Towards a new ‘Ostpolitik’? Ukraine and the European security architecture

Illustration: German Chancelor Willy Brandt (center) and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (left) talk in Bonn in 1973, illustrating the German-initiated Ostpolitik. Photo credit: Vyacheslav Kevorkov, Bonn, 1973, Wikimedia Commons

By Gilles Lelong

Gilles Lelong is a former ENA student and French public servant, currently living in Ukraine. Gilles Lelong taught International and European Law at Sciences Po Paris from 2012 to 2014. He explains how Berlin and Paris could promote a comprehensive and balanced – albeit uncompromising – approach to the settlement of the Ukraine crisis, in light of Russian behaviour and recent developments in European politics.

Germany has held the OSCE chairmanship in 2016, thereby assuming a de facto leadership in the management of the Ukraine crisis. During the Minsk II talks in February 2015, Germany, like France, pushed for the inclusion of the political dimension of the new agreement. The Ukrainian President then accepted that elections would be held in the separatist-controlled territories, and that those territories would be granted with a special status in return for a truce backed by the Kremlin and the self-proclaimed authorities in the Donbas regions. What the West had in mind was to “freeze the conflict” in the most favourable terms possible, much like in Georgia. In this scenario, the legitimate authorities give up control over the contested territories and focus on modernisation reforms in the rest of the country. Moscow, however, had something else in mind.

The German Foreign Affairs Minister, Frank Walter Steinmeier, often refers to the OSCE’s ground principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty in discussions about Ukraine. In other words, the priority is to avoid Ukraine’s dismantlement and the actual separation of the rebel-held areas. However, one implication of the February 2015 discussions is that, for the first time in twenty-five years of post-Soviet independence, a state is being forced at gunpoint to reform its constitution.

For Moscow, the Minsk talks are not about supporting claims of self-determination in the Donbas regions, but about destabilising Ukraine in order to counter its rapprochement with the EU and NATO and to divide Europe. Moscow wishes to see favourable (pro-Russian) results at the elections in separatist territories – initially planned for 2015 but postponed. The idea is then to push for the inclusion of a veto right on Kyiv’s foreign policy in the special status which, pursuant to the Minsk agreement, would be granted to the separatist territories. Once this status and veto right would be adopted, those Ukrainian minority political formations often linked with the Party of Regions, who serve as the bridgehead of Russian influence, would call for their generalisation in the whole of Ukraine.

Moscow does not question Ukraine’s territorial integrity – except for Crimea – but instead supports the reintegration of the Donbas’ rebel-controlled territories into Ukraine so that it can weigh on its internal developments and prevent its alignment with the EU.

Influenced by the Syrian conflict, terrorism, and the rise of populism in the West, Berlin has been hesitating between two options: continue with a balanced approach towards Ukraine while maintaining the sanctions against Moscow or concentrate the pressure on the weakest party to reach a solution faster. A significant number of German Social-Democrats see the Ostpolitik – crafted by Chancellor Willy Brandt during the Cold War – as a potential inspiration for a solution in Ukraine that would be acceptable to the Kremlin. In this framework, just like the reunification of Germany then, the reunification of Ukraine today could only be reached through privileged and permanent dialogue with Moscow, and through compromises, including at the ideological level. The core idea of the new Ostpolitik is that dialogue matters as much as sanctions to reach a lasting peaceful solution.

This orientation facilitates the validation of a discourse within international organisations operating in Ukraine (UN, OSCE) stressing the internal causes of the current crisis in Ukraine. This discourse coincides with the Kremlin’s communication strategy, which consists in denying any involvement. While the OSCE mission in Ukraine primarily focuses on the situation in Donbas, its mandate is also to promote a « comprehensive approach » to security, insisting on human rights protection in all of Ukraine and on an internal « dialogue » within Ukrainian society. Since 2015, a discrete narrative of criticism has emerged towards some of Kyiv’s policies (de-communisation, support to the Kyiv Patriarchate to the detriment of the Moscow Patriarchate, freezing of economic exchanges with the occupied territories…) perceived as a source of potential tension. While it sometimes holds true, this narrative plays in the hand of the Kremlin, who is happy to charge Kyiv and the separatists with « equal responsibility ». This narrative is structurally reinforced by asymmetric conditions of observation in the field. For instance, international organisations or NGO representatives find it easy to report on the conditions of detention and legal procedures against separatists in Kyiv-controlled zones. They have however more limited opportunities to report on the detention of Ukrainians in separatist-held areas and Crimea.

The new Ostpolitik so far bears limited results. The tragic fate of Aleppo shows that the Kremlin is not at all ready to give up its objectives in Syria. Migration towards Europe continues unabated. In Ukraine, the Minsk agreements are not respected. Polls show that Ukrainians have mixed feelings towards them. Some policymakers in Kyiv fear that the ongoing negotiations will result in a political diktat, which they will not accept after having resisted foreign aggression for three years. The strategic tensions surrounding Crimea have not been alleviated, and fighting has intensified in Donbas since late summer 2016. All parties seem uninterested in a true ceasefire in the long term. Kyiv wants to postpone a settlement which it fears would be unfavourable, especially after Trump’s victory in the US. As for the pro-Russian side, it can only win politically by maintaining the pressure, blowing hot and cold in Donbas and nurturing chronic instability in Ukrainian political and economic life.

The occasional pressure put by the West on Kyiv based on the idea that « there is no alternative to the political settlement as agreed in Minsk » has been rather counterproductive. It has led to unrest in the Rada in July 2015 and contributed to the political crisis in winter 2016 (the possibility of a special status for Donbas was particularly contentious). This pressure has had the unwanted consequence of comforting some representatives of the old system – who oppose the structural reforms which the EU, the IMF and the US are pushing on Ukraine.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, President-elect Trump called on Europeans to take more responsibility in the Ukrainian case. His election – although this remains speculative – might increase the French-German tandem’s margin of maneuvre, provided that France and Germany reaffirm after the 2017 elections their joint commitment to solving the Ukrainian crisis as a first foreign policy priority. Considering the shortcomings of the Minsk agreements, Berlin and Paris should naturally continue to strive towards a political settlement, but with a more comprehensive approach.

This would require recognizing the fact that the main stake of the conflict is not Donbas but Ukraine as a whole. The actors involved have no choice but to find a common ground on Ukraine’s geopolitical status, taking into account Ukraine’s, the EU’s and Russia’s security concerns. One possible solution would be a political recognition of Ukraine as an Associated Country of the EU while stressing a form of strategic neutrality similar to that of Finland. A fine-grained observation on the field shows that Ukrainians have no principled opposition to some form of political compromise. Thus, in Kharkiv, a certain stability is insured notably through cooperation between the new administration, appointed by President Poroshenko, and members of the local elite formerly affiliated to the Party of Regions, who have interests both in Europe and in Russia.

The stabilisation of Ukraine on the longer term will also require that the two ground principles of the OSCE – sovereignty and territorial integrity – be re-evaluated in relation to each other, and that the former take some precedence over the latter. The West should emphasise the implementation of ground reforms critical to the consolidation of the Ukrainian state and to its European orientation first, and focus on the details of the political measures in the Minsk agreement later. In other words, let Kyiv be free to choose the most relevant form of decentralisation, as long as it reforms its justice system and administration, addresses civil servant corruption and dismantles the Russian-Ukrainian gas oligarchy. The German authorities took a step in the right direction in summer 2016, when they declared that general security conditions in the Donbas should be addressed prior to holding any local elections. Finally, as long as the ceasefire is not durably respected in Donbas, the French-German tandem should continue to support the sanctions as a leverage against Moscow.

At the European level, no one better than Berlin can push for a visa-free area and the implementation of the 2014 Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU – which entered into force in January 2016. France’s next President, to be elected in May 2017, should be able to help in those endeavours, all the while working towards the achievement on the longer term of a visa-free regime between Europe and Russia. As London is preparing for Brexit, Paris and Berlin would be wise to reaffirm their role based on the Gaullist tradition and the Ostpolitik legacy. Both of them contributed to reconciling the continental and euro-Atlantic dimensions of European security. Paris and Berlin must oppose any « deals » or fool’s bargain that would satisfy President Putin’s objectives without any security returns for them, for Europe and for Ukraine. Only a united Europe can make peace in Ukraine. In turn, a durable and complete settlement of the Ukrainian conflict will help the European project to survive.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s own.


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