Russia wins big when the EU looks away from Ukraine

On March 18th, Putin marked the fifth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea by a trip to the peninsula, indulging in a “victory lap” which spotlighted what remains one of his most popular political moves among domestic audiences.

The EU, the US, NATO and other partners reiterated the position they’ve held for the past years, once again condemning what they referred to as “an illegal seizure of territory” and “a major challenge to Euro-Atlantic security”.  The West also demanded, as it has demanded since the 2014 invasion, that the peninsula must be handed back to Ukraine: “Crimea is Ukraine and must be returned to Ukraine’s control,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo emphasized ahead of the anniversary, a position echoed by NATO and a number of EU foreign ministers.

Still, after five years, the likelihood of Ukraine’s western partners taking concrete action to ensure the return of Crimea seems slim. In the wake of the peninsula’s invasion, the international community adopted a haphazard collection of financial, travel and trade sanctions on Russia, but the censure has done little to change Moscow’s behaviour. Now, as the frozen conflict enters its sixth year, analysts have warned that Russia is once again ramping up its aggression.

Russia nipping at NATO’s heels

Just weeks ago, US General Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of NATO forces in Europe, underlined the need to beef up Ukraine’s defences amid Russia’s “increasingly aggressive” campaign in the east of the country and the Black Sea. Late last year, Moscow launched an attack on Ukrainian naval vessels at the Kerch Strait; this year, the Azov Sea looks set to be the conflict’s newest flashpoint. Quite literally testing the waters of international diplomacy, Moscow is only growing more emboldened by the West’s relative lack of reaction.

While NATO has remained circumspect, Ukrainian officials have raised the alarm over what they describe as a “huge build-up” of Russian artillery, tanks and troops along the two countries’ border. Moscow has reportedly sent advanced anti-aircraft systems and squadrons of nuclear-capable bombers to the Crimean peninsula.

The transatlantic alliance, despite its strongly pro-Ukrainian rhetoric, has been distracted by other preoccupations. The Trump administration, for example, has become increasingly insular and has focused foreign policy attentions on its trade war with China. Meanwhile, while the EU has been distracted by other preoccupations, including Brexit and the upcoming European elections, the frozen war in Ukraine’s east shows no signs of thawing.

Ukrainian elections have Moscow on edge

One potential reason why Russia is currently amping up tension with its western neighbour? The major political wildcard of the upcoming Ukrainian presidential elections—the most unpredictable in the country’s history—scheduled for March 31st. As tensions rise ahead of the polls, analysts are voicing their concern that Russia is pulling strings to ensure Moscow does not end up with its own worst-case scenario: President Petro Poroshenko’s re-election.

According to a January report by US intelligence services, the Kremlin has already begun to deploy “a range of tools in hopes of ousting Poroshenko and bringing to power a less anti-Russia parliament”. It’s not surprising that Moscow is determined to swing things, if possible, away from Poroshenko. The incumbent president has campaigned abroad for bold economic sanctions against Russia and worked to curb Moscow’s cultural impact via bans on Russian television stations and social media platforms. In another move which greatly irked the Kremlin, Poroshenko oversaw the creation of a separate Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independent from the Moscow Patriarchate.

Will Ukraine continue to move towards the EU?

Poroshenko has also maintained a steadily pro-Western tilt, even recently amending the country’s constitution to commit Kiev to join the EU and NATO. Ukraine has indeed changed over the past five years: the banking sector has been cleaned up, gas prices have inched towards market levels, tax and pension schemes have been overhauled and transparent online bidding has been introduced for public procurement contracts. While further work remains to be done, these improvements have already been rewarded by international organisations—the IMF agreed a fresh $3.9 billion loan last December, and the EU granted Ukraine visa-free access to the bloc in June 2017.

The two principal candidates challenging Poroshenko are far less certain to continue on this trajectory towards Brussels, which is part of what makes them more palatable to Moscow. Currently in third place in the polls is polarising former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Despite her calls for Russia to compensate Ukraine for the annexation of Crimea, many are sceptical; Putin once called Tymoshenko “the only person in Kiev he could work with”. In her presidential campaign, the one-time “gas princess” has frequently attacked the current government’s pro-EU policies by naively insisting that Ukraine can have “prosperity without painful reforms”.

In the other corner, currently on track to face Poroshenko in the election’s second round is Volodymyr Zelenskiy—a comedian and actor whose main claim to fame is playing the Ukrainian president on television. Zelenskiy, a native Russian speaker who was caught lying about his business in Russia, has shed scant light on his policy plans should he win the election—yet has already declared himself ready to negotiate with Moscow. Ukraine specialist Alexander Motyl estimated that a Zelenskiy victory would in fact be Putin’s “dream scenario”.

The EU must support whoever is Ukraine’s next president

Indeed, Motyl predicts a number of ruinous consequences which would swiftly follow a Zelenskiy win. Kiev’s relations with the West, he suggests, would atrophy, while international investors would pull away from the country. Putin, meanwhile, could choose between taking advantage of the comedian’s political inexperience to turn Ukraine into a pseudo-vassal state or finally giving into the temptation to attack Mariupol.

Such scenarios would be dire not only for Ukraine but for its European neighbours. As European Council President Donald Tusk told the Ukrainian Parliament in February: “There can be no safe Europe without a safe Ukraine”. It’s long been time for the EU to pay more attention to Ukraine, but with such a make-or-break election on the cards and the risk of a pro-Russian president in Kiev again, the EU can no longer afford to look away.


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