We have all watched with trepidation as the situation in Ukraine has worsened in recent days. The escalation of violence and police brutality in response to Ukraine's "EuroMaidan" movement – including the deaths of protesters at the hands of police – have prompted outrage and condemnation from the West.
Canada's foreign minister publicly condemned the actions of Ukrainian authorities – for both the violence used against demonstrators, and for the assault on civil liberties manifest in recent anti-protest legislation strong-armed through Parliament to help quell the pro-Europe movement. His counterparts in the U.S. and E.U. echoed his sentiments, all expressing condemnation and foresaging sanctions should the Yanukovich government not halt its increasingly Putinesque tactics.
Threat of sanctions is a natural instinct of diplomats when confronted with global aggressors who do not play by universally accepted rules. Diplomats are hard-wired to a formulaic response: 1) public condemnation; 2) repeated condemnation and declared consultations with like-minded allies; 3) threat of sanctions; 4) sanctions imposed. It's the canonical playbook, regardless of circumstance.
Sanctions are also a natural demand of ex-pat communities. For those in the diaspora watching in frustration while their ancestral capital erupts in flame, an overwhelming anxiety that "something must be done!" is only natural. And it is commonly manifest in a demand for sanctions – often for lack of obvious alternatives.
Yet given the complexities and geopolitical imperatives governing the current situation in Ukraine, it is critical that we pause and reflect beyond our knee-jerk instincts, and consider what could actually be effective under current dynamics.
The current crisis in Ukraine has its genesis in trade policy, with the protests originating in reaction to President Viktor Yanukovich's Vilnius Summit about-face, turning to Russia for a bail-out package rather than initialling a much-anticipated Ukraine-E.U. association agreement.
The strongman president's imperatives are not difficult to comprehend. He hails from the russophone geographical and generational segment of Ukraine which carries on as a legacy of 300 years of imperial conquest. A "tough-guy" with a criminal record, he only started to learn Ukrainian when he first ran for office. He identifies more with counterparts in Moscow than with his own countrymen in Kiev or Western Ukraine.
Moreover, despite the fact that Ukraine already trades more with the European Union than with Russia, the Russian deal remained more attractive to those in power for two reasons: it contained a sweetheart deal on natural gas, and it came with a $15-billion cheque at no cost. European integration, on the other hand, would have required economic and legal reforms to bring the post-Soviet state to E.U. standards – including such things as anti-corruption legislation and anti-trust laws that might be unwelcome by the billionaire oligarch class of robber barons dominating Ukraine's economy and ultimately controlling its politics.
But it is precisely through the business class that the West can map a road for Ukraine to its rightful place among European nations. The only way to break the status quo is convince the ruling elites that Europe and North America are ultimately more prosperous alternatives to the creaky-yet-convenient Russian market.
If the West imposes general-application economic sanctions, they would have the counter-productive effect of hastening Ukraine's further economic integration with Russia. We need the opposite of isolation: to incent the captains of Ukraine's industry to do more business with the West, and to realize that this is ultimately where prosperity lies. That means an aggressive trade liberalization campaign. Canada has a free-trade negotiation with Ukraine that was shelved by political tension. We need to dust it off and throw energy behind it. And more importantly, we need to convince our European friends to do likewise.
This is not an argument against targeted sanctions for individual human rights abusers. The officials responsible for ordering and enabling the brutal crackdown on peaceful protestors should be brought to justice. By all means, suspend their mobility, freeze their offshore accounts and halt their ongoing money laundering rackets. But in search for solutions that will make a difference in the medium term – we need to reach out with our export markets. And we must remain mindful that feel-good reactions in the name of liberty could inadvertently jeopardize the road that will take Ukraine back to it.
Yaroslav Baran is a principal with The Earnscliffe Strategy Group. He is a former senior communications advisor to Stephen Harper, and helped lead Canada's election observation missions to Ukraine in 2010 and 2012.