Europe has been saved from the horrors of war since the Balkan conflicts ended 20 years ago. That could change soon though, if Russia decides to invade Ukraine. According to Euronews, Russia has put 70,000 troops along its Ukrainian border. A report from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, quoted by the Military Times, puts that number at 120,000.
Despite Moscow denying any plans for an invasion, the very presence of such large forces along a neighbor’s border dramatically raises tensions in the region. The troop build-up comes on top of many years of diplomatic and military skirmishes between the two. The Russian annexation of Crimea remains an open wound, as does the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The situation is further complicated by Kiev’s demonstrated interest and determination to build stronger ties with the European Union, NATO and indirectly the United States. This has brought the Western camp into the Ukrainian situation, where currently all parties involved seem to be talking past each other.
If Russia, Ukraine and the West refuse to get better at coordinating their ears and mouths, an avoidable war will at some point become inevitable. If, on the other hand, wisdom prevails over weapons, a lasting solution to the Ukrainian situation may lie in a treaty from 1948. That year, Finland and the Soviet Union signed the so-called Agreement on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance.
Given the current Russian military build-up, it is unclear to what extent a peaceful solution is possible. Russia has shown little respect for Ukrainian sovereignty, making it easy for outside observers to assume that there is more of the same disrespect in the making.
At the same time, the West seems determined to further invest its interests in Ukraine, which have recently been codified into an agreement between Brussels and Kiev. In exchange for large financial support, the Ukrainian government will make substantial changes to its government and its economy, all in the image of a template for EU membership.
While Moscow contemplates the relationship between a neighbor’s sovereignty and reliability, the West, primarily the EU and NATO, need to acknowledge the most pressing question in the whole conflict: why would Russia want to launch a high-risk military operation to invade Ukraine and pay the price of stiff economic and other sanctions?
It is likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed the possibility of American troops in Ukraine. Although President Biden’s administration first said it did not rule out American troops on the ground in Ukraine, they subsequently walked back that statement. On December 7th, Biden warned his counterpart in Moscow of strong sanctions, economic and other, if Russia invaded Ukraine, only to clarify a day later that putting American troops on the ground was “not on the table.”
Understanding, without morally approving, Russia’s motives for possibly invading Ukraine is a key step toward permanently de-escalating the Ukrainian crisis. Those motives are concisely summarized in the aforementioned report from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense. Russia, they say, wants to take back “full control over Ukraine” and put an end to “its Euroatlantic aspirations.”
As crude as this motive may seem, it is not to be taken lightly. However, politics is never simple. Putin is too smart to just be a conquering expansionist, and Moscow’s interest in stopping Ukraine from being absorbed by Western alliances is entirely about buffer-zoning its geographic neighborhood.
This Russian foreign-policy objective has interacted with Ukrainian politics ever since its Declaration of Independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. For three long decades, the government in Kiev has been torn between its desire to integrate with the West and its close ties with Russia. Shifting allegiances have, as the Economist noted in 2013, been “a raw geopolitical contest” over Ukrainian foreign policy.
In a paper titled “The Evolution of the Foreign Policy of Ukraine: External Actors and Domestic Factors” (Europe-Asia Studies, June 2018), Karina Shyrokykh takes inventory of the country’s changing allegiances over the past 30 years. In the first three years after independence, Ukraine leaned heavily in Europe’s favor. Their first president, Leonid Kravchuk, sought to distance his country from its Soviet past. However, his successor, Leonid Kuchma, oriented Kiev toward Moscow. Kuchma, in turn, was followed by Viktor Yushchenko, whose 2005-2010 presidency again turned Ukraine’s ambitions toward the West.
After Yushchenko came Viktor Yanukovich. Before his presidency ended in the chaos of the violent revolution in 2014, he had again turned Kiev’s attention toward Moscow.
Shyrokykh explains the difference between the pro-European and pro-Russian foreign-policy paradigms as a difference between a reform-oriented, singular policy and a “multivector” policy trying to balance European and Russian influence. In reality, the differences between the two paradigms are sharper than what Shyrokykh admits: Russia sees Ukraine’s orientation toward the West as incompatible with Russian interests.
Since Yanukovich left office, the West has been pulling Ukraine closer. In 2017, Ukraine signed an Association Agreement with the EU. This agreement, which is long term in nature and transformative in impact, is in practice the very first step toward EU membership. It mandates that Kiev reform both its government and the nation’s economy in line with western European standards.
To incentivize reform, the EU has pledged upward of €17 billion in grants and loans to Ukraine. The funds are contingent upon the extent to which Kiev implements the reforms prescribed in the Association Agreement. Those reforms primarily aim to solidify democratic principles, reinforce the rule of law, create and protect an independent judiciary and improve respect for human rights.
While general in format, compliance with these conditions requires comprehensive and specific changes to the way government works. Some of those changes will require constitutional modifications: the Ukrainian parliament will have to enshrine in the nation’s founding document an unwavering aspiration to become a Western European nation.
As a sovereign country, Ukraine is in its full right to make whatever constitutional reforms it sees fit. Their right to independence is as strong as is Russia’s right to national security. If one is weighed against the other, national sovereignty always wins. However, it is also reasonable to expect that Russia understands the long-term purpose of the reforms mandated under the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. Those reforms could be interpreted by Moscow as a deliberate attempt by the EU to once and for all wrest Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence.
By Moscow’s logic, that also means expanding other Western alliances, and most certainly NATO, right up to a major section of the Russian motherland’s borders.
As if the situation was not complicated enough, the EU is in its full right to consider and negotiate with prospective new member states. There are, of course, some apparent limitations to this right: as recently as in 2019 Brussels was still considering a Turkish membership. If the EU is supposed to be a European entity, it is difficult to see how Turkey, which is almost entirely an Asian country, would be a suitable member.
Ukraine, on the other hand, is geographically a European country. If the EU aspires to one day have all European countries as members, then its interest in Ukraine is logical. The fact that there is also domestic Ukrainian interest in a membership only reinforces that logic.
It is important to note, though, that support for Ukraine’s Western integration is not universal. Not only is this demonstrated in the shifts in foreign-policy ambitions over the past 30 years, but there are also divisions within the country itself. Generally speaking, the closer one gets to Europe, the more supportive Ukrainians are of an EU membership. Support appears to be weakest in the southern and eastern parts, which have strong cultural ties to Russia.
To Moscow, provincial Ukrainian skepticism toward Western integration goes hand in glove with its determination to keep NATO away from its borders. All other things equal, the closer Kiev moves toward the EU, the harder Moscow will try to pull in the opposite direction.
It has not helped ease tensions that the American government from time to time has wanted to influence Ukraine. As one example, in December 2013 Senator John McCain visited Kiev during the growing protests against President Yanukovich. McCain declared support for the “just cause” of the protestors and efforts to preserve democracy in Ukraine.
At the same time, since Yanukovich was strongly pro-Russian it is also easy to see how Moscow could take the Senator’s visit as an affront to their national security interests. How legitimate such concerns would be is another matter; politics is just as much about symbols and appearance as it is about substance and achievements.
From a Western viewpoint, McCain’s actions were logical. The European and American interest in Ukraine is easily explained by the desire to vigorously protect democracy wherever it is challenged. The question is how far this vigor will take them, if it comes to a showdown with Russia over Ukrainian sovereignty.
For the moment, tensions appear to be easing a bit. According to an Associated Press report on December 10, Ukrainian NATO membership is unlikely within the next decade. However, one cannot ignore the fact that to Russia, Western expansion in Ukraine, and especially the prospect of NATO membership at some point, is seen as an encroachment on its national security.
So long as Western alliances have not permanently ruled out incorporating Ukraine, tensions will inevitably rise again. This is no more controversial than the reactions that the United States would have if Venezuela or Mexico entered a military alliance with Russia or China. As was made clear during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the United States will strongly oppose foreign military powers in its own backyard.
In a sense, the situation that Ukraine currently finds itself in is reminiscent of where Finland was in its relationship to the Soviet Union after World War II. The two fought a protracted war, known in Nordic history books as the Finnish Winter War. The Finns prevailed, despite being outnumbered and badly behind technologically. At the same time, their allegiance with Nazi Germany was a sore spot on Finnish-Soviet relations.
Fearing rightfully a future alliance between Finland and another anti-Soviet power, the leaders in Moscow negotiated a treaty with their small northwestern neighbor. The final product emerged in 1948 as the Agreement on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance. This treaty forced Finland to give up a small slice of land, known as the Petsamo territory, to promise to come to the aid of the Soviet Union in the event of war, and to pledge to never again enter any military alliances that could be construed as hostile to the Soviet Union.
In return, Finland was guaranteed its national sovereignty and full constitutional discretion to determine its own form of government. Finland would also get favorable trade deals with the Soviet Union.
The Finnish-Soviet Friendship Treaty, as it became known, lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Generally, it helped bring peace and stability to the Nordic region, with only one incident threatening to bring Finland into a major conflict on the Soviet side. During the Berlin blockade in 1961, the Soviet Union invoked the treaty: they wanted to have Finnish military resources ready in the event the conflict escalated.
In response to the request from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Finnish president Urho Kekkonen took the train to Moscow, met one on one with Khrushchev and de-escalated the situation. Whether their meeting also helped defuse the situation around Berlin is another matter, but it showed how a Russian neighbor could live in sovereignty and peace. All it took was a recognition of Finland’s geopolitical circumstances and a steadfast commitment to neutrality.
Ukraine and Russia could sign a similar treaty. It would permanently lock Ukraine out of the EU and force an end to the Association Agreement between the two. In return, Kiev would be guaranteed full sovereignty over its own territory and over its form of government. It is at least worth a try.