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Ukraine, mistakes to be avoided after the crisis

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By Barend ter Haar

It might seem premature to discuss what to do when the current crisis in Ukraine is over, but it would be shortsighted not to do so. In a Policy Brief for the Clingendael Institute (Lessons of the MH17 disaster, September 2014[1]) I have suggested some lessons to be drawn from the downing on 17 July 2014 of a civilian plane above eastern Ukraine, in this column I will point to the pitfalls that we should try to avoid in the aftermath of the current crisis.

Do not return to short-term policy making

After the end of the cold war many politicians were tempted to believe that they could afford to concentrate on short term national interests and neglect geo-strategic challenges. It took the MH17 disaster to wake these politicians from their naïve dreams. They should not fall asleep again.

Do not squander this opportunity

The current crisis does not only presents problems, but also an opportunity not to be missed. A significant majority of the Ukrainian population, also in the east of the country, wants Ukraine to become a European style democracy. The heavy-handed Russian interference has boosted Ukrainian national feelings and the resolve to make Ukraine into a functioning democracy. This provides European democracies with a historic opportunity to help Ukraine to fulfil this ambition.

A similar opportunity presented itself twice, first in 1991 when the Soviet Union broke apart and again at the time of the Orange Revolution in 2004, but twice Western democracies missed the opportunity by reacting halfheartedly. They thereby played into the hands of corrupt private interests and Russian interests. This time the opportunity should not be squandered.

Do not copy Russian thinking but use your own strength

The Russian use of armed forces, after occupying parts of Georgia and Ukraine, to support the rebels in eastern Ukraine has forced European governments to reconsider whether they can continue to economize on their defence budgets. Rightly so, but they should not be seduced by Russia to change the Ukrainian crisis into a military conflict. At the bottom of the current crisis lie corruption and lack of good governance. Russia has very little to offer in these fields, but Europe has and the great majority of the Ukrainian population knows that.  It is not by Russian hard power, but by western soft power that a sustainable future for Ukraine can be built.

Do not let the “domestic” ministries off the hook

Transforming Ukraine is in essence a matter of domestic policy. The expertise to help Ukraine to set up good education, proper health care, a functioning system of justice etcetera is to be found with the so-called domestic ministries of other European countries. They should not be given a chance to avoid their responsibility.

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