Ukraine: How Can We Help?

Any government which starts to kill its own citizens while they are engaging in legitimate protest has forfeited the right to go on governing (would that the same applied in Syria - but we are long past that point there). At the same time, it was and is impossible not to worry about what might happen next.

It was impossible not to be moved by the victory of the protesters in Kiev at the end of last week, and by the courage of those who braved snipers' bullets to go on making their point. It was encouraging that the deliberate use of live rounds by the President's defenders seems to have been the last straw for many, even in the security forces, and to have precipitated Yanukovich's rapid fall. That is as it should be, in Europe in the 21st Century. Any government which starts to kill its own citizens while they are engaging in legitimate protest has forfeited the right to go on governing (would that the same applied in Syria - but we are long past that point there).

At the same time, it was and is impossible not to worry about what might happen next. Popular revolutions are by definition chaotic affairs, and the immediate results can often look worse than what went before, unless order, and legitimate and sensible government, can be restored quickly. The consequences of the Arab spring in Egypt and Libya are only the latest examples. The unity of those opposing the old regime does not usually survive long, since opposition to the old may have been the only thing uniting them. The makeshift coalition on the streets of Kiev does not look like an exception to this rule, with far right nationalists a worrying element. Good leadership will be at a premium, to say the least, with the risk that old contenders will try to exploit any weakness in the coalition to plot their own comebacks.

In the case of Ukraine, the context is particularly difficult, with the split in the country between westernisers and Russophiles (the western press may exaggerate and oversimplify this, but it still seems real enough), the particular problem of the Crimea, and the baleful influence of the old-thinkers in the Kremlin. The risks of civil war, or even outside intervention, are high. An outright invasion from the outside to put Yanukovich or a similar figure back in power is, let us all hope, unlikely. But the temptation to play a spoiling game by using the Crimea and playing on fears of chaos and anti-Russian nationalism, and even openly fostering a division of the country, will be high. Statements from Moscow so far are vague but hardly reassuring. President Putin will certainly be casting around for ways of preventing Ukraine, as he sees it, falling irrevocably under western influence, and increasing the isolation of Russia.

The obvious way forward is through fresh elections. Only that can give a new government, and a new President, legitimacy. These are already planned. But elections can only be a necessary, not a sufficient, answer. As we have seen many times around the world, if the tradition of accepting the result of an election is not there, if civil society is not yet mature, and if the temptation for the winner to take all is too strong to resist, the outcome can be no better, or may perhaps be worse, than what went before. Most people quickly crave stability rather than chaos, which is why revolutions have historically so often been followed by renewed dictatorships.

Only the Ukrainians themselves can solve their problems. We have to have faith that wise heads will prevail, that the civic spirit which has been so evident on the streets will remain (the behaviour of the crowds visiting, but not looting, the Presidential Palace was a good sign), and that they will be given the space to resolve their future without crass outside interference. But how the outside world responds will be important, not least the reaction of the European Union. Ukraine needs our support and our help, but above all measured and calm assistance, economic as well as political. Triumphalism, and too much criticism of the Russians, however tempting, are to be avoided. Ukraine will need a good relationship with Russia in future, and we need to get away from the binary choice of Russia or the EU which has bedevilled Ukrainian politics for too long.

The first reactions of the EU are encouraging in all these respects. With luck and judgment, generous financial and economic assistance, as well as political support, can be provided in ways which encourage reform, and steady progress. I hope the US will take a similarly firm but measured approach, deterring any negative interference, but encouraging cooperation in the region too. These are bound to be turbulent months, and the road will be bumpy at best. But it is vital to do everything we can to stabilise a country at the heart of Europe.

There is one element still missing in the equation. The prospect of membership of the EU should eventually be open to Ukraine, if and when she qualifies, and openly declared to be so. She is clearly a European country, and while there can be many doubts about her internal systems and political and economic maturity, these are reasons for long delay, not exclusion. Right now may not be quite the moment to say more clearly that the road to membership is open in principle, since we need to be reassuring, not alarming, the Russians. But, at some suitable time in the next few months, a more forward-leaning position would be valuable, not least to help preserve our own influence to nudge Ukraine in the right directions. We were able to push the countries of eastern Europe towards reforms, after their revolutions, even when these reforms were painful, because we were offering something they really wanted. The absence of any similar incentive has been a major weakness in our attempts to play a useful role in the Middle East and North Africa, following the Arab spring. The UK should no doubt be at the forefront of those pressing for this evolution of the European position, but it is the French and German positions which need to change the most. Perhaps our Polish friends could use their new influence to press the case for their neighbour?


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