Originally appeared in The Independent
A peculiarity of the stand-off between the West and Russia over Ukraine has been the extent to which so much else has remained the same. The status quo trundled on. Opportunities for sabotage were passed up by both sides, but most conspicuously by Russia.
Moscow did not halt the vital transit support it gave to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. It continued as the sole provider of transport to the International Space Station. It did nothing to thwart the nuclear talks with Iran. Nor did the Kremlin markedly alter its stance on Syria; it still believes that it would be irresponsible to cut President Bashar al-Assad off precipitately while there is no day-after scenario and jihadism remains a threat. All the firepower (real, and rhetorical) was trained on Ukraine and its eastern regions – the last battleground, potentially, between Russia and the West.
In Kiev, after the revolutionary euphoria faded, the choice seemed an unenviable one between bad and worse: the former a “frozen conflict” in the east, designed by Russia to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty; the latter, the Russian capture of more Ukrainian territory. A new Russian offensive had been confidently forecast for the summer.
So when I set off for Kiev last week it was with a certain foreboding. It had been a year since I last set foot in the Ukrainian capital, a year that had brought the West to the very brink of war with Russia and called into question Ukraine’s viability as a state. I was pleasantly surprised.
The brilliant autumn sunshine helped; but Kiev felt less backward-looking than it did 12 months ago. Then, the city was still gripped – understandably, but in a strangely macabre way – by the memory of those who died in the uprising that toppled Viktor Yanukovych. There were bizarre incongruities, such as the reality of a war being fought, street by street, in parts of the east, and toy combat helicopters being sold on the souvenir stalls of central Kiev.
This year the capital looked more settled, although it was barely a week since three soldiers were killed in a fracas outside Parliament over the devolution law being debated within. The city’s fabric looked better; there were more newer cars. Whole families flocked cheerfully to Cossack Day festivities, posing for photos with huge Cossack swords and costumed atamans, and buying candyfloss in Ukraine’s national colours. Any war seemed a long way away.
Could it be that many Ukrainians have accepted that not only Crimea is lost, but the Donbass, too? There were signs a year ago that there was little appetite to recover it by force of arms, at least among those young people who would have to do the fighting. But there was still fierce (albeit impotent) anger about Crimea. There were also totally unrealistic expectations about Western military help and Ukraine’s European future. Had its sacrifice not earned it fast-tracked EU membership?
A year on, the mood seems incomparably more realistic and less angry. There is concern, at many levels, that the West in general is losing interest – in part out of frustration that Ukraine’s institutional reform is too slow; in part because of the press of other concerns – refugees, Syria, Islamic State.
But perhaps being out of the international limelight has been beneficial, in helping to convince Ukrainians that, in the end, their fate lies primarily in their own hands. The US and the EU can provide – conditional – economic assistance and debt relief. They can supply templates for tax, judicial and regulatory reforms. And they can help to train and equip the country’s relatively small, and backward, armed forces.
From last year to this, acceptance seems to have settled that Kiev’s early expectations were hopelessly inflated. And the change sounded loud and clear at the conference of the annual Yalta European Strategy forum, which I attended.
The first difference was that few Ukrainian officials voiced any serious criticism of the Minsk-2 agreement. President Petro Poroshenko announced early in his speech that the previous night had been the first in the whole conflict with no shelling. The lull is seen as a chance to extend the ceasefire and fulfil the rest of the agreement, rather than another pretext for demonising Putin.
A second change was on the Western side, where even inveterate cold warriors – such as the ultra-hawkish former Nato secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and the US assistant secretary for European affairs, Victoria Nuland (the official overheard treating Ukrainian government appointments as if they were in the gift of the US and dismissing the EU with a profanity) – were singing a different song.
While insisting on Ukraine’s right to make its own choices of alliance, they were far less militant than before. Alluding to Russia, Nuland even corrected herself, replacing the word “aggression” with “pressure”, as though instructed not to jeopardise the fragile peace. Nato membership was almost universally ruled out. The overall impression was of a wiser West, but a wiser Ukraine – with a young, energetic and well-qualified team of ministers. It is a Ukraine that may finally have understood its eastern lands must be wooed, rather than bombed, back into a more devolved Ukraine.
The country’s prospects are excruciatingly finely balanced. Pervasive corruption remains barely tackled, despite a newly trained and equipped police force in major cities. Nor is it clear that the bright, young government can carry public opinion with it on such basics as new tax structures and higher fuel bills. And if it can’t, then Ukraine will all too easily sink back into the resigned cynicism that followed independence in the early 1990s, and the Orange Revolution in 2004. Its leaders may plead not to be forgotten, but a period for reflection outside the international spotlight could be exactly what Ukraine needs.