Ukraine can be saved, if it sets an inclusive strategy against the divisive strategy of Russia.
By Barend ter Haar, fellow of Clingendael, Netherlands Institute of International Relations
So far, only Russia seems to have a deliberate strategy: it wants to restore as much as it can of the Soviet empire, but step by step and at low costs. The first step is to draw successor states back in its sphere of influence. As authoritarian states such as Belarus have nowhere else to go to, this strategy is working quite well. Secondly, when a country threatens to leave Moscow´s orbit, Moscow will promote its disintegration to keep as many parts as possible in its sphere of influence. Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia illustrate this policy. Thirdly, full annexation can wait, until (almost) everybody is used to the idea and an opportunity arises to do so with little cost.
Time is a crucial factor and time seems to be on Russia ´s side. It can wait until Ukraine falls apart (and secretly promote that). What can Ukraine do to thwart this strategy?
Above all, the government should not play in Russia´s hands by forcing protestors into the pro-Russian camp. It threatens to do so when it lumps together under the heading of terrorists both protesters that occupy buildings and people that torture and kill.
To prevent that East-Ukrainian protestors believe they have no other options than independence or joining Russia, the government should make clear that it recognizes the following:
- The great majority of protestors, both in Kiev and in the Eastern provinces are protesting for good reasons against years of corrupted governance.
- Most of the protestors in the East are partners for reform, not opponents.
- All perpetrators of terroristic actions, such as murder and torture, should be brought to justice, irrespective of their political views, including the perpetrators of the fire in Odessa.
- Many Ukrainians combine close linguistic, historical and economic links with Russia with support for Ukrainian independence.
- Ukraine’s system of government should be adapted to reflect the diversity of the country and to protect minorities.
- Ukraine needs close and good relations with both the European Union and Russia (even if relations with Russia have been gravely damaged by the occupation of the Crimea).
In short, to have a chance on success, the Ukrainian government needs the wisdom and the courage to fight polarization in order to win the hearts and minds of the population of the Eastern provinces.