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Yale University Press
Ukraine Crisis: What It Means for the West

Ukraine Crisis: What It Means for the West

by Andrew Wilson
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A leading Ukraine specialist and firsthand witness to the 2014 Kiev Uprising analyzes the world’s newest flashpoint

The aftereffects of the February 2014 Uprising in Ukraine are still reverberating around the world. The consequences of the popular rebellion and Russian President Putin’s attempt to strangle it remain uncertain. In this book, Andrew Wilson combines a spellbinding, on-the-scene account of the Kiev Uprising with a deeply informed analysis of what precipitated the events, what has developed in subsequent months, and why the story is far from over.
Wilson situates Ukraine’s February insurgence within Russia’s expansionist ambitions throughout the previous decade. He reveals how President Putin’s extravagant spending to develop soft power in all parts of Europe was aided by wishful thinking in the EU and American diplomatic inattention, and how Putin’s agenda continues to be widely misunderstood in the West. The author then examines events in the wake of the Uprising—the military coup in Crimea, the election of President Petro Poroshenko, the Malaysia Airlines tragedy, rising tensions among all of Russia's neighbors, both friend and foe, and more. Ukraine Crisis provides an important, accurate record of events that unfolded in Ukraine in 2014. It also rings a clear warning that the unresolved problems of the region have implications well beyond Ukrainian borders.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300211597
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 11/04/2014
Pages: 248
Sales rank: 460,724
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Andrew Wilson is senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and reader in Ukrainian Studies at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, University College London. He has published widely on the politics of Eastern Europe, and his book The Ukrainians is now in its third edition. He lives in Oxford, UK.

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Ukraine Crisis

What it Means for the West

By Andrew Wilson


Copyright © 2014 Andrew Wilson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-21159-7


Unfinished Europe

In March 2014, Herman Van Rompuy, then one of the two presidents that oversee the Byzantine politics of the EU, said of the Ukraine crisis that 'the world will never be as before'. This was deeply ironic, because the EU was the one institution most likely to carry on as if nothing had happened. But Van Rompuy was right: real Europe had changed, even as institutional Europe stood still. A neat quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the post-Cold War order faced fundamental challenges. Russia's annexation of Crimea was an affront to assumed rigid rules of international security; Ukraine's willingness to rebel against a corrupt president and fight for its territorial integrity were reminders of an older and more vigorous Europe beneath the malaise of a Euro crisis and decaying public politics. The demonstrators in Kiev began the crisis by massing in the streets when their president rejected a key deal with the EU, but ended up convinced that they had sacrificed blood for 'European values', while EU states would not sacrifice treasure for the same cause. The European Union's version of Europe had not just sheltered, but actively touted for, the money of Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs, and constantly shied away from sanctions that would harm its own banking or business interests.

But it would be a mistake – albeit a tempting one – to begin this story in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, or in 1991, when the Soviet Union's bricks and mortar collapsed. Especially because Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that his actions had flowed from the illegitimate way in which the USSR came to an ignominious end twenty-three years before. This was a false reading of events. Russian politics has not been driven ever since 1991 by a burning desire to 'recover' territories like Crimea. Ukraine has not been oppressing its minorities and failing as a state all that time. Most of the other post-Soviet states have moved on from whatever happened in 1991: they do not even like being called 'post-Soviet' anymore.

But it would also be misleading to start the story in early 2014, only weeks or days before the Russian annexation of Crimea. Clearly, Putin's moves against Ukraine were in large part opportunistic. He also felt threatened by the Uprising in Kiev – though the threat was mainly to his own political system, rather than to his fellow Russians in Crimea or the Donbas. Only one Russian was killed in the February crisis – Igor Tkachuk, a father of three – and he was shot by one of President Yanukovych's snipers in Kiev. Putin's calculations were indeed mainly short term. The takeover of Crimea was so smooth that it appeared to have been prepared in advance; but everything might have been different if Ukrainian President Yanukovych had not fled Kiev, or if Ukrainian armed forces had put up a fight in Crimea.

2008: The New Year Zero

I would choose to start the story somewhere in the middle: to be precise, in 2008, the year when everything changed globally – in Europe, at least, superseding 1989 as a reference point. In fact, so many things happened in 2008 that it is often impossible to distinguish cause and effect. Events segued into one another, and the dust was still settling in 2014. Putin ceded the Russian presidency to Dmitriy Medvedev in May 2008; Russia and Georgia went to war in August. The collapse of Lehman Brothers in September was followed by the onset of global economic crisis and, in November, by the election as American president of Barack Obama, who organised massive financial bailouts even before he took office the following January. War fatigue and intervention fatigue set in for the West as the Iraq 'surge' in 2007 was followed by Obama's Afghanistan surge in 2009. Increasingly introspective Western public opinion would also be austerity-weary by the time Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. The EU responded to the war in Georgia by fast-forwarding its new 'Eastern Partnership' for the six states in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, Georgia included (the others being Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, plus Armenia and Azerbaijan); but its formal launch at a summit in Prague in May 2009 could not have been more badly timed, as the global economic crisis soon became the euro crisis.

More generally, European politics became more nationalistic, more populist and more zero-sum. The 'renationalisation' of foreign policies and a new harder-edged emphasis on geo-economics and national business interests killed off such grand projects as maintaining the expansion of NATO and the EU to Eastern Europe. Domestic politics was more volatile and politicians competed to be the most ardent defenders of 'national interests'. Politics in Russia and Eastern Europe beyond the EU became more of a local affair, more subject to toxic local rivalries.

Putin Returns

The second proximate cause of the events of 2014 was Putin's return to the Russian presidency in 2012. The process was supposed to be a coronation rather than an election, but Putin briefly let the crown slip on his way back to the throne. After initially seeming disoriented as mass protests broke out in Moscow, Putin II chose to discredit those who rallied against him as the 'metropolitan' vanguard of the decadent West, unrepresentative of his Russia, the 'real Russia', the guardian of older and truer European values, the Holy Trinity of God, authority and family. Armed with this 'conservative values project', the new Putin was a different man from the Putin who had been president from 2000 to 2008 – and, of course, from Dmitriy Medvedev, his stop-gap predecessor, even though most observers had assumed that Putin had been pulling the real strings of power all along.

The explosion in Ukraine in 2014 was not an inevitable result of all these factors, but nor was it either complete chance or preordained back in 1991. There was also a law of variable consequences after 2008. Anything could happen after so much had happened. Economic crisis could have caused Russia to retrench, but it chose to expand. Or in fact it did both. Immediately after 2008, many Russians were talking about wanting a zone of influence but not a zone of responsibility, or selective influence without picking up all the bills. In 2014 they invaded Crimea at great long-term cost.

Institutional Europe Enlarges

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, people looked forward to a Europe whole and free. The definition of the ultimate borders of Europe, however, was not clear; nor was it even much thought about at the time. It was simpler to start by rejecting the idea of two distinct Cold War Europes, there being no historical reality behind the idea of a politically distinct Socialist Camp. Mitteleuropisch intellectuals like Milan Kundera liked to argue that Prague or Budapest or Warsaw were in reality 'the kidnapped West' behind an artificial Iron Curtain.

Then the Soviet Union first opened up, and then collapsed in 1991. It was less clear just how much of the former USSR was made up of other parts of captured Europe: a reasonable proposition might have been everywhere west of Russia, plus the two ancient Christian southern Caucasus nations of Georgia and Armenia; meanwhile the status of Russia itself would be up for debate, as always.

By 2004, most of the USSR's satellite states in Central Europe and the Balkans were in the institutional EU version of Europe, with the big but declining exception of the former Yugoslavia. Most of the former USSR was not, with the exception of the three Baltic States. None of this was preordained. The new post-communist Member States of the EU and NATO had to work much harder to get in than the original members or earlier applicants, like Greece, and were constantly being told that their aspirations were 'unrealistic'. Then, ironically, in 2007 Bulgaria and Romania were let in, before they were ready. Ukraine and Georgia looked like they might catch up after their 'coloured revolutions' in 2003–04; but while Georgia made a success of its anti-corruption reforms, Ukraine was unable to make much of a fist of anything. Meanwhile, the EU talked of 'enlargement fatigue' or 'digestion fatigue'. Unfortunate Eastern Europe was left in the waiting room – although Croatia joined in 2013.

The EU sleepwalked through another twenty-year boom from 1989 to 2008 (after the original thirty years, the Trente Glorieuses in France and elsewhere from 1945 to the mid-1970s). But it did not use the good years well. Some internal barriers came down, but not all; harmonisation and the expansion of common standards was a route to ever-increasing unity, but not to the cheaper costs and dynamic markets that were driving the rise of other global powers. Long-term relative decline accelerated: in 1980 the European bloc accounted for an estimated 31 per cent of world GDP (though it was still two blocs back then); by 2013 the figure was less than 19 per cent. Germany reformed under Gerhard Schroder, and under Tony Blair the UK looked for an elusive 'third way'. But most of the 2000 'Lisbon agenda' to increase European competitiveness remained on the shelf.

Post-modern Europe

But the EU that expanded in the 2000s was also different from the institution that was founded in the 1950s. And not just because it kept changing its name. This story could also begin in 1968, the year that divided Cold War Europe more or less neatly in two. Talk of a new Cold War beginning in 2014 rather neglected the fact that the original Cold War went through many phases and changes: the level of confrontation rose and fell, and it was actually back on 'hot' in the early 1980s, not long before it ended. The West also changed with the cultural, intellectual and technological revolutions that we can conveniently date from around 1968. Western Europe at least became less martial and more post-modern, whatever that meant. Its economic model stalled in the 1970s and was rethought in the 1980s. The West was therefore not so much rising as reorienting and recovering when it 'won' the Cold War.

In 2000, the leading EU foreign policy thinker Robert Cooper published a hugely influential book called The Post-Modern State and the World Order, in which he traced some of the foreign policy implications of these changes. He argued that nineteenth-century shibboleths like the state, sovereignty and hard power were being succeeded by a new era of smart interaction, the rise of non-state actors, and security gains and greater strength through sovereignty sharing. On the other side of the fence, Robert Kagan made a similar point less generously: 'Europe is turning away from power ... it is moving beyond power into a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation. It is entering a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity, the realization of Immanuel Kant's "perpetual peace"'.

This made some sense as a vanguardist description of the priorities of Western European elites, though large parts of their publics remained stuck in the 'old' ways of thinking about the importance of old-fashioned nation states – as, ironically (given Western myths about 'Polish plumbers'), did many of the former communist Member States that joined the EU from 2004.

But, apart from Poland, the large and capable states were still in Western and Southern Europe. The head of the Moscow Carnegie Centre Dmitri Trenin inverted Cooper's perspective, arguing that 'most European countries have long ago ceased to be modern states provided with the complete toolkit of classical statecraft and the will for using it. The few states that still possess elements of both, such as the United Kingdom and France, are no longer big enough to play in the world's premier league.' So, argued Trenin, Cooper's 'notion of a "21st-century world" in which Europe supposedly lives is misleading. The real world, including all of Europe's neighbours, contains large chunks of the legacy of previous epochs.'

Among major nations, only France and the UK passed the NATO target of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence, though Poland was close. Tiny Estonia also passed (with more moral than practical effect) because it believed in the policy. Most Member States were free-riding on the US until 2008. Then they introduced even deeper defence cuts because of the economic crisis – rather than spending more because of the Georgia war. Now they were free-riding on the assumed provision of some kind of collective security from the EU (alongside NATO); but that assumption was challenged in 2014.

The EU's few foreign policy triumphs have depended on effective partnerships with other players, including the EU's own Member States. The old security paradigm rested on NATO, which bombed Yugoslavia once the US was on board, saving Europe from its embarrassing inaction earlier in the 1990s. In the first big Ukraine crisis in 2004, Poland dragged the EU in. During the Russia–Georgia war of 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy took the initiative. On its own, the EU is nowhere near as effective as a security provider. It has some minor successful initiatives, like the border-monitoring mission in Moldova, but it cannot cope with the big stuff like Russia or old-fashioned war at the edge of Europe.

The renegotiation of EU architecture, leading to the Treaty of Lisbon, which came into force in December 2009, did little to help. If anything, it created new institutional rivalries both within and around the new European Commission. Eastern Europe was the responsibility of the new high representative (the 'EU foreign minister'), Cathy Ashton from the UK, but also of Štefan Fule from the Czech Republic, the commissioner for enlargement and the neighbourhood, and to a lesser extent Germany's Gunther Oettinger, responsible for energy. The new Commission to be elected in 2014 was due to be formed in much the same way, after most European leaders complacently assumed that the European parliamentary elections in May had not actually been the disaster they were forecast to be.

Post-modern Russia

Russia did not experience 1968 directly: the USSR was too busy invading Czechoslovakia. However, it caught up quickly (albeit selectively) after 1991.

The EU version of Europe is, in reality, a mixture of post-modern factors and old nation-state traditions, reflected in the most complex constitutional and decision-making arrangements imaginable. Russia also mixes up the traditional and the post-modern, but in a different way. It is often said that Russia adopted the communist propaganda version of capitalism; but it also adopted a distorted view of how post-modern societies and political systems work. Russia's post-Soviet politics leap-frogged into an ultra-cynical world of manipulation (explored in Chapter 2), where everything is permissible and where there is no higher truth. But Russia took the opposite journey from the EU in international politics. The USSR was a multi-national state that was something like an empire; modern Russia is on its way towards becoming an ethnic nation state, arguably for the first time in its history – though its journey is incomplete, just as the EU is not really supranational. And Russia has also travelled back to a very traditional view of defending its national sovereignty with hard power.

If Russia is now in renewed conflict with the West, it is not some simple replay of the Cold War. Thinking and capabilities have shifted on both sides. Nor is it just old-fashioned imperialist Russia reprising nineteenth-century great-power politics and out of tune with the post-modern West. Russia believes in the old-fashioned hard power of armies and missiles, but it is also a kind of 'post-modern dictatorship', with a cynical understanding of the ways in which the West's technologies and foibles can be turned against itself.

Economic Europe Stagnates

This is not the place to rehearse all of the EU's economic problems, or the process whereby a private sector liquidity crisis in 2008 became a 'sovereign debt crisis' for so many EU states in 2010. The July 2012 promise by Mario Draghi, the new head of the European Central Bank (ECB), to do 'whatever it takes' at least provided a temporary end to the euro crisis. The ECB's promise to purchase government bonds in the secondary markets did enough to bring down borrowing rates. A new architecture was created for the euro: strict budget rules were made supposedly inviolable, banking oversight centralised, and the ECB printing presses let loose (though it was still not a proper lender of last resort). The euro had survived its first crisis, but it remained to be seen whether it would survive a second. And the EU still had a growth crisis. At the end of 2013, the eurozone's collective GDP was still 3 per cent less than its pre-crisis level in the first quarter of 2008. Some countries sputtered into growth, but not at the approximate rate of 3 per cent required to prevent their debt-to-GDP ratios getting ever bigger. Italy's GDP was still 8 per cent off its peak, and Greece's was a full 27 per cent. The ECB was unable to offer the kind of quantitative easing that in the USA and UK fuelled recovery (and possible future inflation). Recovery was also plagued by many types of moral hazard, as gamblers were bailed out and savers punished, undermining incentives to solve underlying problems. The renationalisation of banks and bank lending kept credit scarce.


Excerpted from Ukraine Crisis by Andrew Wilson. Copyright © 2014 Andrew Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction, vi,
1 Unfinished Europe, 1,
2 Russia Putinesca, 19,
3 Yanukovych's Ukraine, 38,
4 Maidan 2.0, 66,
5 The Uprising, 86,
6 Crimea, 99,
7 The Eastern Imbroglio, 118,
8 Ukraine's Unfinished Revolution, or a Revolution Barely Begun?, 144,
9 Other Hotspots, 161,
10 Russia versus the West, 183,
Conclusions, 205,
Notes, 208,
Index, 233,

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