Ukraine’s recent signing of the EU Association Agreement had all the hallmarks of a great political triumph— from President Petro Poroshenko’s “Slava Ukrayini!” (Glory to Ukraine) on Twitter, to the bouts of anthem-singing in Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, every impression that Ukraine had finally prevailed in its year-long political crisis was given. In reality, however, a beleaguered Rada had signed a bill hours earlier capitulating to most of Russia’s demands.
A striking example of taking the rough with the smooth, this bill granted pro-Russian (and Russian-sponsored) fighters in Ukraine’s eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk amnesty and self-rule for a period of three years. Unlike the seizure of Crimea in March, these territories will not be formally enveloped into the Russian Federation, but are no less valuable. While Crimea furnished Russia with a casus belli for serious intervention, should its status be violently challenged, the creation of a ‘frozen conflict’, not dissimilar to those in Russia’s other, smaller neighbours, gives Moscow unparalleled influence over Ukraine’s sovereign and domestic affairs.
The seizure of Crimea solved two longstanding issues for Russia; firstly the territorial difficulties of the stationing of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet on Ukrainian territory, whilst also soothing any fears that vital Russian security architecture would fall into NATO’s hands, were Ukraine to one day join. The acquiescence to the Russian-sponsored rebels in the east goes one further, and the leverage it provides is already evident.
The Association Agreement might have been signed, but Russian interference has already ensured that Ukraine’s free trade aspect will be delayed by 14 months, and that Ukraine will not sign any document that might preclude its further integration with Russia’s rival to the EU, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). It is unlikely that Ukraine will ever join the EEU, but this is largely the point. Since any attempt to alter the quick-setting status quo would likely prompt a resumption of hostilities, a thawing of the ‘frozen conflict’, Ukraine’s neutrality in the long-term is now guaranteed.
This is a conclusion in which the West is complicit. For all the verbal support and encouragement lent to Ukraine by Western pundits and policy-makers alike, it is worth remembering their habit of being prodigal with words yet frugal with actions. This allows Russia to exploit this tendency and frame Western countries as toothless as well as self- serving.
Unlike the USSR, Russia has succeeded in its efforts to build global alliances, as nations uncomfortable with American hegemony quietly congratulate Russia, recognise its interests in Ukraine, and, in the case of China, even help shield it from Western sanctions. A western world being quickly re-acquainted with the nature of international geopolitical relations, has only one option remaining: to get serious with both its rhetoric and its resolve.