Thinking Aloud: “Possible Next Steps for the U.S., Ukraine, Russia and the International Community,” Part II

Mar. 10, 2014 by Darius 

[Last week, I attended a panel discussion about the current crisis in Ukraine.  The panel served to provide some important history and insights about events that are still happening at a breakneck pace.  Of the panelists, two, Fiona Hill of Brookings and Steve Pifer, former US Ambassador to Ukraine, provided the most valuable comments.  Dr. Hill, a Russia specialist, helped to put in context Russia’s perspective on Ukraine, while Amb. Pifer focused on how Ukraine can respond to the challenges facing it.  Yesterday, I brought you Dr. Hill’s comments, while today is dedicated to Ambassador Pifer’s.]

Ambassador Pifer argued that much of Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine, especially in Crimea, are simply designed to destabilize the current Ukrainian government.  Amb. Pifer offered several suggestions on how the Ukrainian government can respond:

  • Most important is to just get the government up and running – in effect, making sure the trains run on time.  The government needs to be functioning as a government well before the presidential elections scheduled for May.  The interim Ukrainian government has appointed several oligarchs as governors of regions on the grounds that the oligarchs will be able to deliver results.  Amb. Pifer cautioned that such a policy might result in the protesters who brought down Yanukovych’s government feeling disenchanted and betrayed.
  • The biggest medium-term challenge facing Ukraine’s government is the economic crisis.  The government will need to launch major economic reforms to cure systematic, long-term issues.  Amb. Pifer made clear that these reforms will hurt.  The government is perfectly aware it will pay a political price for economic reform; the Ukrainian prime minister has referred to his “kamikaze cabinet.”
  • Amb. Pifer emphasized that the Ukrainian government needs, simply put, to not do anything stupid.  For example, the Ukrainian parliament almost immediately passed a law voiding previous legislation, passed in 2012, that allowed businesses to conduct business in local languages, rather than Ukrainian.  The interim president vetoed the bill, which would have been a major provocation of Russia.  Amb. Pifer also warned against Ukrainian politicians discussing joining NATO.  Instead, Amb. Pifer felt that Ukraine should emphasize its desired links to the EU, not to NATO.
  • Ukraine’s government must ensure that its military does not spark armed confrontation with Russian forces.  Until now, Ukraine’s military has been remarkably restrained, but Amb. Pifer noted that Russia and Ukraine “are one nervous 20-year-old soldier’s mistake away from something very, very bad happening.”  He felt that de-escalation was vital.
  • Ukraine’s government must make clear that it is willing to negotiate with Russia.  Russia still recognizes former Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych as rightful ruler, even though Russian President Putin has acknowledged that Yanukovych has no political future.  Showing a willingness to negotiate will make it easier for Putin to deal with the new government.           

Amb. Pifer felt that the appropriate starting point for policy is that Crimea is a part of Ukraine, based on treaties agreed to by both sides during the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Although Crimea’s parliament recently voted to join Russia and a referendum will be held in Crimea in a few weeks, Amb. Pifer noted that both votes are illegal under Ukrainian law.  He also pointed out that for Ukraine, the issues at stake go beyond Crimea.  If Crimea is allowed to leave, it would set a dangerous precedent for other parts of Ukraine.

Amb. Pifer mentioned that Crimea is the only part of Ukraine that has an ethnic Russian majority.  Other regions may have majorities of Russian-language speakers, but many Ukrainians who wish to remain part of Ukraine happen to speak Russian because of generation or geography.  Secessionist pressures are by far strongest in Crimea.

Unfortunately, though, the current Ukrainian government does not include anyone who can be said to represent eastern Ukraine.  That isn’t entirely for lack of trying: the interim government offered several cabinet seats to members of former President Yanukovych’s party, but the offers were rejected.  Given that the current government is likely set for political suicide over economic reforms, the rejections weren’t surprising.

According to Amb. Pifer, Russian fears of Ukraine making a dash towards NATO are unfounded.  Popular support in Ukraine for joining NATO has never been higher than 30%; NATO would never seek to admit a country without the support of that country’s population.

Finally, Amb. Pifer argued that the US cannot sit idly by.  When the Soviet Union broke apart, there were more than 1,000 nuclear missiles based in Ukraine.  Under the treaty by which Ukraine agreed to turn the missiles over to Russia for disposal, the US guaranteed that it would support Ukraine’s sovereignty.  The language in the treaty deliberately does not include military intervention, but it does compel the US to stand by Ukraine and use economic measures to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty.

For Dr. Fiona Hill’s comments during the panel discussion, see

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