Ukraine is a zero sum game, if we make it so
As of right now, Ukraine remains one gigantic zero sum game. If the West and Russia are serious about changing that, they're going to have to do more than issue lofty statements that reflect the geo-political thinking of the past
In the rapidly moving and highly unpredictable situation in Ukraine, we need to be clear about one thing that is constant: Ukraine is a fundamentally unstable political-national construction; a product of a centuries-old tug of war between empires competing for hegemony, without any of them being able to effect a viable long-term settlement that is not enforced by one form or another of authoritarian rule.
With that in mind, one might be inclined to cheer U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's statement after meeting his British counterpart William Hague that, "This is not a zero-sum game. It is not west versus east." Perhaps the beginning of a more enlightened and nuanced approach to a complex and volatile state of affairs?
Let's hope so. But as things stand, the words do not match the realities on the ground. These realities suggest that Ukraine is still being treated as very much a zero sum game. What are these realities?
From the Western side, NATO and the EU are still infused with 1990s thinking. Their core agenda remains expansionist. This is not for one moment to concede ground to Putin's neo-authoritarianism. It's just a re-statement of facts you can discern with reference to NATO's "open door" policy. Here's how the Kremlin chacterises it:
"NATO’s new Strategic Concept, adopted at the Lisbon Summit in November 2010, reaffirmed the Allies commitment that NATO’s door remains open to any European country in a position to undertake the commitments and obligations of membership, and contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic area."
Of course, I'm toying with you. That's not a statement from the Kremlin designed to support conspiracy theories about "Western Imperialism". That's a key policy statement from NATO itself, which also specifically refers to Ukraine as a future member. The EU is more reticent, but where NATO has expanded in the past in Europe, it has followed suit.
Given that the Kremlin clearly sees Ukraine as part of its natural sphere of influence, and has demonstrated as much through blackmail over energy supplies, the fact is that Kerry's words simply do not reflect the geo-political realities.
Right now, either Russia wins or we do; or, at least, both sides keep trying and failing to the perpetual detriment of Ukraine.
If we want to change the situation, we're going to have to take some hard decisions. That will mean specifically dropping NATO and EU policies and agenda items which posit a future for Ukraine within the euro-Atlantic structures. That must come as part of a hard and fast deal with Russia that it does the same thing in reverse.
The trick, of course, would be to construct a deal along these lines that does not come across to Putin as a sign of Western weakness. It would thus have to be governed by very specific terms and conditions: an international treaty formalising Ukraine's status as a neutral nation with fixed and immutable borders. It will require imagination. How would it deal with the Black Sea Fleet for example?
The Russians aren't going to leave anyway, so do we allow Sevastopol to become a Russian port city, detached from Ukraine while the rest of Crimea stays where it is? If so, what do we get in return?
I'm asking questions not providing answers. But one thing is clear and cannot be restated too often. As of right now, Ukraine remains firmly locked inside the zero sum tug-of-war politics described above.
Lofty statements that do nothing to alter the geo-political thinking and pratices of the past will not alter the geo-political realities of the present or the future.
Robin Shepherd is the owner of The Commentator. For more than a decade he has been in the think tank world in the United States and Europe. Prior to that he was an international journalist. His last formal position was as Moscow Correspondent for The Times
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