Derek Fraser was Canada's ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2001. He is currently associate fellow, Centre for Global Studies, adjunct professor of Political Science, University of Victoria
The ceasefire agreement concluded between the Ukrainian government, the rebels and Russia on Sept. 5, provides, among other things, decentralization of power, "temporary local self-governance" in the rebel areas, withdrawal of illegal fighters, and military equipment from Ukraine, and establishment of a 10-kilometre buffer zone along the Russian border. President Petro Poroshenko has stated that Russia has withdrawn the bulk of its forces from Ukraine. The agreement has reduced, but not extinguished the fighting.
The agreement may not, however, last. To understand why, we have to look at Russian policy towards Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. Russia seems to be pursuing two long-term goals:
- To recover Russia's great power status by bringing other former Soviet republics into a Eurasian Union designed to be a counterweight, initially to the EU, and possibly eventually to NATO;
- and to bring in some fashion Russian speakers in the neighbouring countries under the Russian umbrella.
To achieve the first goal, Russia is attempting to coerce Ukraine into giving up its status of an associate member of the EU and its dream of joining NATO and, instead, accepting to join the Eurasian Union. To do so, Russia is seeking to force Ukraine to accept Russian terms for peace – the division of Ukraine into a loose confederation, as in Bosnia, between the Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking areas in which the Russian-speaking areas would enjoy considerable autonomy to the extent of controlling their own foreign and economic relations, while maintaining a veto on the foreign policy of the rump that would be left of Ukraine proper.
Since it is highly dubious that Ukraine at this juncture would agree to such terms, Russia is likely to resume the conflict. The Russians appear to count on a capitulation by Ukraine when the winter winds begin to bite and no Russian gas is available. In fact, Ukraine may resist in an increasingly brutal war. Up until now, Western sanctions seem to have influenced Russia in tactics, but not in strategy.
Since the odds are not stacked in its favour, Ukraine might look for a compromise by confirming the country's bloc-free status, instead of seeking NATO membership. Ukraine has little to lose. NATO has in effect twice rejected its application. Finland prospered throughout the Cold War by remaining neutral. In addition, the EU might formally propose what High Representative Catherine Ashton suggested some months ago, that Ukraine might enjoy free trade with both the EU and the Eurasian Union.
Russian ambitions may not end with Ukraine. Belarus and Kazakhstan, which, although slated to be members of the Eurasian Union, are concerned at Russian President Vladimir Putin's statements claiming the right of Russia to defend the rights of Russian speakers in neighbouring countries. Since 2009, Russian law allows Russian armed forces to be used for this purpose. Both countries have substantial Russian speaking populations.
In reaction to growing Kazakh ethnic nationalism, Mr. Putin recently stated that Kazakhstan had to remain part of the Russian world. He also described Kazakhstan as an artificial state, a term he has used for Ukraine.
The Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania may have also reason to be worried, even though they are in NATO. Estonia and Latvia each have a 25 per cent Russian speaking minority.
The hesitancy of the West to impose serious sanctions on Russia in response to its attacks on Ukraine, coupled with the small size of the NATO Rapid Reaction Force planned for Eastern Europe, may tempt Mr. Putin to see whether the guerrilla tactics he has used in Ukraine, could, without provoking a Western response under Article five of the Washington Treaty, also be employed against the Baltic states. On Sept. 5, Estonian authorities announced the abduction to Russia of an Estonian security official by unknown assailants. This is how it started in Crimea.
Between the Russian determination to dominate Ukraine, and the prospect of Russian pressure on other former Soviet republics, we are facing a long and nasty crisis in relations with Russia. A lack of greater determination on our part will only make it longer and nastier.