obama and tusk
President Obama and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk met this week. Obama’s visit to Europe started in Poland, and signals the beginning of a serious dialogue between leaders on issues in Ukraine.

By: Harry C. Blaney, III

The recent elections in Ukraine have sent a message that the Ukrainians, by and large, want an independent and democratic (and, I suppose, non-corrupt) state. They clearly do not want to be under Putin’s harsh boot. Yet, as we have noted, this is but a first step in a very long road not only for Ukraine, but also for Russia and the West as they sort out a new relationship after Crimea.

President Obama’s visit to Europe this week will be the start of a serious face-to-face dialogue between senior leaders about three issues: what the West must do to help Ukraine; how to organize a strategy dealing with a new and aggressive Russia under Putin; and, how to provide for a Western program which will lessen Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas. But, beyond these specifics, President Obama and his European counterparts need to show unity and develop a long-term plan about Russia.

The election of Petro O. Poroshenko as Ukraine’s new president has started the formation of an entirely new government in Ukraine. This signals the beginning of a very long and difficult process in which Ukraine can form a democratic and modern state, as well as provide better opportunities for those who are less well-off within its borders. To do this, the country must be oriented towards the West because, unlike Russia, the West can provide investment, a window onto modernity, and a sense of shared freedoms. At the same time, though, Ukraine needs to balance such an alliance with the elephant in the room: President Putin and Russia, Ukraine’s most immediate eastern neighbor. This will not be easy.

For the West the election served as a testing ground and as an opportunity for Ukraine to show that it can get its act together. Only after such an assurance could it feel comfortable providing the kind of assistance and support that Ukraine most desperately requires. Right now, it most immediately needs resources to help the new government control corruption, reach out to citizens, and accelerate growth.

The recent unrest and attacks by camouflaged and Russian-supported separatists groups in Eastern Ukraine show how difficult it will be to keep Ukraine united. Earlier this week they even attacked an Ukrainian border post and, in Donetsk, the pro-Russian militia shut down an independent newspaper. These attacks indicate that the Russian secret service has not yet withdrawn from Ukraine and, indeed, that it has continued working to destabilize the country. President-elect Poroshenko has said he hopes to meet with Putin on his first trip abroad, but it seems that he might actually meet with Obama.

On the other side of the equation there are reports that Russia’s gov
ernment-controlled Gazprom has relaxed its attitude towards Ukraine. It has reportedly postponed demands for immediate payment for previously-furnished gas, and it has lowered its (very high) proposed original price for new supplies. Some have interpreted these actions as an effort to find some common ground and open up negotiations. The most important recent development, though, is the proposed addition of a new pipeline that will give Ukraine a new source of energy from Europe.

President Obama’s meeting with the G-7 members and NATO Council signals an attempt to address the large strategic issues in question. The ideal outcome here is the formation of a concrete list of actions (not simply words) reflecting the realities of recent Russian aggression and Europe’s dependence on Russian energy supplies. It will be important to note how the Europeans deal with this issue, given that it has turned them into weak allies that favor their economic interests over their security needs.

Obama was right to not call for an immediate military response to Ukraine’s unrest. However, doubts remain about the targeted sanctions and restructuring of the energy structure in Europe and, perhaps, North America. While this is meant to ensure that Putin will not have so much leverage over the West in the future, such an action remains problematic for Europeans: they remain on the defensive and seem unable to agree on a concrete strategic response. They might also be lulled by Russia’s recent conciliatory words that were aimed at halting sanctions and giving an excuse to some Europeans (especially Germany) to veto any real action.

It is important that the allies unite around a strategy that will prevent future aggression and make Russia pay for its recent actions. However, it is also important to devise a series of policies that will reach out to Russian citizens and encourage those forces seeking greater freedom and civic participation. This will keep a window open between the East and the West and maintain a dialogue between students and travellers of both regions. A negative strategy itself is inadequate. There must also be another strategy in place that will, over the long-term, draw Russia into the society of democratic nations that seek to resolve shared global challenges in a unified and constructive way. Achieving the balance between punishment and peace will be hard. It is, though, a better way forward than simply punitive actions or no actions at all.

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