Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008
After a few days in Beijing, Viktor Yanukovich made haste to Sochi to play vassal to Vladimir Putin. What, we might ask, have the chancelleries of Europe been doing? The Russian Zollverein he was intending to accept would have extended to the Polish border. “Security co-operation” would have been sure to follow. Only a crowd of Ukrainians gathered in the freezing Kiev winter stand in the way of geo-political disaster.
If the EU’s soft power is a mystery to much of Britain (a friend confessed herself utterly perplexed by demonstrators toppling a statue of Lenin one moment and waving the EU flag the next), to many in Eastern Europe it stands against arbitrary rule, poverty and Russia. England, its own tradition of lawful government dating back, with only a tolerably rose-tinted reinterpretation of history, to 1258, if not to Henry Plantagenet, may not see any need to import a foreign constitutional tradition; Ukraine could do with one to supply protection from Lenin’s modern successors.
Yet forces more substantial than the desire to be free of Russian domination, or anger at Yanukovich’s spectacularly corrupt and increasingly dictatorial administration are at work. The repeated references made, in reports on the protests to “Afghan war veterans” guarding the demonstrators, suggest considerable thought has gone into marshalling the opposition.
Ukraine’s oligarchs have reached a point where their interests have begun to shift. A gangsterish state may have been helpful as they “appropriated” the industries they now control, but they are now better served by institutions that protect property rights and the ability to retain access to the profits they have wisely shipped out of the country. In fear of Russian domination, oligarch-owned TV stations have given ample air time to the anti-government protests. Perhaps they look upon the works of Khodorkovsky, and despair.
But even if Yanukovich, who unlike Putin has not cowed his oligarchs, might have been minded to concede their demands for reform (not that different in character now to the demands the barons made of King John), Russia’s threats are of a different order. Sensing patent drift and weakness, Moscow has taken the opportunity to force Kiev back into its sphere of influence, and cut it off from the West. Putin’s biggest weapon is gas prices, and no European aid bribe can outweigh that menace. Only countervailing threats – sanctions, travel bans, and money laundering investigations – stand a chance of concentrating Mr Yanukovich’s mind.
The West should be united and its message clear: to convey to Ukraine’s president not the benefits of a Western orientation (he knows those well enough) but the costs of severing ties, while stiffening the resolve of the men and women in Kiev’s Independence Square. In William Hague, we have perhaps the greatest orator of the 21st century, but so far his mandarins have produced only this spellbinding masterpiece:
“Harmonisation of public procurement legislation and procedures would provide opportunities for Ukrainian businesses to participate on equal terms in EU public works, supply and services tenders at an EU, national and regional level – a vast market.”
Who writes his articles these days? Might they at least have composed: “Come with me, and I will give you back your pre-qualification questionnaire”?
The protesters’ hearts would surely have sunk had they read on to the diplomatic ready-meal that followed:
“The development of the EU’s relationship with Ukraine requires a positive, strategic relationship of confidence and growing trust between EU member states and Russia.”
Now is not the time for “growing trust” with the Kremlin. It’s more like that episode in The Simpsons where a Russian diplomat at the UN slips by referring to his country as the Soviet Union, whereupon tanks roll out of peaceful floats in a Russian carnival parade, the Berlin Wall magically reappears and Lenin himself breaks out of the glass case in which he was thought to have been embalmed. I could only find a clip in Spanish but the pictures tell the story:
Over Iran, the West was saved by the unexpected intransigence of Francois Hollande. This time it has been Ukrainian oligarchs’ fears they would be mugged by the biggest Stationary Bandit in the East. Soft power is important: it’s why hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have braved freezing temperatures and riot police; but hard incentives are needed too. Strategic confidence and trust is all very well between democracies, but it won’t move opportunists like Yanukovich.
Ukrainians have shown courage, now they deserve our support. We might start by threatening a travel ban on people associated with the regime, while offering a scholarship and five year Shengen work visa to any Ukrainian who gets into a good European university. This might concentrate Yanukovich’s mind: make life better for your people, or find all the best ones doing their bit to address Germany’s labour shortage.