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South Ossetia Conflict Holds Lessons For Kyiv

  • Steven Pifer

Pifer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000, is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution

Pifer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000, is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution

Analysts have begun to weigh the significance of the Russian-Georgian conflict for Russia's other neighbors and for Western relations with those countries. What lessons should Ukraine draw?

The speed of the launch of Russian military operations makes clear that Moscow was ready to act and only sought a pretext; the Georgians, unfortunately, provided one. Russian forces quickly broadened the conflict beyond South Ossetia, launching air strikes throughout Georgia, deploying into Abkhazia, and occupying parts of Georgia outside of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The scale of the Russian attack suggests Moscow was motivated by more than just the situation in South Ossetia. Tbilisi's independent foreign-policy course, particularly its desire to join NATO and the European Union, angers Moscow, which seeks a zone of influence in the former Soviet space.

The Kremlin also intended its actions to send a message to other neighboring states, including Ukraine, and to the West. As Ukrainians think through what this means for their foreign-policy course, there are a number of considerations.

The Russians seek to draw a line between Europe and the former Soviet space. Moscow wants Ukraine and Georgia on the eastern side of that line, and wants neither NATO nor the European Union to cross it. While the Kremlin focuses its objections now on NATO enlargement, Ukrainians should assume that, if prospects develop for Ukraine's entry into the European Union, Russia will object vociferously to that as well.

Moscow's increasingly assertive policy poses challenges for Kyiv and the West. NATO and the European Union must consider carefully their strategies of engaging states to their east. Some will argue that, given Russian opposition, NATO should back away from Membership Action Plans (MAPs) for Ukraine or Georgia.

That would be a mistake. It would encourage Moscow to believe that its pressure tactics -- which have included threatening Ukraine with nuclear weapons and questioning the country's territorial integrity and, in Georgia's case, worse -- have succeeded. A Russia that sees success in such tactics will not be an easy country with which to deal.

Moscow would like to limit Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, to isolate it from European and Euro-Atlantic institutions. Most Ukrainians who favor joining NATO and the European Union do so because they want their country to be a "full member" of Europe. This is not anti-Russian. The Kremlin, however, applies an outdated zero-sum logic by which Ukraine's drawing closer to Europe somehow damages Russian interests.

Dealing with this is a challenge for Ukrainian foreign policy. Whatever decision Ukraine ultimately makes on joining NATO and the European Union is a decision for Ukrainians. Regardless of their specific preferences regarding relations with NATO or the European Union, all Ukrainian political forces presumably want to protect the sovereignty of Ukrainian decision-making.

Faced with the likelihood of continuing Russian pressure against Ukraine's pro-European course, what should Kyiv do? First and foremost, it is not the time for a divided government. President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko must end their infighting and together pursue a coherent policy. The government should also talk to the Party of Regions. Leaders of that party may one day be back in power. They should share the government's interest in protecting Ukraine's right to set its own foreign-policy course.

Second, the government needs to make a real education effort on NATO and the advantages and disadvantages of membership for Ukraine. Based on an understanding of what NATO is today -- a very different organization from it was during the Cold War -- and what it can offer Ukraine, the Ukrainian people can decide what is in their country's interest. If Ukrainians continue to oppose membership, the leadership should draw the appropriate conclusion. NATO will not take in a country if the population disagrees. If, on the other hand, better understanding leads to growing public support for NATO, that will strengthen the government's hand.

Third, the government should reduce vulnerabilities to Russian pressure. This means paying energy debts on time, so that Moscow has no pretext for reducing the flow of gas. It means energy conservation and developing domestic gas and oil resources in order to enhance Ukraine's energy security. And it means managing the gas-transit system in an open and transparent manner. A Ukraine that strengthens its own energy-security situation and serves as a reliable and transparent transporter of energy to Europe will reduce its exposure to Russian energy pressures and can become an indispensable part of Europe's energy future.

Fourth, Russia has exploited the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to destabilize Georgia. While the Georgian and Ukrainian situations are different, the Ukrainian government should keep a close watch to make sure Russia does not use the language or ethnic issues to create pressure points, especially in Crimea. One potential pressure point is the Black Sea Fleet. Ukraine has the right, as a sovereign country, to insist on the fleet's departure when the current basing agreement lapses in 2017 and to address with Moscow the activities of warships operating from Ukrainian ports. But perhaps now may not be the time to try to accelerate negotiations on the fleet's departure. Ukraine can be pro-European and still try to maintain good relations with Russia.

Russia is playing a serious game with regard to the former Soviet space. Kyiv needs to respond with equal seriousness. A serious Ukrainian response -- a coherent government, growing public support for a pro-European course, and addressing vulnerabilities in the Ukraine-Russia relationship -- will strengthen Ukraine's ability to withstand Russian pressure. It likewise will have a positive effect on how the West and Euro-Atlantic institutions view Ukraine and its pro-European course.

Steven Pifer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000, is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Video
Rally In Tbilisi

Leaders from Georgia, Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania speak to thousands in the Georgia capital on August 12 (Reuters video). Play

For RFE/RL's full coverage of the clashes in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Georgia proper, click here.
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