How Ukraine Can Begin To Move Forward
I have always been non-partisan when it comes to politics in the Ukraine – where I have lived since I was 19 years old – but I think that to be neutral in today’s situation is criminal. You have to say what you see and say what you think as the country faces it’s most dangerous challenges since World War II.
It is now almost six weeks since the presidential elections in Ukraine when Petro Poroshenko was voted to office, and every day brings fresh developments, some which bring us closer to war, others which take us in a more positive direction. I have met Mr Poroshenko, our new President, several times. In Ukraine he is known as the ‘Chocolate King’, because of the large confectionery business he owns. We have appeared at conferences together and I consider his background in business to be the best qualification for steering our country through the dangerous waters we find ourselves in.
The situation in Crimea, which Russia has now annexed, and in the eastern and southern regions of the country, where there is an ongoing armed separatist insurgency, have taken the country closer to a full international war than at any period in recent history. What many in the West forget is that Ukraine is huge (the largest country entirely within Europe), economically vital (in 2011 it was the world’s third-largest grain exporter) and of great strategic importance (reflected in the fact Ukraine maintains the second-largest military in Europe, second only to Russia).
What Putin is ultimately most concerned with is that Ukraine should continue to provide a buffer zone between Russia and NATO. Putin doesn’t want Ukraine to cosy up to the West and for NATO to be in his backyard. Just as America found in the 1961 Bay of Pigs crisis (when Russia attempted to place Russian nuclear missiles on Cuba, only 90 miles from Florida, at the height of the Cold War) no super power wants their rivals so close. For Putin it would be like Obama sitting on a deck chair in his garden, peering into his living room.
Therefore, the first and most important thing President Poroshenko needs to do is de-couple the military situation from the economic one. Ukraine should look to the West economically, but recognise Russia’s reasonable fears about having a huge NATO ally right on its border (with a huge army) and give guarantees to Russia that she will never join NATO, or allow NATO troops to be stationed on Ukrainian soil. This will ease the tension with Russia immediately.
In return the West and Russia should give Ukraine assurances that the country will be allowed to remain militarily neutral in the future. However, these need to be real assurances, unlike the ones Ukraine was given in 1994 when we agreed to give up our nuclear weapons. In 1994, the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances (signed by Russia, the US and the UK) included assurances that guaranteed the neutrality of the Ukraine (since broken by Putin). As a result of the Agreement, Ukraine gave up her nuclear arsenal and we are now nuclear-free. If we had kept our weapons Ukraine would have been the fourth biggest nuclear power in the world (just behind Russia, the US and China) and I wonder if Putin would have behaved in quite the same way over the past few months? This whole issue has also only added to the paranoia of nations such as India, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea. Who wants to give up their weapons and then experience what Ukraine is suffering? Poroshenko needs to urgently ensure that the Agreement is respected and neutrality for Ukraine is guaranteed – this is essential.
We need to build a new and modern Ukraine, one that looks to Europe economically. Already we can feel and see positive changes happening: the IMF have offered $18million in a relief package and the EU has come up with a $15million credit line. The US is helping by lending the country in excess of a billion dollars and Ukraine is working on the establishment of a new court system, combating red tape and tackling the deep rooted corruption. The only fly in the ointment is what Putin will do next. All this uncertainty would finish tomorrow if Ukraine was to say we want to join Europe but we will never join NATO.
The second thing Poroshenko needs to do is give up Crimea. The population is majority Russian, the Russians have a huge naval base there, the Crimea only ever joined the Ukraine in the 1950’s and they voted to go – it’s hardly different from the situation with Scotland in the British union. Poroshenko may have to publicly continue to call for Crimea’s return to keep face, but he must make it clear to Russia and the West that we have to let this go in order to move forward. The other disputed territories need to remain in Ukraine. The Russian population is much smaller there than in Crimea. Russia doesn’t need those territories as they are troubled areas and Russia itself is in economic problems. However, Russia wants to encourage unrest in these eastern regions to provide the NATO buffer zone which Ukraine is failing to offer. Russia is happy for them to become independent regions – they don’t really want them to return to Russia, they are just being used as strategic territories. The people of Donetsk need to realise they are just being used as puppets and should stay with Kiev which is where their future lies.
So the third thing Poroshenko needs to do is to give more rights to the disputed territories: rights to have Russian as a second language enshrined in the constitution, rights to control more of their internal affairs and raise local taxes but that they continue to defer to Kiev when it comes to issues of foreign policy.
Fourth, Poroshenko should call parliamentary elections, now. Currently there is an overall swell of public opinion towards the new President and his popularity is high. Now he needs a good Parliamentary majority to get things done. Let’s get rid of the rot and begin moving Ukraine towards a truly democratic future, without the cronyism and corruption that has so crippled the country from achieving its potential. In order for Poroshenko to do things he needs a new parliament as he doesn’t have enough support in this one and because he is really popular right now, now is the time to call an election.
Finally, people in the West ask me constantly if I think Ukraine will descend into civil war. The sad answer is: we are already in civil war in the east of the country. The real question should be, what will happen if Russia invades further into Ukrainian territory? I am afraid that, however popular Mr Poroshenko is, should there be further invasion, then Ukraine would be in a state of full international war with Russia. No one wants war, but do not be deceived, the stakes are that high. Mr Poroshenko needs to move quickly and decisively now. He needs to ally Ukraine with Europe economically but reassure Russia that Ukraine is militarily independent. And if the US and Europe are less than happy with this solution? Well, then Mr Poroshenko needs to remind Obama, Merkel, Cameron and the rest that you guys are very far away – and for us, Russia is just next door.