Ukraine and European Security

Ukraine will emerge from its current instability stronger and closer to Western Europe than it has been at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to Professor Sarah Birch of the University of Glasgow, an expert in developing democracies and the former states of the Soviet Union.

Even as unrest continues in Ukraine’s far east, an area that was heavily industrialised under the USSR and where many residents speak Russian as their first language, there remains reason for optimism, Professor Birch aruged in a lecture at the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations in Kuala Lumpur, which was jointly organised by the Jeffrey Cheah Institute and the Foreign Policy Study Group. “Russia may have won the battle in Crimea, but it has lost the war,” she told the audience, including Ukraine’s Ambassador to Malaysia.

“It has lost the hearts and minds of virtually all the Ukraine population and it has not achieved any of its initial goals.” Professor Birch acknowledged Ukraine’s position at the centre of Europe had often made it a “battleground” for the control of the continent. But despite a significant minority (15%) of ethnic Russians, she noted that most citizens were effectively bilingual and identified Ukraine as their homeland. Polarisation, she said, occurred largely at the edges. “It’s not two separate ethnic groups,” she said. “It’s more like an ethnic continuum.

That is a strength because the political discourse in Ukraine is a regional one – a Russian speaking east and a Ukrainian speaking west but, in the middle a large area where identities are somewhat more fluid. In my view this holds Ukraine together because there’s not natural fault line.” Indeed a survey earlier this year showed that there was no particular allegiance to Russia and that most people saw Ukraine as their homeland. The Euromaidan – the protests 26248275 that started at the end of 2013 and ended in a bloody crackdown in February that left scores dead and triggered then President Viktor Yanukovych’s sudden flight to Russia – reflected deep discontent about the spread of corruption, and a highly centralized political system that tended to leave either the Russian-speaking or Ukrainianspeaking regions feeling disenfranchised depending on the President’s sympathies, Birch explained.

The combination of regionalism and institutional centralisation was a “toxic mix,” she said. Russia, meanwhile, felt threatened by the possibility of a Ukraine that would be more sympathetic to the West than to Russia, but Putin’s attempts to undermine stability in the country’s east reflected “the move of a weak man,” according to Professor Birch. She said that the annexation of Crimea, a spit of land in the Black Sea, which has no water supply and is dependent on hefty economic subsidies, might not even have been part of Putin’s plan.

Russia now says it expects to spend some $3 billion on “development” next year in Crimea, the base of its Black Sea fleet. Beyond Ukraine’s borders, other former Soviet states, Professor Birch noted would be watching developments closely, concerned about Russia’s aggression and disregard not only for Ukraine’s sovereignty but international law. She noted that while the crisis had exposed divisions within the European Union about how best to respond, it had also given new impetus to regional security grouping, NATO and brought to power a government, under President Petro Poroshenko, that was more pro-Western.

The task “for Ukraine is to get back on its feet economically which will put it in a position to negotiate with the EU and Russia more successfully than it has done in the past,” Professor Birch concluded. “It’s going to be a long road. I wouldn’t want to say it’s going to be easy.”