|Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor|
The Russian military mobilization on the border with Ukraine, combined with the Russian-Belarusian military exercises and hundreds of violations of the ceasefire by the administrations of the Ukrainian separatist territories (OSCE, February 2022), keep Kiev on high alert. Ukraine's concerns are valid even after Russian leader Vladimir Putin signed documents recognizing the two breakaway Ukrainian regions in Lugansk and Donetsk (RBC, February 2022). On the political, diplomatic, military and financial front, the West is on Ukraine's side. At the same time, efforts are under way to bring Russia to the negotiating table to avoid a conventional Russo-Ukrainian war. Moscow's refusal to accept peaceful solutions to the crisis indicates intentions strictly hostile to its neighbor.
Of the set of scenarios that Russia has intended to implement in Ukraine, some stood out. First, the Russian side chose to reactivate the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, with the aim of "federalizing" Ukraine. Putin wanted to use the intervention of France and Germany to put pressure on Kyiv. Since this scenario failed, Russia decided to use the "Kosovo precedent" to justify recognizing the independence of the breakaway regions. There was already a favorable vote in the State Duma, and Russian propaganda was pedaling intensely with the totally false narrative of a so-called "genocide" (Kremlin, February 2022), which was allegedly committed against Russian-speakers in the separatist regions (where more than 700,000 people have already acquired Russian citizenship). Based on this scenario and based on the requests of the members of the Russian National Security Council, headed by Vladimir Putin (Kremlin.ru, February 2022), the latter chose to recognize the independence of the breakaway regions. Other widely discussed scenarios were abandoned, such as the Novorossia project, with the goal to link Donbas, Crimea and the Transnistrian region (Moldova) with Russian territory. Such a scenario would have been extremely costly for Russia. Even the Kosovo precedent could be sacrificed by Russia if NATO were to close the door on Ukraine, accepting the "finlandization" scenario. In any scenario, in addition to blocking NATO enlargement, Moscow wants the "federalization" of Ukraine, with levers of influence over Kyiv through the separatist regimes in Donbass.
Recognition of the independence of the separatist regions or the "Kosovo scenario", which becomes the main stage with which the Kremlin operates. This would allow Russia to complicate Ukraine's accession to NATO in the event of materialisation. However, the case of Ukraine will be much more difficult to promote among NATO states to obtain unanimity, even if Kyiv manages to meet the conditions for accession. Russia can use the same scenario to create a new context for negotiations between Ukraine and breakaway regions, replacing the Minsk Agreements. Consequently, the main condition for the maintenance of the EU sanctions, currently linked to the implementation of the Agreements by Moscow, would disappear.
The variety of already existing and still possible scenarios, which Russia is developing, show how important it is to ensure constant and tangible solidarity with Ukraine. For the same reasons, Kyiv's calls for the use of preemptive sanctions, security clearances, and unconditional access to financial assistance require serious attention and the utmost understanding from Western partners.
Preventive sanctions, not "post-factum"
The attitude of Ukrainian officials towards sanctions against Russia is categorical. Ukraine considers that the destabilization measures implemented by the Russian side are sufficient to justify the imposition of sanctions. However, the strategic interest of the West is to avoid aggravating regional security, considering sanctions as a measure of last resort. This approach finds no understanding in Kyiv and is cleverly exploited by Moscow, which wants to extract geopolitical benefits from the constructive position of Western diplomacy.
Through the voice of President Volodymyr Zelensky, Kyiv urged Western partners to introduce sanctions without waiting for negative scenarios to materialize, believing that sanctions will discourage Russian aggression. The Ukrainian side sees little point in post factum sanctions, given that Western partners have evidence of an impending war. Zelensky also hints that if the sanctions are not applied preemptively, they should at least be published to increase pressure on Russia. For now, the specific sanctions list is coordinated between the US and the EU, along with some G7 states. The sanctions are rejected to secure a strategic advantage against Moscow. So far, the UK has made public the revised sanctions legislation, which expands the categories of Russian actors, including oligarchic elites (Reuters, January 2022), and specifies strategic areas (banking system, technology exports, oil and gas extraction, etc.). In addition to the economic costs of sanctions, the West warns Russia of a serious blow to its prestige on the international stage, which could make it a "global pariah." Russia's reputation is one of Putin's main sensitivities.
At the moment, Ukraine's request for sanctions is not supported by the allies for several reasons. The West considers that expressing political will to impose sanctions is already exerting pressure. Unanimity is also needed to impose sanctions, which is not unambiguous in two critical areas: disconnecting Russia from the Information System for International Financial Transactions (SWIFT) and sanctioning the energy sector. This is due to the exposure of the European financial sector, mainly in Austria, Italy, France and the Netherlands, which credits the Russian economy with tens of billions of euros (Euronews, February 2022). The situation in the energy sector also requires surgical attention from the EU. The heavy dependence on Russian gas (40% of EU imports) can only be resolved in the long term (European Commission, February 2022), and EU countries such as Italy oppose energy sanctions. This opposition is also fueled by the gas market crisis, which has not yet been overcome. The punishable sectors where the West seems to have cohesion are the banking sector and technology exports. However, in the field of access to Western technologies, the Russian authorities have already announced that they are beginning to diversify and substitute the import of technological products for industrial and civil consumption (Kommersant, February 2022).
Previously, the regime in Moscow redirected public money to cover adaptation costs after restricting imports of Western agri-food products in 2014, eliminating Western competition and establishing local production capacity. The same behavior will be followed in the case of new sanctions, but already in sectors of technological sophistication and, respectively, of great public investment. Such a scenario could benefit the kleptocratic elites around Putin. The latter have already declared that Western sanctions are imminent (RBC, February 2022) and that Ukraine is being used as a pretext to curb Russia's economic progress. Therefore, Moscow is preparing its public for possible sanctions, indirectly admitting that they cannot prevent aggression against Ukraine.
In the context of the "Kosovo scenario", which is already in full swing, there is an urgent need to expand Western sanctions. Currently, they relate only to military aggression, not to the fact that Russia decides to recognize the independence of the breakaway regions.
Security guarantees for Ukraine
Another important request made by the Ukrainian side concerns security guarantees. In this area, Kyiv is looking for concrete proposals from the US and NATO on the way to NATO membership. In light of the Russian aggression facing Ukraine since 2014, neutral statehood is not a viable option to maintain sovereignty and territorial integrity. For this reason, Ukrainian officials want a practical demonstration of the "open door" principle, with a concrete timetable for accession.
Although NATO is open to Ukraine (and Georgia), contrary to opposition from Moscow, the US as well as France and Germany are not prepared to set the terms for NATO's further expansion to the East in the near future. In the context of this blockade, the Kyiv government seems to be developing new ideas to demand security commitments from the international community. Thus, at the Munich Security Conference, Zelensky asserted that once Russia fails to comply with the provisions of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which resulted in Ukraine being stripped of its nuclear potential in exchange for security guarantees, this arrangement could be abolished (RBC, February 2022). It is premature to say that, by doing so, Ukrainian officials are announcing a serious interest in developing nuclear capabilities to discourage Russian warlike behavior. At the same time, it is certain that this approach cannot go unnoticed in Western capitals, which, in order to prevent the situation from worsening, must find alternatives that serve Ukrainian security and, at the same time, reduce sources of Russian aggression.
Activating the European Civil Protection Mechanism at the request of Ukraine is a valuable contribution to support the Ukrainian government and people (EU, February 2022). At least five EU countries are willing to deliver medical products (antibiotics, disinfectants, etc.) and useful equipment for the care of internally displaced persons (electricity generators, tents, etc.). Although this aid expresses solidarity with Ukraine, it addresses the symptoms, not the source of the problem, which lies in Russian aggression. That is why, in parallel, the EU and NATO should examine the possibility of a package of guarantees for Ukraine.
At present, it is difficult to imagine that NATO or a NATO or EU member state could establish a military alliance with Ukraine, including a mutual aid clause in the event of an external threat. However, both Ukraine and its Western partners could explore the precedent set by the "Shusha Declaration" (June 17, 2021) between Turkey (a 1952 NATO state) and Azerbaijan. This document illustrates a sort of subtle military agreement, which provides for mutual assistance in the face of aggression by third countries that threaten their sovereignty or territorial integrity. Appropriate arrangements can be found to provide timely assistance to Ukraine in the field of protection of critical infrastructure, strengthening the ability to transport goods and people to the eastern regions of the country, strategic communication, etc. The purpose of assistance to Ukraine is simple: help it resist aggression, especially if the latter is ineffectively deterred.
Urgent and unconditional financial assistance
Another great urgency is the allocation of financial assistance to increase Ukraine's resistance to Russia's destabilizing actions. Being under constant threat of attack from its neighbor to the east creates indirect financial costs for the Ukrainian state, amounting to around $3 billion per month. Weakening national currencies, alerting investors and generating public distrust in the national economy are some of the secondary effects of pressure from Moscow. The internal political destabilization of Ukraine is aimed not so much at bringing pro-Russian forces to power (severely weakened and discredited) but at provoking an offensive by the constitutional authorities against the separatist regions. This would free Russia's hands to launch aggression. For these reasons, financial support from Kiev remains a priority, although Ukrainian officials see a problem in conditioning assistance on reforms.
At the Munich Conference in February 2022, President Volodymyr Zelensky criticized the conditionality of financial aid with the implementation of reforms. According to him, Ukraine focuses on its defense against Russian aggression. Therefore, the implementation of the reforms does not correspond exactly to the current objectives of survival.
A pragmatic and flexible approach to financial assistance to Ukraine should be adopted. In no case is it recommended to complicate and delay the procedures by introducing new reforms as conditionality. Although the principle of conditionality cannot be suspended, it must focus on the quality of the implementation of previously established reforms. The EU has already shown this kind of flexibility in relation to the latest macro-financial assistance of €1.2 billion to Ukraine. Access to finance (both credit and grants) is a non-military way of strengthening the positions of the Ukrainian state and democracy against regional authoritarianism.
In lieu of conclusions…
Ukraine's demands must be considered as a matter of urgency. To be sure, sanctioning Russia is a necessity dictated by its actions. The gradual application of sanctions must begin when there is conclusive evidence. Although the Western sanctions do not seem to scare Russia, their application has a symbolic meaning for the Ukrainian side. At the same time, the sanctions will be extended to the "Kosovo scenario", which would penalize Russian authorities and companies involved in the recognition of breakaway regimes. However, this scenario violates (and at the same time liquidates) the Minsk Agreements, international treaties and perpetuates the series of severe precedents of border changes by force in Europe. Affordable financial resources must also be found for Ukraine for the coming months, at least while the risk of invasion persists and the Russian crisis takes new forms. An international donor conference dedicated to Ukraine would be a good step in that direction. Last but not least, NATO and the EU can develop Euro-Atlantic guarantees for Ukraine, which will be inspired by the Turkish-Azerbaijani agreements.
The escalation of the Russian crisis can only be averted if Western capitals listen to Kyiv's demands. The collective West has the tools to sanction Russia both preemptively and post-factum, providing the necessary financial assistance and a set of security guarantees to Ukraine. The Western sanctions policy must urgently be extended to the process of recognizing the independence of breakaway regions. The solution to the Russian crisis must not be at Ukraine's expense, but through Ukraine's cooperation with the West.
This analysis is published for the German Hanns Seidel Foundation and the IPN News Agency.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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