The West’s policy goals in Ukraine

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Tomorrow, the EU will hold an emergency meeting to discuss the violence in Ukraine. It seems inevitable it will impose targeted sanctions aimed at the Ukrainian leadership, to signal disgust at the violence used against demonstrators. Up until now, the EU has resisted imposing sanctions because it was still hoping to achieve a negotiated solution with President Viktor Yanukovich. It now seems likely that the Ukrainian president will be deemed a political pariah.

The need for an urgent reaction is understandable. But, beyond that, it is not yet evident that the crisis in Ukraine will do anything to clarify the EU and the US’s strategic goals in Ukraine. Until that happens, policy is likely to be ad hoc and reactive. The difficulty is that western leaders have several goals – some of which are contradictory. They need to decide which of them are most important, and also which of them are achievable.

The list of potential goals in Ukraine would include the following:

  1. Repudiation of violence: the EU will want to demonstrate that it regards events in Kiev as unacceptable.
  2. End the violence.
  3. Find a durable political solution.
  4. Promote the possibility of Ukraine joining the EU.
  5. Preserve a working relationship with Russia
  6. Thwart Russia’s attempts to impede democracy in Ukraine and promote a Russian-dominated Eurasian Union.

All of these goals are perfectly laudable. But they are also likely to prove incompatible. Most obviously — goals five and six are both important, but clearly at odds with each other. The events in Ukraine will push the EU into a more confrontational stance with Russia. But both the Americans and the Europeans will want to put limits on this process, if they can.

There are also potentially clashes between goals one and two. If the need to repudiate the actions of the Ukrainian government means isolating it, then that isolation has to succeed in dislodging Yanukovich and his cronies from power. If not, you have a ruling elite that no longer has much incentive to avoid violence — since the international repudiation they feared has already happened.

Finally — goal three — that “durable political solution”. The West’s instinct in these situations is to call for fresh elections and that is certainly a demand that can be expected to be promoted now. In theory, this should lead to the establishment of a legitimate government, ending the need for violence. But what if elections in Ukraine actually confirm that this is a deeply-divided country with an increasingly incompatible west and east? That is certainly one possible outcome of a poll. At that point, a durable political solution might need something rather more drastic, and difficult, than holding fresh elections.

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