The writer is a former prime minister of Ukraine and now chairman of the Kyiv Security Forum
The civil uprising in Belarus has summoned a vast sense of solidarity from around the world. But in practical terms, what is urgently needed is a comprehensive new western strategy towards Europe’s east and those nations unprotected by EU and Nato membership.
Currently, the formula that the west uses when treating Europe’s east involves the notion of maintaining a certain “social distance” — whatever sophisticated political name this distancing is actually given, be it “EU association agreement” or “eastern partnership”.
Europe’s east is a very large region, and its most far-flung eastern borders reach up to the Caucasus. However, since the late 1980s several extraordinary processes have taken place across it. There has been a revival of national identity that has overcome postcolonial heritages; a growing awareness of civil liberties as well as the creation of institutions to maintain them; and a search for progressive models of economic development and security protection.
Unlike the west, Russia has a comprehensive vision of our region and its importance. Whether in Moldova, Ukraine or Belarus, Moscow seeks to establish effective control and create new bridgeheads there to help it expand its influence westwards. This is how Russian president Vladimir Putin envisages the path towards the recreation of the Soviet Union that he so desires.
There are no magic remedies that can properly cure this “Russian problem”. But, as a realist, I believe there does exist a sequence of practical steps that can be taken. All that is required is the political will to implement them. Recent events in Belarus alone, and the chance that the country may fall under Russian influence indefinitely, requires action from the west and Ukraine. It is time to act, not to hesitate.
Most important, I urge the EU to treat the civil uprising in Belarus as an integral part of the European process and perspective. To be clear: this requires the EU to reconsider its general attitude to our region. Don’t look at your closest European neighbours as part of a friendly but exotic eastern partnership. Instead, replace your “outstretched hand” approach with a “give-a-hand” approach.
In practice, this means giving Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine the clear signals that EU and Nato membership is achievable and, if a clear action plan to membership is followed, that it is also realistic.
As part of this process, western Europe should give up any illusions it may have about a possible reset of Russian relations. No such reset is possible while the country is governed by Mr Putin’s authoritarian and corrupt regime. Instead of trying to reset relations with Russia with diplomatic gimmicks, it is more important and urgent to increase pressure, and to reset the overall process of peaceful resolution of armed conflicts that Moscow has instigated in our region.
In Ukraine, we should abandon the illusion that we can make peace in Donbass while leaving Crimea under Russian occupation. These issues cannot remain separated. In Donbass, the Kremlin is trying to wear down Ukraine and the west by offering minor, tactical concessions with the expectation that Kyiv will give in. But the occupied territories of Donetsk and Lugansk will not be free until Crimea itself is liberated. That is the correct position, not vice versa.
We also need a more comprehensive approach to the peace processes in Georgia and Moldova. I call on the Ukrainian government and its western partners to convene a high-level meeting to bring a new approach to resolving the frozen conflicts in our region.
As for economics and business, our region needs investment and funding support from western partners, which is a kind of intervention. Our countries should be invited to join EU country groups such as the Three Seas Initiative, and other infrastructure programmes. A regional fund that helps counteract anti-western propaganda and protect freedom of speech should also be established.
Last, we need the US and the EU to support our region via a shared sense of solidarity. To do this, I call on our partners to create a high-level joint mission to defend freedom and democracy in Europe’s east. The guiding aim of this mission should be to create a unified vision about how best to continue Europe’s historic processes of unification, and liberation from the threats of authoritarianism, external aggression and disregard for human and national freedoms.
We need a new plan for eastern Europe. This is in the interests of eastern Europe and all western nations as they seek to maintain their own stability in an uncertain world.