Stabilizing Ukraine – Even Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the dissolution of the Soviet
Union with scarcely a shot fired, has proclaimed his support for Russian President
Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. The people of Crimea, he says, have corrected
a historic Soviet error.

Gorbachev’s sentiment is widely shared in Russia. After the Soviet Union’s
disintegration in 1991, Russia went from superpower to backwater. Three ex-Soviet
republics joined the European Union and NATO, asserting their desire not only for
democracy and prosperity, but also to avoid being part of Russia ever again. By
moving to annex Crimea, Putin, supported massively – thus far – by domestic public
opinion, seems to be ending the post-imperial frustration of the past two decades.

Since 1991, however, Russia explicitly recognized the territorial integrity of
Ukraine on several occasions. Such recognition was part of the 1992 Yalta Agreement,
which divided the Black Sea fleet, and of the 1997 leasing contract that allowed the
fleet to remain in Sevastopol. Ukraine’s territorial integrity was also recognized
in the 1994 denuclearization agreement, signed by the United Kingdom, Russia, and
the United States, and again in April 2011, when then-President Viktor Yanukovych
extended the Sevastopol lease.

The Ukrainian constitution prohibited the referendum on independence that was
carried out in Crimea in the presence of Russian troops. With the vote to leave
Ukraine and join the Russian Federation illegal by any reckoning, the international
community, as the EU has declared, cannot accept the outcome.

Relations between the EU and Ukraine have always been complex. The Association
Agreement that Yanukovych rejected last November – a decision that incited the
popular protests that brought down his government – had been under negotiation since
2007. Essentially a free-trade treaty with additional political elements, its
signing was postponed because of the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia
Tymoshenko. In the end, Yanukovych accepted Russia’s counter-offer: a 30% reduction
in the price of Russian gas supplies and $15 billion to stave off default.

Russia needs Ukraine if it is to build the so-called Eurasian Union, the economic
bloc that Putin is seeking with Kazakhstan and Belarus. Unlike the parties to a
free-trade agreement, the members of a customs union like the one Putin envisages
set trade policy with respect to third states through the establishment of common
foreign tariffs. Thus, Ukraine’s incorporation would be incompatible with its EU
Association Agreement.

Russia and Ukraine, however, already have a free-trade agreement, via the
Commonwealth of Independent States free-trade agreement signed in October 2011,
which is compatible with the proposed EU Association Agreement – in the same way
that Mexico maintains free-trade treaties with the EU, as well as with the US and
Canada. Ukraine thus could have maintained normal relations with its neighbors, with
the EU, and with Russia.

But Russia needs Ukraine for nationalist as well as economic reasons. Russian
nationalism has always considered Ukraine an extension of Russia itself, by virtue
of it being home to places that are among the dearest to Russian identity. Putin has
called Kyiv “the mother of all Russian cities.” Sevastopol, in turn, is a doubly
heroic city: during the siege of the Crimean War in the nineteenth century and
during World War II.

But understanding Russia’s frustrations and sentiments does not excuse invasion and
annexation. The EU Association Agreement threatened none of Russia’s interests,
whether economic or cultural. Relations between the EU and Russia cannot be based on
zero-sum games or spheres of influence. Solutions must be found that enable all to

Moreover, Russia’s annexation of Crimea will likely damage its core interest: its
political relationship with Ukraine, which it wants to keep far from Europe. So, for
Europe, the most important priority now is to help to ensure stability and
prosperity in the rest of Ukraine.

The first and most pressing issue is to stabilize the government in Kyiv. Ukraine’s
presidential election on May 25 will be a key moment. The vote must be free and
fair, according to democratic standards. Moreover, it is essential that the state
respects national minorities’ linguistic and cultural rights and promotes social
inclusion. European aid should be conditioned on Ukraine’s performance in this

Second, given that the risk of conflict is greatest in Ukraine’s Russophone east, an
OSCE mission should be deployed there to ensure stability, security, and respect for
minorities, and to condemn, if necessary, violations of specified commitments.

The third issue ‒ and perhaps the most important ‒ is the pressing need for economic
aid. The EU has prepared an €11 billion ($15 billion) aid package, though it is
subject to rules and conditions set by the International Monetary Fund, which is
contributing part of the total. Though Ukraine’s economy is collapsing, the
government maintains excessive spending on subsidies that are incompatible with IMF
aid. At present, for example, the government spends as much as 16% of its budget to
subsidize the price of energy for every citizen.

Russia will not skimp on spending after annexing Crimea, and Crimeans will benefit
from that aid and access to cheap energy. Though the tourism industry is likely to
be moribund for some time, Russian subsidies may leave Crimeans relatively better
off, especially from the perspective of their ethnic kin in eastern Ukraine. EU and
Western aid packages will need to take this into account.

The problem of Crimea will not be resolved quickly. Though Putin declared in his
annexation speech that Crimea is an “inseparable part” of Russia, his behavior will
turn against him. He and Russia will suffer international isolation, while
Ukrainians are likely to become even more insistent on choosing their own path.

Javier Solana was EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy,
Secretary-General of NATO, and Foreign Minister of Spain. He is currently
President of the ESADE Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics and
Distinguished Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

source Project Syndicate