Victory vs. Europe in the Ukrainian crisis

CC/Flickr/Young European Federalists

CC/Flickr/Young European Federalists

PARIS – Today was May 9th, a celebration throughout Europe with varying significations. In the East, it is Victory Day, the date at which the Soviet Union defeated the Nazis to end the Second World War almost seventy years ago. In the West, it is Europe Day, the commemoration of the speech of French Foreign Minister Robert Schumann which established in 1950 the foundations of what would become the European Union. 

In a way, this day illustrates the struggles of the divided European continent, which at times seems nostalgic of the former order set up by the Cold War.

 May 9th was thus the occasion for Russian President Vladimir Putin to make a political statement by visiting Crimea for the first time since its annexation. In Russia, this day is seen as the fight of the East against fascism, which, in the eyes of the Russians and a fraction of the Ukrainian population, is the very thing infecting the new Kiev government. In a way, May 9th can be seen as a commemoration of the former glory of the Soviet Union. 

Meanwhile, the Union is preoccupied by its date with destiny at the end of the month. Will the wave of Euroscepticism engulf the European Parliament, as predicted by several European experts and media? EU citizens are hoping for change, one way or another.

The degree to which the day was celebrated has accordingly varied depending on the member state. In the Netherlands, a Green MEP called for Dutch people to come out with their love of the Union.  Here in Paris, the buses wore the French and European colors colors throughout the day, and in Strasbourg young Europeans gathered in front of the EU buildings to discuss its future.

Despite this internal questioning, the Union still tries to find its international voice.  Yet French President François Hollande is currently meeting Angela Merkel in Germany to discuss the situation in Ukraine, in the continuation of a state-oriented model that has taken away much of the credibility of Catherine Ashton over the last years.

Nevertheless, Ukraine remains a battlefield after months of internal conflict. After the Kiev demonstrators successfully obtained the resignation of the country’s president and the nomination by the Parliament of a new temporary government, armed men took over the Crimean government and military buildings before the region itself declared it would join the Russian Federation.

The separatist movement has now spread to several parts of Eastern Ukraine, leaving a trail of death in its midst. Today, over twenty people died in the attack of the police headquarters in the Eastern city of Mariupol, in the Donetsk region.

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From Brussels to Kiev : the mute European Union

Ukrainian Prime Minister  speaks at EU emergency meeting on Ukraine on March 6th.  CC/Flickr/European Coucil

Ukrainian Prime Minister speaks at EU emergency meeting on Ukraine on March 6th.
CC/Flickr/European Coucil

Four days after the entrance of Russian troops in Crimea, diplomats from all nationalities are scrambling like a pack of disturbed ants.

The frenzy has even spread outside of the embassies. Hilary Clinton compared the decision of President Vladimir Putin to Hitler’s annexation of Sudetenland prior to World War II. The image is strong, and it is meant to be. What is at stake here is a power play between the world’s leading powers.

So far, it is the United Stated who has spoken the loudest, and acted in consequence. It is President Obama who led the G7 effort to issue a press release condemning Russian intervention in Ukraine. It is US Secretary of State John Kerry who threatened Russia with isolation and promised a billion dollars in loan guarantees to the new Ukrainian government. It is the American presidential delegation who has decided not to take part in the Winter Paralympics games of Sochi. It is finally the American Representative to the UN Samantha Power who ridiculed the justifications presented by Russia to the Security Council last Tuesday.

As I said in our last session, Russia’s actions speak much louder than its words. What is happening today is not a human rights protection mission and it is not a consensual intervention. What is happening today is a dangerous military intervention in Ukraine. It is an act of aggression. It must stop. Samantha Power, March 4th 2014

In a way, Putin echoes its critics by using the ghost of fascism to describe the Ukrainian new government, and its dangers from the Russian minorities of the contry. The fact is that protection of civilians has never been high on Putin’s list of reasons to infringe another’s state sovereignty. It is the argument Russia used to prevent a UN intervention in the Syrian Civil War at the end of last year.

Worse, it is a justification even China, who was Russia’s ally on the Syria question, cannot reasonably support. The principle of non-interference is deeply rooted in Asian international relations, and is particularly dear to a country which has been criticized on the way it treated civilians in the Tibet and Xingjian provinces.

In this power play, the European Union has failed to provide the region with much needed leadership. The Ukrainian crisis lasted for months before the Union was able to have any influence on the behavior of the previous government. Even at the worst of the Ukrainian civil war, it was the foreign affairs ministers of France, Germany and Poland who flew to Kiev to negotiate for peace.

Several analysts have applauded the scrutiny the Russian representative faced in Tuesday’s Security Council meeting, but this has only proved two things: first, that world powers do try to justify themselves in the UN arena when they break international law. Yet in the big picture, even a united Security Council has no power when opposed to one of its five permanent members.

Because of the veto rule, the UN is simply irrelevant when it comes to conflict resolution involving powerful countries. This is where regional entities have a chance to make a difference. The European Union has been created to give the region a common economic and political clout.

A EU sanction bundle might prove much more effective than American threats. The USA merely represents 2 percent of economic activity in Russia, while the EU is one of its biggest trade partners, especially when it comes to energy.

Yet during this whole crisis, the European member states have revealed their inability to speak with one voice. Even now, they cannot agree on significant sanctions to be imposed on Russia.

Baroness Catherine Ashton.  CC/Flickr/FriendsOfEurope

Baroness Catherine Ashton.
CC/Flickr/FriendsOfEurope

EU Foreign Affairs representative Catherine Ashton may not be missing in action, but is indeed missing the negotiations. Even when she meets with the Russian Foreign Affairs minister, it feels like she is the representative of a small, insignificant country. There are no significant advances, and no communication.

The only leader we hear loud and clear is the distant United States, and the organizations it has promoted in Europe, such as the all-mighty NATO.

How long will Europe accept to be a mere chessboard in the feud between the United States and Russia?

Ukraine : fire and death, in the name of Europe?

In Europe, all eyes are turning to Ukraine. There has already been over 50 deaths, and the entire country has become a battleground. Even some of the country’s Olympic athletes, who have been training for four years for the end, have decided to stop competing and go home.

Protesters clash against police forces in the streets of Kiev CC/Flickr/tandalov.com

Protesters clash against police forces in the streets of Kiev
CC/Flickr/tandalov.com

After a quick meeting yesterday in France between the different EU member states, three foreign affairs ministers (from France, Germany and Poland) have met with Ukrainian officials today in Kiev. Officially, these ministers here to discuss sanctions, but there is only one objective for them: stop the violence.

Yet how did we get here? Protesters are chanting slogans such as “Ukraine is Europe,” and international media have underlined the fact that Ukrainians may have more belief in the EU than the population of its older member states  (let’s say France, for example).  One thing should be clear though: the question has never been whether Ukraine would be part of the European Union. The country is nowhere near applying for membership. What was behind the trade agreement was a search for influence.  

Small EU-related commentary/question here: where is EU Foreign Affairs chief Catherine Ashton, and why didn’t she join the member states representatives? Surprising and revealing, given the fact she was in Ukraine earlier this month.

Looking back: 4 months of protest!

August 2013: Russia stops all Ukrainian imports at the border for customs inspection. Hint from the Putin government: this state of affairs may become permanent if Ukraine were to sign a trade agreement with the EU.

November 13, 2013: the Ukrainian Parliament refuses to consider the liberation of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

November 21, 2013: Ukraine puts a stop to its negotiations with the EU in favor of its relationship with Russia. First street protests with people chanting “Ukraine is Europe.”

November 23, 2013: Protests continue despite the attempt of Ukrainian PM Mykola Azarov to blame this decision on the International Monetary Fund. Tymochenko calls for the population to react “as if it was a coup.”

November 30, 2013: first violent confrontation between demonstrators & police forces. Thirty-five people are detained.

December 8, 2013: hundreds of thousands of protesters crowd the streets of Kiev and destroy the statue of Lenine.

December 11, 2013: the Ukrainian capital is under lockdown with thousands of police riot officers controlling the streets.

January 22, 2014: Police kills two demonstrators when shooting at the crowd, and another dies from a fall. These are the first deaths of the protest.

January 28, 2014: the government attempts to diffuse tension by repelling anti-protest laws that had allowed for the bloodshed a week earlier.

February 16, 2014: the protesters leave the Kiev City Hall they had been holding in exchange for the release of 234 jailed demonstrators.

February 18, 2014: 25 die among protesters and police after anti-riot lines were attacked outside of Parliament.