Thursday, April 9, 2015

Avoiding the European Conflict

Russia has always been a nation keen to exert influence. No better witness than history itself. However, with the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, many thought they were hearing the melodious sound of peace emerging from a conflict that began when Europe still lay in ruins. Genocide followed too swiftly for real European peace to prevail and, once more, the world realized the complexities and hazards of power change. The 2000s brought with it, finally, a peace that we now look back upon. Europe, spearheaded by a German economic powerhouse, was expanding to include new members like Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary and the Czech Republic, all previously part of the USSR or satellite states. After the faint economic recovery, Ukrainians saw closer ties with the European Union as the primary constituent for their own progress.

Viktor Yanukovych's Presidency was marred by widespread speculation of vote-rigging after the results of the 2010 Presidential elections placed him ahead of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. 

Understandably, countless Ukrainians were angered when, in 2013, President Yanukovych turned away from talks with Europe and, instead, hammered out a deal with President Putin to buy 15 billion dollars worth of Ukrainian debt. 
An escalation such as occurred in Ukraine, from protests to Russian intervention, is truly a sign that President Putin had been intent and waiting for the opportune moment. Nevertheless, the magnitude of the ensuing protests had been unprecedented. 

For Ukrainians, the matter wasn't as simple as "who to trade with". It was a matter of wanting to move forward and leaving behind the far-flung association it had with Russia. Stronger economic ties with Europe opened other possibilities, such as Ukraine becoming an EU member. Stronger economic ties with Russia weren't nearly as promising. 

The issue of self-determination has once again given rise to violence, as Europe has so often witnessed. Today, it is estimated that approximately 6,000 people have been killed during the conflict. This number should abash the practice of appeasement. Further, Russia's interference in Ukraine should highlight that a rhetoric-heavy approach to diplomacy will achieve little with President Putin at the helm. 

The most tragic moment during this crisis remains the shooting-down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, which claimed the lives of all 283 onboard. This colossal mistake on the part of the foolhardy pro-Russian separatists will, ultimately, serve as a potent reminder of the broader impact of regional crises.

A fragile ceasefire has been in place since February of this year. However, the issue is once more on the brink of escalation with Amnesty International reporting the execution of four Ukrainian government soldiers (April 9th). With this development, and with pro-Russian separatists already having signaled they're ready to fight once more, an urgent re-evaluation of the Western response is needed. 

Ukraine has had an IPAP (Individual Partnership Action Plan) with NATO since 2002, which was thrown off track by the Presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. However, Ukraine now views NATO membership as the only plausible way to fend off a further Russian advance, which would wedge Russian influence deeper into Ukrainian territory. It is likely that the next week will be the most critical. 

What is clear is that the response of the West needs to be more decisive than sanctions. Dialogue with Russia and the pro-Russian separatists cannot be ruled out, as it has already achieve a ceasefire. Yet, it has been short-lived and violated. The west now needs to prepare for further violence in Eastern Europe and weigh its military options, even before Ukraine has formalized an agreement with NATO. Otherwise, we will see a bulkier Russian presence in Ukraine and a more prolonged conflict with more casualties.

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