LONDON, October 21 (RIA Novosti) — The ASEM summit in Milan cruelly exposed the illusions EU leaders hold about the Ukrainian conflict, and not for the first time
Ever since the February coup in Ukraine, the EU’s leaders have held to two assumptions: First, that the crisis in Ukraine is a conflict between Ukraine and Russia, and second, that they can bend Russia to their will by applying pressure on it to achieve the outcome they want in Ukraine. This outcome would entail the complete restoration of Kiev’s undiluted political control over the whole country, including the rebellious regions in the east (even the EU leaders quietly acknowledge that Crimea is lost to Ukraine forever).
These two assumptions blind the EU leaders to reality. Since they insist on seeing the conflict as one between Ukraine and Russia, they deny the reality that the regime in Kiev that they are supporting came to power through a violent, unconstitutional coup, which is behind the current conflict. As a result, they refuse to see that this is not a conflict between Ukraine and Russia but an internal conflict between Ukrainians, between the people of eastern Ukraine who opposed the February coup and the ultra-nationalist, Russophobic regime in Kiev and the political system it has created.
The other reality the EU leaders seem ignorant of Russia itself and its role in the world. Not only is Russia far stronger economically than they seem to realise (witness its success in absorbing the recent oil price fall) but their entire approach shows that they have still not adjusted to the comparative relevance of the Chinese and Asian economies in terms of Russian oil and gas consumption. They act as if it is still only the West that matters. That Russia is not dependent on their goodwill for its economic survival and has other partners to trade with is something they seem unable to face.
The assumption that the conflict can therefore be “solved” in the manner the EU wants, by pressuring Russia, is therefore doubly misplaced. Russia didn’t cause the conflict in Ukraine and is not responsible for its outcome; it cannot simply switch it off at the EU’s bidding in the way EU leaders appear to think it can, even if it wanted to. At the same time, the sanctions the EU has imposed to pressure Russia, while causing Russia real problems, cannot damage Russia in the way they think. Europe’s moves are much more likely to anger Russia and consolidate popular support for the Russian government than bend it to their will. In the meantime it is becoming clearer by the day that by adopting sanctions, the EU leaders seriously underestimated the harm they would do to their own economies.
This persistent failure of the EU leaders to face reality has set the scene for a fiasco.
With their own economies coming under increasing pressure and with Ukraine itself continuing to suffer due to its deepening crisis, the EU leaders, especially Angela Merkel, need to resolve the Ukrainian conflict quickly. They seem to have persuaded themselves that a combination of sanctions, falling oil prices and their collective presence in Milan would somehow force the Russians to retreat in the way they wanted. They seem to have disregarded warnings from Moscow that this would not happen and that Moscow would not change its policies in order to get sanctions lifted.
What happened therefore came as a shock. Not only did the Russians not retreat as expected but as Dmitry Peskov, the Russian Presidential spokesman said, they sought instead once more to educate the EU leaders about what’s really going on in Ukraine, explaining that the conflict is an internal one and not one between Ukraine and Russia. Since this is a reality the EU leaders refuse to face, the lesson was extremely unwelcome.
The EU leaders were left clutching at a comment by President Putin that he did not want to see the situation in eastern Ukraine become another frozen conflict and that Russia does not dispute or seek to undermine Ukraine’s integrity. These words in fact simply reflect what has been Russia’s position all along – that since this is an internal Ukrainian conflict, it is for the Ukrainians themselves to settle their differences between themselves through negotiations and that the outcome is for them to decide. However, the EU leaders refuse to see this, instead persisting in the fantasy that the conflict is one between Ukraine and Russia, with Russia committing “aggression” against Ukraine, and misunderstood these banal words as Russia somehow “backing off” from its phantom aggression.
The only practical result that appears to have come out of the summit is that Ukrainian customs officials and guards will resume working at their posts on the Russian border. This was actually agreed on by the Russians as long ago as July 2, 2014 at an earlier summit in Berlin and is therefore nothing new. Both Ukrainian officials and OSCE monitors have been observing the border for months and have seen no evidence of the heavy traffic of Russian troops and military equipment the Ukrainians and the West claim is happening. The fact that there is no evidence for it does not however shake the EU leaders’ belief that it is going on. Given their stubborn belief in something for which they have no proof, it is difficult to see how a further deployment of Ukrainian customs officials and guards and of more OSCE monitors on the border is going to make any difference.
The Milan summit is a textbook case of a conflict that is being unnecessarily prolonged because of a refusal to face facts. It is still in theory possible to resolve this crisis diplomatically through a settlement brokered by the Russians and the Europeans. However, for that to happen, the Europeans need to completely change their understanding of the crisis. Since it seems they cannot do this, the conflict will continue, and will not be settled diplomatically but by events on the ground. It is a certainty when that happens that the result will not be the ones the Europeans like, but by refusing to face facts, they are losing the ability to influence the outcome.
The Milan summit witnessed a similar fiasco in the gas negotiations, again because the Europeans came to them with a completely wrong set of assumptions. That however is something to discuss later, once the latest round of tripartite gas negotiations between the Ukrainians, the Russians and the Europeans are over.
Alexander Mercouris is a London-based lawyer. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.