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27 January, 2016  ▪  Bohdan Yaremenko

Mission Possible

Foreign policy objectives and challenges for 2016

Ukraine’s diplomatic team is entering 2016 in a state of persistent systemic crisis: it lacks a clearly formulated set of priorities and presumptions based on specific values, and has no clear objectives; its management system is in ruins; the necessary instruments and material support are either underdeveloped or absent altogether; and the level of professionalism and ethics of the majority of Ukraine’s diplomatic corps is unacceptably low.

It’s worth considering the statement—outdated to the point of banality—that foreign policy is merely an extension of domestic policy and answering one question: Is this really true in the case of Ukraine?

However inconsistent it may be in its formal decision-making process, the country’s leadership keeps reminding everyone that Ukraine is fighting off armed aggression by Russia. In fact, the country is at war. So, does Ukraine’s foreign policy with regard to the Russian Federation reflect this state of war?

The problem is not so much in the absurdity of there being a Russian embassy in Kyiv or a Ukrainian mission in Moscow. The point is that diplomatic relations are established between countries that recognize one another and have declared their readiness to develop relations based on the principles of international law. The start of an undeclared war, the annexation of Crimea, the financing of terrorist and other illegal armed groups on the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, the endless appeals, and deliberate twisting, distortion, exaggeration and manipulation of historical facts by Russia’s political leadership and its propaganda machine with the goal of challenging the legitimacy of Ukraine within its current borders, if not the very existence of a Ukrainian state, is irrefutable evidence that Russia does not recognize Ukraine, does not respect its territorial integrity, and has no intention of adhering to the general rules and principles of international law in its relations with Ukraine, let alone to any bilateral contractual commitments.

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Statements that a Ukrainian diplomatic presence must be maintained in the Russian Federation in order to protect the rights and interests of Ukrainian citizens are quite meaningless as there are no socially significant or even well-known instances where Ukraine has been able to defend the interests of its citizens in Russia—not even when its efforts enjoyed broad-based international support.

So, what exactly is the purpose of maintaining diplomatic relations between the two countries?

Despite their unambiguous statements regarding Russia, Ukrainian diplomats and their top leaders are having a hard time understanding the logic of war. The function and role of policy under war conditions need to be re-evaluated from top to bottom. And this is being driven by the success of Russian diplomacy, which, despite sanctions and universal condemnation of its behavior towards Ukraine, has managed to force its interpretation of events and even reached some formal and half-formal agreements and decisions that are beneficial to it. Because Russia is basing everything on the logic of war. Her diplomats “enter battle” when the military branch has ensured the most convenient conditions.

In the case of Ukraine, politicians and diplomats are the ones giving the military the orders to fire or to cease firing. With their hands thus tied, Armed Forces HQ are currently unable to offer the main advantage of the battlefield to the diplomatic corps: the option of choosing when and where to hold the battle. And that, naturally, makes it impossible to control the agenda during any negotiations. Of course, there is little reason to suggest that UAF HQ feels any discomfort because of its inability to take the initiative and act independently. But the commanders and rank-and-file at the front feel this, full-force.

Ukraine’s diplomats need to understand that when there’s a war, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the entire diplomatic corps are just a large adjunct of the Defense Ministry. The objective of the diplomatic service at this time has to be, not the abstract development of relations with someone, somewhere, but an active search for allies and partners to support military action. They need to ensure the necessary political and material support for running this war and the flow of information about the actions of the Armed Forces, to arrange as many obstacles as possible for the enemy, to neutralize its diplomatic and informational resources to the maximum, and to force it to focus on secondary matters. We’re talking about an arsenal of diplomatic weapons: bilateral relations, work with international organizations, large international and regional economic and energy projects, and so on. There must be total diplomatic war.

The Minsk trap

Right now, the Minsk accords are the main foreign-policy dilemma facing Ukraine in this war with Russia on a practical level. This ugly fruit of the Russian school of diplomacy is not just unrealistic in the execution, but is completely without advantage for Ukraine, immoral and harmful. By insisting that these agreements are the only alternative and imposing this belief on Ukrainian society and the international community, Ukraine’s Head of State and its diplomatic corps have set up another stalemate for themselves and Ukraine, as the Minsk agreements are simultaneously impossible to carry out and impossible to not carry out.

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The endless references to the Minsk accords in various reports and decisions by the G7, EU, NATO and even the UN have achieved the unthinkable. They have provided the basis for referring to the legitimacy of a completely unnatural attempt to reconcile the victim of a murder with the gun that is killing it, leaving out any notions about legality and morality—never mind the fact that a gun does not shoot itself. Yet, for Ukraine today to not implement the Minsk accords will mean taking a stance against the unanimous opinion of the world community. This could have been done relatively painlessly until the end of last summer, when weapons banned by the accords were being actively fired at Ukraine along the entire frontline and causing both civilian and military casualties. Instead, Ukraine’s diplomats decided to ignore this opportunity, while the country’s political leadership chose to continue to try to implement the accords unilaterally. As a result, casualties appeared even under the walls of the Verkhovna Rada in Kyiv.

Attempts to continue to carry out the provisions of the Minsk agreements, such as amending the country’s Constitution and certain laws could have an irreversibly negative impact on the domestic situation, given the heightened tension among ordinary Ukrainians. Or, it’s entirely possible that this could become the point of no return in relations between a large share of patriotic activists and Ukraine’s government. The threat is all the greater since there is active resistance to implementing the Minsk accords not just coming from voters who are against the government, but within the government itself. This means that carrying out Minsk provisions could result in the collapse of even those illusive instruments of social stability that remain in Ukraine today.

Carrying out the Minsk provisions is also beyond the capability of Ukraine in terms of available resources. But most of all, these agreements are not an instrument that could possibly resolve any of the problems facing the Ukrainian state today. For starters, the widely used phrase that de-escalation has been achieved thanks to Minsk needs to be questioned, as all it achieves is to put the diplomatic cart before the military horse.

In fact, Ukraine’s diplomats made one serious systemic miscalculation, among all the mistakes made in 2015: they allowed the Minsk accords to be linked to the international sanctions against Russia. Although these sanctions were never imposed as part of any Minsk agreement, now, the main stakeholders—the US, Germany and France—have taken the position that as soon as the Minsk provisions have been implemented, it would make sense to drop the majority of the sanctions against Russia. But the point is that, on one hand, the sanctions are the only effective leverage against Russia today, and on the other, the Minsk accords will never lead to peace on Ukraine’s soil, because the issue of Crimea is not even touched on in them. And so the country will de facto remain in a state of war regardless of Minsk.

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In short, the overriding objective for Ukraine’s foreign policy in 2016 will be a Mission Impossible: to avoid carrying out the political components of the Minsk accords while not making it possible to accuse Ukraine of breaking its commitments altogether, while not only maintaining sanctions against Russia but getting the West to recognize that it makes no sense to drop them until Russia completely withdraws from Donbas and Crimea, and compensates Ukraine for the damage and losses caused by its aggression.

Making real friends

Among the less complex components, but still a serious responsibility for this coming year is to shape the agenda in the UN Security Council, not for the sake of some vague reform of the UN system, but as a means of blocking initiatives from the Russian Federation and to put pressure on it for violating human rights, not just on the occupied territories, but in general.

Ukraine’s regional policy needs to come alive. Instead of meaningless “polite visits” to post-soviet dictators in the search for illusory energy deals, Ukraine needs to switch to meaningful dialogue with its nearest neighbors. It is a crime to continue to ignore Romania’s desire to restart relations with Ukraine on a new level. Turkey also needs to continue to be engaged in ongoing dialog in the search for ways to keep it on Ukraine’s side—not just nominally but by taking an active position in the Black Sea region. Rather than drowning Poland in a flood of fictive Ukrainian refugees, Ukraine’s neighbor should be invaded by Ukrainian political analysts, cultural figures, scientists, politicians and diplomats, whose objective is to prevent even the tiniest misunderstandings, any kind of historical speculation over difficult historical incidents or any decline in active relations or interest on the part of Poles towards Ukraine.

Relations with Belarus need to move from stoking the image of the “last dictator in Europe” to setting up a system for interacting with its opposition, fostering a democratic, predictable, political environment, and bringing down the “united state of Russia and Belarus.”

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Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia, Hungary, and Czechia should be hearing more often from their Ukrainian delegation than President Poroshenko hears from his Chief-of-Staff. Without rejecting European and Euroatlantic integration, alternative configurations need to be considered and the idea of a Baltic-Black Sea link seems the most promising in this context. It also makes sense to begin setting up a European subregion that encompasses Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, similar to the Visegrad Four.

A separate issue is the culture and information components of foreign policy, which should have as their objectives: (1) fostering receptiveness among foreign audiences towards the continuity of nation- and state-building in Ukraine since the days of Kyivan Rus and (2) developing an image of contemporary political nationhood in Ukraine as one that is based on universal values, tolerance, democracy and rule of law.

Instruments to promote Ukrainian business abroad are urgently needed. This is not about meaningless discussions as to whether trade and economic missions should be subordinate to the Ministry, but about providing financial and organizational opportunities to foster the export of Ukrainian-made goods.

Ukraine’s diplomatic corps does not have many resources at its disposal. This means that, in order to tackle these supremely difficult challenges, it needs to be relieved of one extremely burdensome and counterproductive function: being involved in inventing explanations and acceptable reasons for the inability of Ukraine’s leadership to meet the expectations of Ukrainian society and the country’s international partners. Starting with the Kuchma Administration, Ukraine’s diplomats have served not so much the interests of the state or society, but the need to justify the inability, mistakes, crimes or inertia of the “Ukrainian” ruling class. It’s high time to recognize that, for the foreseeable future, public opinion in Ukraine will remain the primary criterion according to which Ukraine’s leadership and its state will be judged by foreign partners.

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Once this is understood, Ukraine’s diplomats will lose their taste and desire to participate in such unpromising fairytales as explaining why the jailing of Yulia Tymoshenko was not politically motivated, that the Maidan in Kyiv was a horde of extremists and terrorists, that reforms can only be carried out in Ukraine after the war—that no one has officially declared, incidentally—, and that corruption can only be handled by the Prosecutor General, Mr. Shokin.

Winning back trust

Next, the top management of the Foreign Ministry need to stop passing the buck for the inability to properly organize funding for the agency at the necessary level to the heads of foreign missions and mid-level managers. Shutting down foreign missions until funding levels for those that remain are down to the level of the allocated annual budget is also a path that leads only to decay and collapse. The diplomatic service needs to understand its priorities, identify the instruments for reaching its objectives, and honestly admit to itself and to voters what it can actually accomplish and what will have to be dropped.

Of course, this kind of work requires real leader who not only have the necessary skills but also the political will. The emergence of such a leader at the MFA is unlikely while the agency is completely subservient to the will of the president. What’s more, dualism in the management of this area of foreign activity because the minister is appointed by the president but works with and is funded by the premier’s team will not help the MFA find a charismatic, confident, pro-active leader. Change and reform of the entire system for managing foreign affairs needs to be a society-wide task, because it has to start with changes to the Constitution itself. Hopefully, 2016 will be the year that Ukrainians actively formulate and approve a new Basic Law for their country.

And this is where the MFA needs to think who will become the defender of the agency’s interests in this process? Ukrainian diplomats have still not found the strength to clearly and unambiguously stand on the side of the Ukrainian people during the Euromaidan. This means they cannot really expect the kind of support from this corner that, for instance, allowed the country to resurrect its armed forces from their state of ruin. Serious differences within the ruling coalition of political parties and the inability to satisfy the endless whims and image-related demands of the current Administration are destroying any hope the diplomats might have had to have someone in civil society lobby on their behalf.

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Restoring public trust will be one of the most difficult and massive challenges facing the MFA for the foreseeable future. At the moment, it’s hard to imagine that Ukraine’s diplomatic corps is prepared to understand this and not just to flatter itself as the elite of domestic bureaucrats. That they can understand that any agency must see as its main purpose to provide services to its citizens and domestic businesses.

As long as this way of framing issues remains a dream, Ukrainians can only hope that 2016 is the year that the current system collapses altogether and we can finally start to build a new one.

Bohdan Yaremenko is ex-Consul General of Ukraine to Istanbul and Chairman of the Maidan of Foreign Affairs

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