Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

What Was the Ukraine Crisis? The Facts of the Matter, Five Years On
ISHIGOOKA Ken / Journalist

March 9, 2018
The Ukraine crisis began in the autumn of 2013, meaning that we are well into its fifth year. There remains no solution in sight, however, and the international community’s interest in the issue is waning. The time has come to explore just what this crisis in Ukraine has been all about.

In the countries of the West, one explanation holds considerable sway: When Ukraine, aiming for eventual inclusion in the European Union, moved a step closer to this end by seeking to forge an Association Agreement with the EU, Russia reacted by pressuring the Ukraine government to walk back this progress; as Viktor Yanukovych, then Ukrainian president, changed course and aligned his administration’s policies more closely to Russia’s desires, public dissatisfaction among the population of his country reached a boiling point, tipping the situation into conflict.

In 2012, a year before this crisis erupted, the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced its intent to create a Eurasian Economic Union. The Western view of this, however, was that it was little more than an attempt to prevent EU expansion to the east and to revive and bolster the former Soviet economic bloc as a bulwark against the European Union. At the core of this proposed alliance were Russia and Ukraine. This power game placed Ukraine at the center of an economic integration tug-of-war between Russia and Europe, triggering civil strife in turn.

The Russian perspective on the situation, needless to say, is different. In 2012, immediately before launching his third administration as president of Russia, Putin announced a new national strategy that he described as “moving Russia from the West to the East,” namely toward a more Asia-centered presence. Underpinning this decision was the Russian desire to push back against the explosive development seen in the Asian economy centered on China, or alternatively to make Russia itself an integral part of this growth.

This was the thinking behind Putin’s decision to include Eurasia in the name of his proposed economic alliance—signifying the joining of the European and Asian sides—and to declare that Russia’s future lay to the East. At the core of this economic alliance, however, was not Ukraine, but rather the petroleum powers of Russia and Kazakhstan.

Russia and Ukraine are, of course, closely connected in terms of their history, their geography, their culture, and the genealogy of their people. It would have been ideal to see Ukraine also take part in the Eurasian Economic Union. But it was not viewed as a vital country to include in the agreement at the time.

There is a fundamental gap between the positions of Russia, which has fixed its gaze on Asia’s economic development, and Ukraine, which looks instead to the wealth enjoyed by Europe. This gap prompted Russia to explain that so long as Ukraine was pursuing eventual membership in the EU, it would be able to take part in the Eurasian arrangement as an observer only. The Yanukovych administration, meanwhile, having received an offer of considerable Russian financial assistance, decided to delay its Association Agreement with the European side and proposed talks including both Russia and the EU toward a broader agreement.

The European response to this overture was cold. José Manuel Barroso, then president of the European Commission, noted on February 25, 2013, that Ukraine could not hope to join both the EU and the Eurasian Customs Union (the predecessor to the Eurasian Economic Union) at the same time.

In November 2017, the EU took part in the Eastern Partnership Summit with six states from the former Soviet sphere (Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, and Armenia). At this gathering, which aimed to knit together a regional cooperation organization, talks were held toward strengthening ties between Europe and the states to the east. One outcome of the meeting was a statement that confirmed the pro-Europe, pro-EU-accession stances of three of these states that had already signed Association Agreements with the EU: Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.

This statement was actually accompanied by a separate factsheet, “Myths about the Eastern Partnership,” that presented explanations on 10 areas where, it stated, mistaken views were spreading in the international community.

Two of the myths likely to draw particular Russian attention were “Participation in the Eastern Partnership leads to EU membership” and “Membership of the Eastern Partnership means that those countries can’t be members of the Eurasian Economic Union.” These items stated that the new agreement represented no promise of eventual EU membership and that it would be possible for a state to be a part of both the West- and East-facing agreements concurrently.

Most of the former Soviet bloc states entering the Eastern Partnership see this as a stepping-stone toward eventual accession to the EU. For Ukraine, which sees EU membership as a particularly urgent matter, these myths seemed little more than a gentle rejection—a statement that while joining the EU will be difficult, the country is welcome to be part of the Eurasian arrangement instead. Indeed, this is the interpretation that most former Soviet states are likely to take away.

Russian analysts, meanwhile, decided that this marked an end to the era where EU had posed to these countries a stark choice between Europe or Russia and the beginning of a new period when they could take a more flexible tack, choosing to approach both Europe and Russia at the same time. This, they wrote, signified an improving climate for Europe-Russia relations.

Europe currently has its hands full dealing with issues including Brexit and waves of immigrants and refugees, leaving Europeans in a situation where they are not particularly eager to take on the task of discussing whether to admit new members to the EU. It is doubtful that the European side was giving serious thought to Ukraine’s accession in the first place. And it is now apparent that the fundamental divisions that existed between Europe and Russia on the question of economic integration have largely been effaced in any case.

The Ukraine crisis, which killed tens of thousands and created hundreds of thousands of refugees, was in the end a tragedy befalling a nation that fell into the midst of the Europe-Russia power struggle. From where we view it today, it can only be called a civil war that held no significance whatsoever.

Ken Ishigooka is a journalist and former special editor of the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

石郷岡 建 / ジャーナリスト

2018年 3月 9日
















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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > What Was the Ukraine Crisis? The Facts of the Matter, Five Years On