Western powers should help reconcile Ukraine’s aspirations with Russia’s legitimate concerns.

‘We Shall Beat Our Swords Into Plowshares’, reads the inscription on a bronze statue presented by the Soviet Union to the United Nations in 1959, permanently installed in front of UN Headquarters on the East River. Symbolising the struggle for peace, it was sculpted by a Ukrainian, Evgeny Vuchetich. The road to peace after the erection of the monument in New York was bumpy, to say the least, but by 1990 the goal seemed to be in sight. 

I write this commentary as a summit of the ‘Normandy’ format in Astana – where the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany were to have discussed ways to solve the Ukrainian crisis – has just been postponed. Before that announcement, French President François Hollande had suggested that EU sanctions against Russia should be lifted if there were further progress in implementing the Minsk peace accords, and his statement was accompanied by similar remarks from German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and other prominent European politicians. Were they right to believe in the possibility of a breakthrough?

At the IISS Global Strategic Review in Oslo last September, I argued that the major players in this drama had almost reached the point at which their realistic requirements were satisfied but, at the same time, the costs of prolonged conflict were immense. Logically, then, it should have been possible to engineer a process of de-escalation.

Ukraine could take satisfaction from the creation of a truly independent nation through a free and fair presidential election on 25 May 2014, and then national mobilisation in the face of the armed conflict in its eastern province, which united even those who held opposing views and positions. But the prolongation of the crisis would be deeply damaging to economic and social equilibrium, and posed at best the prospect of a frozen conflict zone in Donbas lasting for years or, at worst, the entire country becoming a buffer zone for East–West conflict. 

Russia had achieved ‘reunification’ with Crimea and had demonstrated its resolve to protect Russian interests by means which compel the West to respect them, or at least to pay them serious attention. A guarantee of Ukraine’s non-NATO status looked possible. The EU’s Eastern Partnership policies, which Russia dislikes, were in disarray. President Vladimir Putin was consolidating his political power. And, in broader strategic terms, the crisis suggested that the United States did not really have the option of dual containment – it could not contain both Russia and China at the same time. 

On the strategic level, however, Moscow lost more than it gained. With falling oil prices, a plummeting rouble and severe Western sanctions, the economic damage has been immense, and since September it has only worsened. Creeping nationalisation of oil and gas assets, the inevitable consequence of the sanctions regime, is having dire economic and political consequences. The alienation of Europe will, in the long term, be very damaging to Russian interests. Russia needs European technology and know-how: China and other BRICS countries are not adequate substitute partners for Russian modernisation.

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Igor Yurgens is Chairman of the Management Board of the Institute for Contemporary Development, and a member of the IISS Council. This commentary was adapted from remarks presented to the IISS Global Strategic Review on 19–21 September 2014 in Oslo.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

February-March 2015

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