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Dmitri Trenin

RIAC Member

The Ukrainian crisis is not over. The four-party statement, reached in Geneva on Thursday, means several things. It is not, however, the end of anything.

It does signal that, despite their oppositional positions, Russia and the United States do have some overlapping interests, which require a degree of co-operation. What's more, the European Union continues to be in the back seat of a process that threatens to tear apart the largest country in the continent outside Russia and which fundamentally affects the EU's relations with Moscow. Today's Ukraine is a failing state, essentially an object of great power diplomacy.

What is also becoming clear is that the world of hardball geopolitics, unashamed political horse-trading and open economic pressure is "another world" for many in Europe. Are there any signs of proper European leadership? And can the continent continue to outsource its foreign policy to the United States?

Washington and Moscow accuse each other of interference in Ukraine, and profess their own innocence, but both are deeply involved on the ground, even if in very different ways. The United States supports and advises the government in Kiev, which it has helped to form, while Russia is clearly behind the activists, many of them armed, in Ukraine's eastern and southern regions. Washington seeks to deny Ukraine to the new Russian empire that it suspects President Putin is building. Putin, for his part, is determined to prevent Ukraine, under a pro-western regime, from joining Nato and thus offering to host US military bases virtually inside Russia's historical heartland.

A Ukraine that has joined the club of western democracies and US allies would be a good thing, from Washington's perspective. However, the path is long, messy and fraught with problems, even dangers, such as a direct clash with Russia. More important, it is not a priority for the Obama administration. The crisis in Ukraine, the White House could reason, has already sensitised America's European allies to the continuing existence of the danger in the east. Thus, it has given Nato a new shot in the arm, which it needs as the Afghanistan mission is winding down.

Looking from the Kremlin, a Ukraine that has joined the Customs Union would provide the Eurasian project with a critical mass in terms of demographic, industrial and agricultural potential. Yet Ukraine is very heterogeneous, with its pro-Russian elements more than balanced by anti-Russian ones. Fully integrating Ukraine would be not only very costly in economic terms, but impossible without cutting off its western provinces – attaching them to Soviet Ukraine was Stalin's big mistake – and pacifying or repressing millions of pro-Europe Ukrainians across the country.

Putin is no Stalin. Having corrected the "historical injustice" in Crimea, and shown the degree to which it can influence developments in eastern Ukraine, Moscow, too, may be ready for a deal.

This does not mean that the deal is already there or that, once agreed on, it will be implemented. Ukrainian parties may not be international players on a par with the great powers, but on the ground in Ukraine they have their own special interests and pursue them. The sad truth about February's revolution in Kiev is that the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych ended the regime of one-clan-dominance, but not the oligarchical system of governance that underpinned it. The oligarchical rule, if anything, has been strengthened, under the supposedly watchful eye of the Maidan movement.

Five weeks before the 25 May presidential elections, political tensions are running high. It is not clear how much power a Ukrainian president will have and under what constitution. However, the prize is exceedingly important, and the candidates, virtually all of them from the pre-revolutionary stable, are competing hard.

Washington looks forward to welcoming a fully legitimate authority in Kiev, the more so because whoever wins is likely to reaffirm Kiev's current pro-western orientation. Meanwhile, Moscow knows it has no friends in Kiev, but everyone also knows that Moscow has a lot of leverage both before and after the Ukrainian poll. It can de facto permit elections in the east and thus recognise the legitimacy of its "partners" in Kiev – or it can let the voting fail in a number of areas and continue with a policy of non-recognition of the "Kiev coup plotters".

The choice will depend on whether there will be understanding between, say, Petro Poroshenko or Yulia Tymoshenko, the frontrunners in the election – and Putin. In his public statements since the beginning of the crisis, he has praised the latter for her rational handling of the gas issues with Moscow and mentioned that the former had important business interests in Russia, interestingly, still unaffected by the recent developments.

Whatever happens during and after the elections, Ukraine is advancing fast towards a financial abyss. The IMF, led by the EU, has promised some relief, which will come with an austerity package that might lead to a tsunami of social protests across the country. The US Congress has agreed to provide loan guarantees that, on the scale of Ukraine's needs, are largely symbolic. Japan is actually giving more.

As for Russia, it has withdrawn not only the generous package it offered to Yanukovych but also abolished the "political discount" on the price of gas it charges Ukraine. With Kiev unable to pay even at discount prices, the threat of Gazprom introducing "pre-payment" just before the Ukrainian elections evokes memories of past gas wars, with Europe as an inevitable casualty. The EU has acquired a semblance of joint diplomacy, personified by Lady Ashton, but the European External Action Service and the European Council presidency do not amount to a common foreign policy. At an even deeper level, most European countries have long ceased to be modern states provided with the complete toolkit of classical statecraft and the will for using it. The few states that still possess elements of both, such as the United Kingdom and France, are no longer big enough to play in the world's premier league.

Germany remains reluctant to lead, still immobilised by the nightmares of its own past. Poland is the only case of an EU country working to rise to the challenges of the real world, but without strong joint European leadership it can only rely on its senior transatlantic partner.

The notion of a "21st-century world" in which Europe supposedly lives is misleading. The real world, including all of Europe's neighbours, contains large chunks of the legacy of previous epochs. And Europe cannot rely on outsourcing to the US, given changes in American global priorities.

The United States needs a strong, capable and independent partner. Russia, too, would be better off with a neighbour that does not limit itself to trade and moralising. On 21 February, Moscow was shocked by the EU passively accepting the scrapping of an agreement between Yanukovych and the opposition that the European ministers had just brokered. It is time that Europe started to learn to drive again.

Source: The Guardian

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