Lord Risby is Chairman of the British Ukrainian Society, and Co-Chairman of the WEF Council on Ukraine.
For three days in Ukraine an annual conference has just taken place. All the country’s great and good were present, as were sympathetic participants from Britain, the United States, and Europe – all effectively moderated by Stephen Sackur.
It was like being in a parallel universe. Under cloudless blue skies, Kiev’s golden domes illuminated the peaceful splendour of the city. By total contrast, all TV channels were continuously carrying the death, destruction and mayhem in Eastern Ukraine as their top story. Almost all the shops in Kiev had sales signs, and hot water supply has been erratic. The economy is lurching toward a deep recession, and a Gordon Brown-type deficit. The currency has been hard hit. If the Russian economy has weakened, in part due to the invasions of Crimea and East Ukraine, the real economic loser has been Ukraine itself.
Next month there will be parliamentary elections, and after that the implementation programme of the EU Association Agreement will begin, based on a comprehensive domestic Action Plan. Happily, a well-educated younger generation of Ukrainians is emerging into public life. They will begin to replace those who so spectacularly failed to build on the spirit of the Orange Revolution. The IMF is now offering further help. One of the reasons why the ousted and deeply corrupt Viktor Yanukovych, the former President, refused to sign this association agreement was that there was no concurrent money on offer to deal with the country’s then already parlous financial situation.
Whilst Ukraine’s politicians recognise that there can be no military solution, rumours abound that the Russians will move further into the country to provide a land link to Crimea. Public support for NATO membership, hugely provocative to Russia, has soared. Indeed, the charismatic former prisoner and Prime Minister, Yuliya Tymoshenko, is calling for a referendum on NATO membership. Yet in reality, the West will not even supply military equipment to the Ukrainians, and NATO’s limitations are well recognised.
In a speech at the conference, Manuel Barroso unsparingly detailed the comprehensive efforts made to keep Russia informed about the EU association process, and the parallel deep and comprehensive free trade area proposal. Until two years ago, no objections had been raised by Russia over any of this, and no subsequent definitive explanation has been offered by anybody about Russia’s sudden and subsequently violent volte face.
In discussions, what was unclear was what to do now. Most advocated tougher sanctions against Russia. Apart from stronger sanctions and firmer resistance, what would persuade Putin into a permanent ceasefire and some sort of enduring settlement? An extension of a free trade area or a customs union with Russia itself? A clear indication by Ukraine’s leaders that NATO membership will not be sought? But why should they be bullied out of from choosing their own national course, which is the right of any sovereign, independent country?
Given Russia’s behaviour, any reaching-out would be extremely unpalatable. Yet without some sort of implicit or explicit agreement, Ukraine’s economy could potentially go into a tailspin with all the attendant social and political consequences.
Whatever unfolds in the coming months, one thing Ukraine cannot do is escape its geography. Given their often tragic and tempestuous history, the people of Ukraine simply deserve none of the horrors which have descended on them.