Two years ago at the outset of the Euromaidan movement, many found it easy to sympathize with the young, determined activists and their “uprising of dignity”. The images of the committed, non-violent protesters, encouraging speeches of the ardently pro-European young people, a capital city in which the European flags flown nearly outnumbered the Ukrainian ones: all this was rather well-received by European policy-makers faced with rampant Euro-fatigue at home.
At the time, many pointed to Kyiv - a city most were not familiar with: Look, these people know how lucky we are to be citizens of the European Union. To stamp out corruption and nepotism with help from Brussels drew enthusiastic support from citizens and politicians in the EU. In 2013 hardly anyone would have thought that the Euromaidan protest would trigger the biggest crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War. This crisis persists to this day in late 2015.
I remain convinced that the Ukrainian citizens will not be dissuaded from pursuing the path toward democracy and the rule of law. This is something that neither Vladimir Putin nor the experts on Eastern European policy who mistake contracts with Gazprom for a strategy for peace will be able to stop.
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Change in Ukraine, however, will not be a swift, frictionless process in which we in the EU can periodically give our thumbs up or down. This process will span several generations. The war in the Donbas and the annexation of Crimea, as well as the power struggles among Ukrainian oligarchs and political top dogs, are the great obstacles and absorb too much of the energy that needs to be poured into the transformation of the country.
When President Putin answered the revolution of dignity in Kyiv in Crimea and Donbas with military force against its neighboring country, it was also his intention to make any democratic change as difficult as can be. Whatever points may be argued along geopolitical lines, NATO was not the real challenge in 2013. What still remains the underlying threat to the Kremlin is that all the successes achieved by the Ukrainian revolution of dignity might effectively become enticing examples Russian citizens.
First, the Ukrainians did not bow to the violence meted out by Viktor Yanukovych on the Maidan. To this day, they mourn the victims of the state’s terror against the Euromaidan protest. They subsequently withstood the militias supported and organized by Russia. More than 6,000 Ukrainians have died meanwhile. Most of the victims are civilians.
The unpredictability of Kremlin politics, fear of war, feelings of guilt or solidarity toward Russia, distrust of corrupt elites in Kyiv: In 2015, citizens especially of Western European countries are finding it much harder to support the Ukrainians than in 2013. The reasons for this should not simply be brushed aside. But neither should they be allowed to make the EU abandon Ukraine. Supporting change is also in our own security interest.
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The US did not force an anti-Russian strategy on Brussels, Paris or Berlin. President Obama made it clear from the outset that the European Union had to assume responsibility in this new conflict. EU and US both have excluded a military solution.
And this led to several decisions within the EU that must not be reversed even as 2015 draws to a close. The Association Agreement was signed, and it needs to be implemented in 2016 despite Russian objections. The breach of international law constituted by the annexation of Crimea and military support for the destabilization of the Donbas was met with economic and personal sanctions. The sanctions are aimed at bolstering the EU’s position vis-à-vis Russia, as the EU has decided to seek a diplomatic solution instead of a military one. The result so far has been the Minsk Agreement, which admittedly looks better on paper than in real life. While Kyiv appears to be slowly making progress on the stipulated political reforms, the Donbas ceasefire has come under threat again and again. Control of the Ukrainian-Russian border, and thus, an end to Russian replenishments for the militias, remain elusive. So any lamentation about ending EU sanctions can only be viewed as grossly negligent toward Ukraine as well as our own security interests. This doubly strengthens Vladimir Putin – firstly, because he is attempting to cause a rift among the Europeans, and secondly, because it weakens precisely those Ukrainians who are striving for change.
Unlike 2014, at this point in late 2015 it is not the war in the Donbas and the conflict with Russia that are at the center of the European debates. The West as a whole is almost desperately trying to find a new rallying point to stop the war in Syria. The Islamic State’s terrorist attacks in Paris have jolted the Europeans from their long-lasting indifference. It cannot be clearly made out whether, how, or when, President Putin will become an ally of the West. However, numerous EU politicians have left no doubt that they want this alliance. With his military offensive guided by his own power interests, Putin has, on the one hand, added fuel to the flames. On the other hand, there is no getting around him in the current scenario. I see this alliance coming. If we as Europeans do not want to become losers in the process, this alliance must not be forged on the backs of the Ukrainians.
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Lifting the sanctions before the Minsk Agreement has had real and lasting effect is a blueprint for jeopardizing the entire Ukrainian reform process. Only if the progressive Ukrainian actors can rely on a coherent strategy towards Russia the EU will be taken seriously on all counts of the reform process. While it was critical that the Ukrainians stood up militarily to the aggression in the east, it is just as clear that successful democratic development will bring about the victory over Putin’s hybrid strategies. To achieve it, the Ukrainian citizens need our moral, financial and practical support. Democratic progress in Ukraine is a continuation of the transformation of Eastern Europe since 1989 with the toppling of the Berlin Wall. A relapse into a corrupt, oligarchical state would have negative repercussions for all of the countries in our eastern neighborhood. What an alliance between Putin and the West can accomplish against Daesh terrorism cannot be assessed at this point in time. However, if this alliance is formed at the Ukrainians’ expense, it will be to the detriment of security in the east of the continent.