Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, Richard Sakwa, I.B. Tauris, 2015, £18.99.
Back in 1997, Martin Feldstein wrote an important article for Foreign Affairs entitled “EMU and International Conflict”. He warned that the economic ambitions of the European Community (as the EU was then called) were dangerous and could lead to conflict in Europe. Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, updates and takes such fears much further in Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, a book of enormous significance that should be read by all foreign policy makers in Europe and the US. In it, he convincingly makes the case that EU foreign policy towards Eastern Europe has been inept, destabilising and dangerous.
Sakwa explains how the EU has stepped into Russia’s sphere of influence (the Russky Mir), provocatively and precariously prodding the nuclear-armed Russian bear. Sakwa is excoriating on the EU’s “Wider Europe” project, “a Brussels-centric vision of a European core that extended into the heartlands of what had once been an alternative great-power system centred on Moscow”. He argues that post-Soviet Russia wished to be incorporated into a “Greater Europe”, but was blocked in this endeavour by the EU, NATO and the US.
The EU’s subsequent attempts to draw Ukraine into its orbit was instrumental in tipping the country into civil war. Sawka shows how the EU had no qualms about jumping into bed with extreme nationalists in the Ukraine to exploit their anti-Russian fears, all under the guise of “democratism”, which Russia perceives as the West promoting democracy “as a cover to advance its strategic objectives including regime change”. The EU’s support for the Maidan rebels in Kiev in 2013 did little to reassure Moscow.
Enlargement fatigue coupled with stilted recovery from the 2008 financial crisis and the accompanying Greek problem temporarily left the EU unable to digest any more states (especially the Ukraine, a nation of over 40 million people). So instead it is concentrating on further developing its Eastern Partnership (EaP), intending to absorb six former Soviet countries on the borderlands between the EU and Russia (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine). It is also forcing them into the invidious position of having to choose between Russian and Western spheres of influence. Nowhere was this dilemma felt more keenly than Ukraine. The other countries are also potential conflict hotspots. The EU is thereby coming up against – and directly challenging – the economic partnerships dominated by Russia which is acting to prevent substantial strategic losses by the prospective forfeiture of Ukraine.
The EU, argues Sakwa, was at a loss to know how to react coherently and rationally when encountering its first geopolitical opposition to expansion by an external power. In pursuit of this, he observes that “the EU was launched on the path of geopolitical competition” and “instead of overcoming the logic of conflict the EU became an instrument for its reproduction in new forms. This is not the EU that a whole generation of idealists, scarred by the memory of European civil wars, sought to build”.
The crunch point came in November 2013, with the EU’s planned signing ceremony of the EaP’s Association Agreement in Vilnius. As Sakwa wryly notes, “in keeping with the EU’s traditions, this was integration by stealth”. Facing tight upcoming elections, on 21 November Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych announced that he would postpone signing. For this, the EU and US governments denounced him as an unreconstructed Soviet apparatchik and Russian lackey. In fact, he was simply an enormously corrupt oligarch out to feather his own nest and that of his dynastic family, not unlike all the other Ukrainian oligarchs. Putin did not even like Yanukovych, the latter holding out for a better deal from Russia, seeking $15 billion in immediate support and desperately needed preferential gas tariffs.
The EU could not match such a bribe. Instead, it helped foment the Maidan protests in Kiev’s central square, having spent €496 million over the past decade subsiding front groups (it is no surprise that the movement became known as the “Euromaidan”). The result was the revolutionary overthrow of a deeply crooked but – crucially – democratically elected regime and the slide of the Ukraine into an ugly and potentially catastrophic war.
Sakwa apportions blame for the conflict squarely on the US-NATO-EU axis. EU expansion now goes hand-in-glove with NATO expansion. Sakwa reveals the little-ackowledged fact that the 2007 Lisbon Treaty insists that “accession countries are now required to align their defence and security policies with those of NATO”. Thus, in effect, “EU enlargement became the harbinger of the NATO enlargement” – much to Moscow’s anger. The countries that had suffered under the Soviet yoke understandably took the first opportunities offered to adhere themselves to the democratic West to make permanent their break from Russian hegemony: Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO in March 1999; the Baltic states, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Slovenia followed in 2004; and Croatia and Albania joined in 2009. This made historical sense for these countries, but the process crystalised the Russo-West divide, simply shifting the Cold War borderlands further east to Ukraine and Russia itself. (Tellingly, “Ukraine” can be translated literally as “borderland”). This left Russia’s traditional buffer-zone defence strategy in tatters, and Russia feeling insecure (this buffer zone is an over-riding concern of Moscow, as Tim Marshall points out in Prisoners of Geography). Furthermore, these new NATO members brought with them fresh and justifiable grievances against Russia that ensured continuation of Cold War enmities into the post-Soviet world, in what Sakwa calls a “mimetic Cold War”.
It might be added that for both the EU and NATO there seems to be an imperative to create a new enemy, rather like Bismarck’s Reichfeinde (enemies of the Reich) when he was trying to create a sense of political identity in a newly-formed Germany. In the EU’s case, this might serve a higher, state-building purpose. Sakwa is convincing in his argument that in treating post-Soviet Russia as an enemy, we have created one.
Dr Sean McGlynn is an author, lecturer and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
(A longer version of this review first appeared in The Salisbury Review, vol. 34 no. 2, December 2015.)