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The Ukraine Is All About Countries' Self-Interest

12/03/2014 11:32 GMT | Updated 11/05/2014 10:59 BST

Countries don't act on principle. They act in their own self-interest.

The Ukrainian crisis has generated a lot of talk around principle, respect for the rule of law, elimination of corruption, the establishment of working democracies, giving voice to the people, and all manner of other fine sounding catch-phrases. It's all bunkum. The Ukraine is all about the balance of self-interest.

If the West were truly interested in the rule of law and the protection of people's interests, it would not have marched into Iraq on the basis of trumped up evidence of weapons of mass destruction. It would not have stood by for decades as Israel continues its military occupation of the Left Bank and the building of illegal settlements. It would not be allowing the continued collapse of Syria. It would have mustered a meaningful response to China's unilateral extension of its no fly zone to include the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands - a slap in the face to one of the West's key allies. And endless other instances too numerous to name. As regards the Ukraine, Ukrainian author Marina Lewyca gives a scathing assessment of Western hypocrisy.

None of this is to suggest that the West is wrong to focus on its self-interests. Or that President Putin should be commended for his actions in Ukraine. Just that we should abandon, or at least disregard as no more than white noise, all talk of wanting to uphold international law and looking after the interests of the Ukrainian people. And it would be dangerous, and ultimately disappointing to them, if Ukrainians started to believe that the West is acting out of some altruistic interest in their wellbeing and their future. The Ukraine is no more than a pawn in the power struggle between Russia and the West. Everyone would be better off recognizing things for what they are.

Another "Smooth Transition" Gone Wrong

This is not how it should all have worked out. The dream scenario was a peaceful deal with the EU that would slowly but surely transfer influence in the Ukraine (and the flow of money) from Russia to Europe and the US. Maybe a proper democracy would eventually have been established. Maybe embedded corruption would have eventually been tamed - though the EU does not have much of a track record of eliminating corruption even in its own member states. But this scenario clearly underestimated the now clear fact that Ukraine is more important to Russia than it is to the EU and President Putin is not willing to give it up lightly.

Some have argued that it was a mistake for the EU to force an "either-or" option, driving a country with a complicated history to choose between Russia and the EU. Seeking a tri-partite pact might have been a better, and less inflammatory, option. But that is water under the bridge. The question now is how important is Ukraine to the EU's self-interest and what pain are EU countries willing to go through to wrest the country from Russian influence? Russia has clearly shown that it is willing to go to considerable lengths to defend its interests - including putting boots on the ground and mobilising its army. The US is willing to embark on sanctions that are significant at least in terms of newspaper headlines. Its economic ties to Russia are marginal and sanctions will allow bluster and public posturing to continue but hurt neither country and not resolve the crisis. Boots on the ground have, seemingly, been ruled out.

The EU is in a much more precarious position. A raft of sanctions that would really hurt Russia comes with consequences. First any meaningful sanctions will have a negative effect on the economy of a number of EU member states. Second, at what point will such sanctions put Putin in the position where he no longer has anything to lose and thereby precipitate an invasion of Eastern Ukraine?

Is the EU a world power?

The EU was supposed to establish itself as a world power that could wield meaningful influence in the world. The Ukraine crisis may serve to show that the Emperor has no clothes. Militarily, the EU is a dwarf - both in capabilities and its willingness to use them. It has long been parasitic on the US for any sort of meaningful action except in limited conflicts such as the French in Mali. There is no prospect of EU military involvement in Ukraine - as President Putin well knows. Yet, even outside of military action, we are again turning to the US to bale us out. Ambassadors from Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are pleading with the US to increase its exports of natural gas to lessen their dependence on Russian fuel. This after, aided and abetted by the European Commission, most of these countries have been laggard in exploiting their own shale gas resources, choosing instead to continue their dependence on Russian gas.

One resource that the EU does still posses is money and, in combination with the US and the IMF, it is intending to wield that resource to provide loans and loan guarantees for Ukraine. But even this is a tightrope act. When the IMF and Eurozone states provided financial support to Greece, the money came with draconian conditions that drove the Greek economy to its knees and ruined the lives of millions of ordinary people. If the same draconian approach is implemented in Ukraine, it is not clear that support for a pivot to the West will last for very long on the streets of Kiev. On the other hand, softer conditions will, rightly, lead the Greeks to ask why a full member of the club is being treated more harshly than the new wannabe from the East.

Self-Interest and Power

In his excellent bookThe End of Power, Moisés Naím makes the case that "power is becoming more feeble, transient, and constrained." In a globalized world where economies are all interdependent, it may become impossible to exercise any sort of power without doing significant damage to one's own self-interest. The behaviour of the Ukrainian people suggest that the ideals of the EU and what, at a conceptual level, it represents, still have a lot of appeal. Yet, as it tries to extend its influence at the Russia's expense, the EU may find that is has failed to build the capabilities to back up its soft power with a capacity to have a significant influence on world events - especially when other parties are perfectly willing and able to play by different rules.