Opinion: How did West lose war in Ukraine?

The West was defeated because of many interrelated factors. First and foremost, the West didn’t dare call it exactly what it was – Russia’s war against Ukraine. Instead it called it Russian aggression against Ukraine, separatism, civil war and terrorism.

Russia had no moral qualms about invading Ukraine and the West didn’t want to acknowledge Russia’s aggression. It did not respond to the aggression just as it didn’t respond to the 2008 aggression against Georgia. It also wasn’t convenient for Western Europe to introduce sanctions, it couldn’t sell the Mistrals although it really wanted to, it was scared that gas supplies would be cut, Russians wouldn’t be able to buy real estate in Southern Europe, investment would be limited and finally they’d incur losses from interrupted exports of carrots and apples. One’s own shirt is always closer to one’s body and so what if a country, which has been declared a partner, which cooperates closely and which wants to be a part of the West, has been occupied.

The most important factor in this anatomy of defeat was the weak leaders of the West who didn’t seem to want to win the war but wanted rather to stop the process and not irritate the aggressor. All the big countries refused military support to Ukraine, other than bullet proof vests and blankets, just when Russia increased supplies of weapons to the “rebels”. This had no effect on Russia’s position. What was forgotten was that leverage in negotiations and agreements depends on the positions of the warring countries in the battlefield during negotiations. A country that is winning on ground has better negotiating position. Refusal to supply weapons simply weakened Ukraine’s negotiation position.

The setup of the Minsk negotiations themselves deserves criticism. First, the sides were not equally represented – you can even go so far as to say that there were one and a half Ukrainian and Western positions against four and a half positions representing Russian interests. It was very difficult for the Ukrainian president to withstand Russian pressure which was complimented by unfavourable French stance and representatives of the so-called “People’s Republics of Donets and Luhansk”. It was Germany that, with reserve, supported Ukraine.

Both Germany and France represented their own interests and not the interests of the European and Euro-Atlantic community.

Imagine a partner that states outright you’ll never be a NATO member, that back in 2008 put pressure on other NATO members not to give Ukraine a NATO membership action plan.

The key issue here is why there was no US representation which would have strengthened Ukraine’s position? The absence of the European Union Representative for Common Foreign Policy in the negotiations clearly showed that there is no clear and united EU foreign policy, just joint declarations and sanctions. When Greece offered to mediate, it became clear that member states have a very instrumental view of the EU.

What then are the consequences of this defeat for Ukraine and the West? The worst of it is what can happen to Ukraine from a long-term strategic point of view if Russia sticks to the Minsk ceasefire agreement and implements it. Ukraine would not be simply decentralized but literally become a federation. Regions would be able to block decisions made by the central government, so we need to discard any illusions of Ukraine’s foreign and domestic policy free of Russian influence. There would be no point in Ukraine being in the EU or NATO. It will remain a grey zone torn from within and a source of instability and conflict.

The ceasefire agreement envisages Kiev financing the Donetsk and Lugansk regions as well as their reconstruction, but not controlling them. Corruption will spread and the current leaders of the “separatist republics” will become “eternal” sovereigns. The agreements foresee the entrenchment of a kleptocracy – a government of thieves – with no independent law and order. There will be persistently defying regional threats if Kiev does not take heed of their positions and they’ll end up blackmailing the central Ukrainian authorities. Kiev will have no de facto control over this territory and so I wouldn’t be surprised if eventually Ukraine split into West Ukraine and East Ukraine – “Novorosiya” – which, after recovering, will want to become a part of the Russian Federation. You can even ask the rhetorical question as to whether it would not be worthwhile for Ukraine to rid itself of this appendage and continue a pro-western course without the ballast?

The consequences for the EU will also be negative. As already mentioned, the EU has shown that it no longer has the power to conduct foreign policy on the highest level. National foreign policies dominate. At the beginning of the 19th and 20th centuries, the most powerful states negotiated over the heads of weaker states and that’s still the case today. The EU has shown that it is not the soft power it was lauded to be.

The EU is no power at all in the highest league of foreign policy, it is merely soft. The EU has shown that no policy of worth dominates its foreign policy. This is why it no longer has to hide behind a mysterious veiled “charm” but clearly must express foreign policy interests and take hold of solid foreign policy mechanisms: increased security in the region, supporting partners financially, using diplomacy to strengthen transatlantic ties and ties with partners.

Some of these mechanisms were used, but not to the extent that was expected and was possible. It can be said that the EU sanctions were effective and have had an impact on the Russian political elite and economy, yet this would still be wrong because they did not impact Russian foreign policies, which was their goal. The falling price of oil has had a greater effect on Russia than the sanctions. It’s obvious that a strategic decision is needed as whether or not there’ll be integration when it comes to foreign policy or if EU foreign policy will remain just a decoration. However weak the European Union’s foreign policy is, there is no other alternative.

As the situation in Ukraine grows serious, a lessening of the first round of sanctions can be. Sanctions will be lessened, but that won’t change Russia’s policies. Crimea will remain in Russia and Ukraine will become part of Russia’s sphere of control. All who have studied Russian history know all too well that Russia is a country ready to go hungry as long as it is big and powerful and controls other countries.

It seems that the countries that joined NATO after 1999 are the biggest winners. It’s obvious that they are NATO members and that they must be defended and in doing so strengthen their military forces and host forces of other countries.

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has given NATO new impetus and more so to the US in Europe. That in itself is good when it comes to keeping Russia’s forces behind the borders and decreasing the chance of their unexpected appearance. Russian aggression has strengthened NATO and allows for a rephrasing of what Lord Ismay said – “Amercians in, Russians out”. And Europe itself should strive to be strong.


Giedrius Česnakas is lecturer at the Political Science and Diplomacy Faculty of Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas.

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