This article first appeared in July 2014 as ‘Ukraine: Possible Solutions to the Conflict’
For months the international community seemed powerless in the face of a Ukraine that was tearing itself apart and becoming more deeply divided. The media closely followed the revolution in Maidan Square, the flight of President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the presidential election of Petro Poroshenko in Kiev, and the war in the eastern part of the country. Such events on Europe’s doorstep in 2014 seemed hard to credit. How far would the reconfiguration of this region go, and with what international consequences? Would Russia exert its power over its most distant borders? Borders in Europe were thought to have stabilized after the Balkan War in the 1990s, but here everything seemed to be called into question, as in the 19th century.
This crisis cannot be understood by remaining focused at the level of everyday events. Some historical and political distance is required to shed light on this mess, which is a complex overlapping of economic, political and cultural issues, both internal and external.
A story of identity
Ukraine has been a culturally divided country for centuries. The dividing line has been the course of the Dnieper River, in the middle of the country. The Truce of Andrusovo, signed in 1667, divided the current territory of Ukraine in two: to the east the territory was dominated by the Russians, to the west by Poland. The country remained divided in this way until the Second World War. Three centuries of history were not erased because Europe wished it, especially since the use of languages confirmed this division. In the 19th century, six languages were spoken west of the Dnieper, and only one in the east, Russian. Illustrating the depth of the fracture, the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington placed the line of rupture between Western civilization and Orthodox civilization in the heart of Ukraine.
The end of the Tsarist regime in 1917 was the occasion for a major uprising by the Ukrainian nationalists: Nicholas II and his predecessors had earlier mercilessly suppressed independence movements. But the Bolsheviks were also present in Kiev. A full-blown civil war, involving the remnants of the strongly anti-Ukrainian tsarist troops, was finally won by supporters of Moscow in 1920. Ukraine was annexed by the USSR in 1922, with a change of regime, especially felt in the countryside. The worst events occurred between 1929 and 1933, linked to the Soviet presence: the famine, which claimed about 4 million victims, was the result of forced collectivization by Moscow, when Ukraine was only one of the Soviet Socialist Republics. The people remembered this during World War II.
This war caused another great tragedy, 8 million victims. But the two parts of the country did not experience the same war, because the Nazis thought they could annex the territory west of the Dnieper, which included the population that welcomed them as liberators: 150,000 Ukrainian soldiers from the west of the country enlisted in the Waffen-SS. In the east it was a war of extermination, with the complete destruction of numerous communities. The war would continue until the end of the 1940s under Nikita Khrushchev.
Forty years later, in 1991, the moment for independence arrived. The end of Moscow’s rule and, at the same time, the end of the socialist regime, liberated all the forces in the field, without any external control remaining. Parallels can be drawn with the dismantling of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. For a long time Tito’s rule and the communist regime had erased the country’s ethnic and religious differences. Here there was a simpler opposition between Ukrainian and Russian cultures on the same territory, an opposition that had been forgotten as long as Ukraine remained solidly dominated by the USSR. The issue crystallized over the country’s future: whether to ally with Russia or the European Union. The country’s hesitation between these two poles – Russian and European – sanctioned by votes in which the majority was always very small, could for a long time make one believe in the possibility of balance and rapprochement.
The stakes were important for both Russia and Europe, because Ukraine is a country with rich agricultural and industrial potential over a vast territory. On the other hand, its population was decreasing, as in most Eastern European countries, including Russia. Its population of 45 million in 2013 was expected to decrease (without change of borders) to 33 million in 2050. This major decline over the long term was explained by the low birth rate (1.5 children per woman), outward migration, and lack of immigration.
Behind this facade, increasing tensions were being created, fomented by Russia’s desire to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence, and by some gaffes of a West too eager to include Ukraine among its allies. The proposal made to Ukraine – by the United States and Great Britain in 2007 – to become a member of NATO, could be seen as a provocation. Fortunately, Germany and France opposed it, but the damage was done.
Discontent boiled over in the population due to the collapse of the economy in the 1990s, at the time of the introduction of a market economy. GDP decreased by 60 percent between 1991 and 1999. Corruption increased. The November 21, 2004, election, rigged, it seemed, by President Yanukovich and the Donetsk clan, served as a spark for the Orange Revolution, which brought Viktor Yushchenko to power, with Yulia Timoshenko as Prime Minister. The revolution was widely supported by the Americans and Europeans, and this pleased neither the Russians in Moscow nor the pro-Russians in eastern Ukraine. But Russian pressure began to be felt on gas, the price of which rose from $50 to $95 per 1,000m3.
Thanks to new elections in 2010, the pro-Russian Yanukovich returned to power with 48.9 percent of the vote, highlighting the country’s alternation of support and hesitation about its future. However, new revelations of corruption and Yanukovich rejecting a planned agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia, triggered the Maidan Square Revolution in Kiev in November 2013, led by nationalist movements. On February 22, 2014, the Ukrainian Parliament decreed that President Yanukovich was unfit for office and announced new presidential elections for May 25, 2014. Three months of confusion, followed by serious clashes in the east, backed by foreign special forces, highly visible U.S. aid to Kiev, and growing disquiet about the possibility of the May 25 presidential election and its significance.
The first round of the elections of May 25 would eventually be won by the strongly pro-European Poroshenko, with 56 percent of the votes cast. Many voters from the East of the country did not participate. This absence of a part of the electorate allowed for a result that had never previously been achieved, because all the elections of the previous 20 years were played out over a few percentage points one way or the other.
In this same period there was a local crisis in Crimea. Here we repeat the sequence of events: on February 28, 2014, unidentified soldiers invaded the peninsula; on March 2 Russian troops, authorized by the Russian Parliament, entered Crimea; on March 11 the Crimean Parliament voted for the creation of the Republic of Crimea and its entry into the Russian Federation. The fact is that 58 percent of the inhabitants of Crimea were Russians, on a territory that had been Ukrainian only since 1954. The Russians used the principle of protection of Russian populations to justify their presence on the territory. Ukrainians were only 24 percent of the population and unable to resist effectively.
The port of Sevastopol was an obvious reason for this lightning action. The Russian fleet needed to be safeguarded from Kiev’s ambitions and a rapprochement with Europe. Russia’s 1997 treaty with Ukraine was valid until 2042, a very long and uncertain period for such a valuable as a Russian fleet to be at the mercy of a government likely to move quickly toward Europe. It was necessary to guarantee its future by stabilizing the quality of the friendship of the occupiers of this territory. Moreover, Crimea turned out to be a base of reconquest for an eventual Ukrainian counterrevolution. It was also a focus for bargaining and blackmail in favor of the Russians. The precedent in Georgia was worrying. Could the procedure used for the annexation of Crimea be repeated elsewhere?
Similar events were taking place in the eastern region of Ukraine. Unidentified elements struggled with rebels for control of the Donbas region. Clashes were multiplying and increasingly fierce, often with the support of a part of the local population. There was a standoff between the East and the West of the country, but also a geopolitical one between Obama and Putin, under the watchful eye of Germany. Everyone feared the worst, knowing that no one wanted a widening of the conflict. Signs of peace or tension were studied and efforts were made to understand the keys to the conflict.
Ukraine is neither Russian nor European, but a combination of both. Russians make up 18 percent of the population, and all Ukrainians speak Russian, even in the capital, Kiev. Putin had not so much an imperialist view of his relations with the former satellite countries as an opportunist focus on the possibilities of recovering what was lost. Why not reconstitute the former USSR in another form? He thus tried to Russify the country with Yanukovich, unsuccessfully, because Ukraine resisted. But Crimea was a possible and interesting goal without too many negative consequences.
There was another goal that was not achieved: Putin did not get the full Customs Union he hoped for, because Ukraine refused to endorse the agreements signed between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. But, with the annexation of Crimea, he has revived the Russian nationalist spirit and regained a popularity that had dangerously declined in the preceding months: the Russian economy was not in good health, and widespread corruption deeply angered the population.
For its part, the European Union resorted to the carrot-and-stick policy of integration with Kiev, but without providing the necessary aid. The east of the country resisted these invitations. In the meantime, EU members endlessly discussed among themselves the possibility of sanctions against Russia, but some governments feared a lose-lose dynamic, and sanctions that risked opening a war over Russian gas, which some European countries could not do without.
The Baltic states, members of the EU, were also afraid of the possible effects of such sanctions on their Russian populations. Germany was particularly sensitive to possible destabilization in the East of Europe to which it is very close, and it had the means to influence the outcome, especially since Angela Merkel could speak directly and in Russian to Vladimir Putin. But she did not want too many sanctions. France, for its part, spoke out loud and clear against Russia, but then did not do much because it had many economic and financial interests in Russia at stake. In contrast, Poland pushed for tough sanctions and a quick agreement between the EU and Ukraine, its next-door neighbor. With so many different points of view, one would not be surprised at the inability of the EU to decide on a firm and consistent policy in this crisis, which was a sad revelation of European paralysis on the international level.
The boundaries of the discussion were clear: Putin did not want the European Union on its borders, and the majority of Ukrainians wanted release from Russian influence and to unify their country. Donetsk was not separatist in principle. Its inhabitants wanted the unity of the country, but they feared that Kiev would not listen to them and would decide their fate over their heads. They wanted a federal Ukraine. Once all these points were integrated, the task to build a viable and peaceful country remained.
The economic factor
One of the factors in the conflict and one of the elements of confrontation was played out in the economic arena. Ukraine was on the verge of bankruptcy, with substantial debt and very low growth. It had also received two billion dollars of Russian credit, which prevented Russia from acting too quickly, with the risk of losing all of its investment. Economic warfare would be checkmate and a disaster for Russia, given its ties to Ukraine.
Gas supplies are particularly problematic. Kiev has been dependent on Russia for energy for many years. Naftogaz, Ukraine’s state-owned oil and gas company, announced that it had reserves of 12 billion m3 of gas, and it needed a regular supply. Gazprom on June 16, 2014, closed the gas tap in order to force payment of two billion dollars out of a total debt of 4.5. Ukraine complained that the price of gas had gone up a lot, from $95 per 1,000m3 at the end of the Orange Revolution to $268 in 2013. But then it rose to $485 per 1,000m3 after the crisis. Negotiations had led to a narrowing of the price difference: Gazprom asked $385, and Kiev proposed $326. The positions were getting closer, but they were far from reaching the goal, and after those of 2006 and 2009, it seemed that a third gas war had begun.
All of Europe was affected, because 15 percent of its gas consumption transits through Ukraine. Every interruption for Ukraine was an interruption for Europe. This had medium-term repercussions, even if there were reserves. But Ukraine’s economic ties with Europe were also very strong, even stronger than with Russia: Ukraine was a customer of the Union for 31 percent of its purchases and of Russia for 19 percent; it sold 26 percent of its products to the Union and 24 percent to Russia.
In this standoff, in which so many different issues were mixed together, what could Putin hope to achieve? Probably the West’s talk of respect for international law would not stop him. We were in a game of forces in which economic and financial sanctions could have real weight. The only way to stop him would be for him to contemplate the problems he would encounter in pursuit of his goals. The financial crisis due to the exodus of capital, the protest of the Russian oligarchs who saw their freedom curtailed, the weakness of the Russian economy that could not rely indefinitely on gas revenues would force Putin to limit himself, to consider a cessation of conflicts and the search for stabilization in Ukraine.
The options for the West
The West’s situation was complicated by the fact that there were also ties and interests at stake. It was thought good to protest, and the West protested verbally. The suspension of the G8 in June, 2014, in Sochi was mostly symbolic, as was the suspension of voting rights at the Council of Europe. But these measures further isolated Russia, and that is never a good thing in the international game.
Along the same lines, specific measures had been taken against Russia: suppression of visas, freezing of assets of certain Russian officials, blocking of financial movements or sanctions against financial institutions. The first measures would be followed by other more restrictive ones that would hinder Russia and Russian entrepreneurs in their business activities . It is clear that if Russia had invaded the Donbas that year, the sanctions would have been very severe. Russia refrained from doing so officially, although Russian elements were proven to be on Ukrainian territory, especially in Donetsk.
At the same time, the countries of the West were dependent on Russia, as we have seen. Thirty percent of gas consumed in Germany came from Russia But it was a mutual dependence, because Russia needed hard currency. To complicate the scenario, Angela Merkel was ready to escape from this dependence, relying on renewable energy and coal. She would also buy American gas. The UK also remained cautious and London was not ready to impose sanctions.
Aid to Ukraine, especially financial aid, was another way of offsetting the risks it would incur if Russia followed through on its threat to turn off Ukraine’s gas taps if it did not pay its outstanding $2.2 billion debt. The West had a capacity to pressure Russia, and it stood to lose a lot if it did not quickly seek a way out of the conflict.
After many vicissitudes, after the great uncertainty of early 2014, the various partners in the Ukrainian conflict, internal or external – Ukraine, Russia, the United States, the European Union – met for a conference in Geneva. The conclusions reached on April 17 called for an end to the fighting and the opening of a dialogue to recognize regional interests. Eastern Ukraine greeted these agreements with indifference and contempt.
These agreements did not provide any particular agenda for the future, such as the drafting of a new Constitution and the directions it might take. Among other things, the participants forgot about Crimea. But could it have been done differently, when the mere mention of restoring a full Ukraine stifled any possible debate? Russia was not even mentioned in the disorders in the east of Ukraine.
These Geneva Accords would not go down in history as a definitive turning point in the conflict, but they represented an arguably necessary stage in the return to dialogue between the antagonists.
After the May 2014 presidential election
This conference did strengthen the credibility of the presidential election project, which was able to take place on May 25, despite all the doubts that had been expressed, while the violence in the east of the country did not stop. The election of Petro Poroshenko had two aspects: the first was positive, because it stabilized Ukrainian institutions and restored unity and coherence to Kiev. But it was also a risk, because it created fear in the Donbas. Everything would depend on Poroshenko’s ability to breathe life into the deliberations after listening to the various points of view.
Each week brought with it contradictory signals: at the beginning of June the death of two Russian journalists and the shooting down of a Ukrainian plane with 49 people on board raised the tension. The following week the press published a conversation between Putin and Poroshenko discussing a ceasefire. History followed an ambiguous course. In June, détente seemed almost achieved, with a 14-point plan proposed on June 19 by Poroshenko to exit the crisis. But the war continued in the Donbas.
In this scenario, discussions on the future organization of Ukraine needed to take place. Taking into account the various components of the country, in what political form could Ukraine find the means to realize the best democratic model? Everyone took a position. Poroshenko preferred the option of decentralization versus the idea of a federation. The terms were loaded with meaning, because the introduction of a federation was demanded by Moscow.
Beyond an a priori rejection of such a solution on the grounds that it was proposed by Moscow, it was necessary to reflect seriously on it: federation has never meant independence of one region with respect to the others.
Divided and competing churches
Given the frequent proximity of the Orthodox Churches to political powers, a look at the religious situation was necessary. Christians were divided . Among the Orthodox, one group consisted of those who depended on Moscow. They were numerous in both parts of the country, and this prompted the Patriarch of Moscow not to take sides during the conflict. The second group consisted of a Ukrainian Orthodox Church headed by Patriarch Philaret in Kiev. The third group, less numerous, was another autocephalous Orthodox Church. On the Catholic side, Greek Catholics number 5 million, led by Archbishop Shevchuk, and Latins number one million.
The various Christian denominations and other religions in the country were part of an association led by one of them with a rotating presidency. The whole association was committed to peace and national unity, which did not prevent numerous rivalries, competition and mutual criticism, especially between pro-Moscow Orthodox and Greek Catholics.
The fact that Petro Poroshenko belonged to the Orthodox Church that depends on the Moscow Patriarchate was a fairly positive reality, because he would be more easily accepted by the Moscow Patriarchate, and thus would be viewed positively by the Kremlin in the work of rebuilding national unity. However, the political weight of religion was weak due to the extreme divisions of the Ukrainian religious scene.
After the extreme tensions of the months of March and April 2014, when the worst-case scenario was looming, the drift toward war seemed to be receding. The vote that elected Petro Poroshenko, which in April seemed impossible, was held everywhere except in a few eastern cities. The newly elected president was received with great pomp in France on June 6 for the anniversary of the Normandy landings. He was able to meet with leaders from around the world, including Putin. He was duly appointed President in front of the Russian ambassador, sent from Moscow. He communicated directly with the Russian President by phone to consider a ceasefire in the east of the country. All of this, at this point, sounded like stabilization.
But much remained to be done for the future: above all, a new Constitution, acceptable to all, needed to be drafted. In particular, the country needed to renew peaceful political practices, and eliminate the corruption and organized crime that undermines justice, the police and politics. The oligarchy had to be brought under the control of the law. This was an immense task, but absolutely necessary. There also remained the problem of the purge. Should those who had been compromised with previous Russophile or Communist regimes be barred from official positions? To what extent should past officials be tried?
The most difficult thing would be to create the conditions for a true democratic debate among those unaccustomed to it and those who had joined the demonstrations in the streets. What to do with the ex-militants of Maidan Square? How could the pro-Russians be integrated into the national debate? Was the parliament ready to play its role responsibly? Would the oligarchs respect the rules of a truly democratic state of affairs?
Above all, it was a matter of rebuilding mutual respect between countries that had humiliated each other, as well as between Ukrainians who have waged war on each other. The methods used were questionable, even if they were clothed in legality. Only mutual respect can guarantee peace.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.2 art. 5, 0322: 10.32009/22072446.0322.5
. See the very enlightening article on a thousand years of history in Ukraine by J. Gautheret, “Des princes de Kiev à l’indépendance, mille ans d’identité ukrainienne”, in Le Monde, February 26, 2014.
. Cf. S. P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
. Cf. the works of Christian Ingrao, CNRS, specialist on Nazism.
. More than 600,000 sq. km.
. The population was 51 million in 1991. Crimea had 2 million inhabitants.
. Read the story of Pavlo Lazarenko, industry magnate, governor, minister, prime minister, accused of corruption, sentenced to 9 years in prison in the United States in 2006 for money laundering. See “Gli oligarchi alla fiera dell’Est”, in Limes, April 4, 2014, 56-58.
. The Americans announced that they had evidence of the involvement of Russian troops.
. The visit of Joe Biden, (then) vice-president of the United States, on April 22, indicated Washington’s support.
 . Two million inhabitants live in Crimea, with a very low birth rate. The region loses 0.3 percent of its population each year.
. Here are based 340 Russian ships and the entire Ukrainian fleet.
. However, this is no longer true for the younger generation born after 1991.
. Interview by Hélène Carrère d’Encausse in Corriere della Sera, April 28, 2014.
. See the detailed article by G. Du Bois, “Union et désunions autour de l’Ukraine”, in Nouvelle Europe, April 15, 2014.
. Two Mistral-type warships were purchased by Russia at a price of one billion euros each. France did not want to cancel their sale for economic and social reasons.
. Ten times what it was in the early 2000s.
. An extended outage in June would have had effects during the following winter.
. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was a long-time Gazprom official.
. Through April 2014, this war in the East had claimed 360 lives.
. June 19, 2014.
. The plan proposed legislative elections, disarmament, decentralization of power, a corridor to allow Russian mercenaries to leave the country, amnesty for fighters, and protection of the Russian language through amendments to the Constitution. However, it did not propose a rewrite of the Constitution, nor did it propose unilateral disarmament.
. Cf. S. Merlo, “Unitá, indipendenza, dialogo: l’appello delle chiese ucraine”, in Limes, April 4, 2014, 131-140.
. Cf. F. Scaglione, “Gli oligarchi alla fiera dell’Est”, in Limes, April 4, 2014, 53-64.