy. If sanctions on Russia are still in place, they are to counter President Vladimir Putin, not to help Kyiv. In his masterpiece The White Guard, Ukrainian author Mikhail Bulgakov wrote, “Everything passes away - suffering, pain, blood, hunger, pestilence. The sword will pass away too, but the stars will remain when the shadows of our presence and our deeds have vanished from the Earth. There is no man who does not know that. Why, then, will we not turn our eyes toward the stars?”
James SherrAssociate fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House
The danger is not that the West will forget Ukraine but abandon it. Ukraine fatigue is only partly to blame. The greater culprit is fatigue as such. Russian perseverance is eroding the resolve expounded by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2014: to stand firm “no matter how long it would take.” President Vladimir Putin would rather ruin Russia than lose this contest.
Nonbinding as it is, the French Senate’s vote on June 8, by 302 votes to 16, to relax sanctions on Russia will not discourage him. In 2014, France declared that Russia had destroyed the basis of security in Europe. This month, the senate declared that reestablishment of confident and solid relations with Russia was indispensable.
Officially, the West’s objective remains what it has been since February 2015: implementation of the Minsk accords aimed at ending the fighting in eastern Ukraine. But the meaning of implementation is being revised in ways ever more damaging to Ukraine’s core interests. On issues ranging from borders to special status, Ukraine is under increasing pressure to meet halfway parties that refuse to budge. Quietly but summarily, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has informed Kyiv that it wants to see elections in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region before Obama leaves office.
This situation is as unnecessary as it is distasteful. Russia’s internal dynamics do not favor a prolonged conflict with the West. Yet the short-term dynamics favor Russia and those who would cut deals with it.
Ulrich SpeckSenior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy
There has never been much interest in Europe and the United States for Ukraine. Since the country gained independence in 1991, the West has implicitly accepted that Ukraine is more or less part of the Russian sphere of influence. That the West sided with Ukraine in the country’s recent conflict with Russia is not the consequence of a sudden interest in Ukraine as such; rather, it is a reflection of deep concern about Russia’s ruthless use of military force.
Russia remains the key country for the West in the post-Soviet space, and many in the West want to overcome the current tension with Russia. What the Kremlin wants in return, however, is for the West to more or less officially accept that Ukraine will remain in the Russian sphere of influence and that Russia is entitled to use force to achieve that goal. This is a price many in the West are not ready to pay.
Support for Ukraine is therefore no more than an element of the West’s Russia policy; there is little genuine interest in helping the country become a more stable liberal democracy with a market economy. The West has not forgotten Ukraine, it never thought about Ukraine in the first place.
Susan StewartSenior associate in the Eastern Europe and Eurasia Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)
The problem is not that Ukraine has been forgotten. Rather, the EU’s approach to the country is eroding.
The EU’s economic sanctions on Russia are increasingly being called into question, even in key countries such as Germany and France, where the elites are divided on the measures. At the same time, there is no indication that Russia has taken meaningful steps to fulfill the Minsk agreements aimed at ending the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Thus any easing of the sanctions would harm the EU’s credibility and imply a rejection of previous commitments.
There is also less momentum with regard to support for Ukraine. The country’s political difficulties and the numerous obstacles to reform have disappointed many Westerners and led them to question the current level of support. The delays in granting Ukrainians visa-free travel to EU countries are another example of fading momentum on the support front.
The EU’s original plan for dealing with the situation still makes sense. However, the game is going to be a long one, with regard to both Russia and the Ukrainian reform process. The EU needs to stick to its principles on both sanctions and clearly conditioned support in the medium and long term. This is the most likely way to contribute to positive developments in Europe’s Eastern neighborhood.
Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy
The West is clearly suffering from Ukraine fatigue due not only to the slow pace of reform in Ukraine but also to the other more pressing concerns the West faces. Europe remains focused on the refugee problem and the politics it has unleashed in almost all key countries. The possibility of a British exit from the union threatens to unleash the deepest crisis the EU has ever faced.
While it remains important to continue to support Ukraine’s evolution toward an open society, the possibilities for Western disengagement will grow. Upcoming elections in the United States, Germany, and France will decide whether the West can support a long-term strategy regarding not only Ukraine but Russia as well. A loss of Western unity and focus on Ukraine will be a disaster for the security and political order that has been painstakingly constructed since the collapse of the Soviet Union.