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The Deep Policy Failures That Led to Ukraine

Saturday 19 April 2014

Nikolas K. Gvosdev | April 17, 2014

Now that there’s a crisis in Ukraine, American politicians and foreign-policy experts are fast and furious in rolling out the policy proposals. Supply Ukraine’s military with advanced weapons to blunt a possible Russian offensive; promote new economic-development projects that will generate prosperity in Ukraine’s industrial east and decrease reliance on Russia; wean Europe away from its dependence on Russian supplies of oil and natural gas. The problem is that all of these are long-term projects, which would take months and years to reach fruition. Yet the crisis is now being measured out in hours and days. The provision of arms to the Ukrainian military, for instance, presupposes a force that’s already been trained to use such equipment, and that protocols are in place which will ensure that weapons will not be diverted to purposes that are askance of other U.S. policy priorities—things which cannot be done overnight. Ukraine is just the latest demonstration of a systemic weakness in the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus—the seeming inability to plan and be proactive, especially across presidential administrations from different parties. The narrative that there has been a new "intelligence failure" because the White House did not have forty-eight hour notice of Russian plans to take over the Crimean peninsula misses the point that even if early warning had been provided, the U.S. didn’t have the policy tools in place to make much of a difference. But Ukraine also cannot be categorized as a black-swan event. The talks to conclude an association agreement between Ukraine and the European Union had been going on for years—and Russian objections to various provisions in those arrangements had been vocal and on the record. And once outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had put down a very clear marker at the end of 2012 that the United States would take a vigorous stance opposing the Moscow-driven Eurasian Union project as an attempt to "re-Sovietize" the region, the planning should have begun to ensure that that was not simply empty rhetoric.

One thing which seems very surprising in retrospect was why more effort was not undertaken to connect the dots between finding new markets for Ukraine’s industries and the push to create the so-called southern corridor that would bring more Eurasian energy (from non-Russian sources) to markets independent of the existing Russian routes. Ukraine has remained dependent on the Russians to purchase most of its industrial manufactures, including piping and equipment for the energy industry, as well as trucks, railcars and aerospace manufactures. In the eastern parts today—precisely those areas plagued by unrest—the risk of losing access to Russia as a export market could wreak considerable havoc on Ukraine’s economy. Having Ukrainian firms be given firm contracts to supply proposed new pipelines like TANAP (the trans-Anatolian line) that would connect the Caspian basin to southeastern Europe and TAP (the trans-Adriatic pipeline from the Turkish border to Italy) would have provided alternative contracts and helped to diversify Ukraine’s markets.

If those pipelines were further along in construction—or even done—then the risk of European energy disruptions caused by a new round of gas wars between Ukraine and Russia over prices and unpaid bills would be mitigated. It might have also changed the European risk tolerance for imposing stronger sanctions on Russia.

But such measures cannot be implemented at the drop of a hat. They take time, careful preparation, and committed investment. Fiscally strapped Western governments can argue that such planning would not pass muster in an age of growing austerity. The status quo—with Russia supplying a significant portion of Europe’s energy needs within the confines of a long-term energy partnership and Ukraine’s industries geared towards supplying a Russian/Eurasian market—seemed to make perfect sense even six months ago. If that was the case, then there was a critical mismatch between the economic realities of leaving Ukraine economically tied to Russia and political aspirations of moving the country closer to the West. Were these discontinuities not flagged in the respective policy shops of the key Euro-Atlantic countries, or worse, was there a naive belief that Vladimir Putin would simply have to accept new geopolitical realities? Putin had made it clear in the years since the Orange Revolution of 2004 that he considered Ukraine to be a vital national interest, and that he would take drastic action if needed to secure Moscow’s equities in Ukraine. So now we have a crisis in Ukraine, and one where we will have to spend much more, both in terms of resources and in political capital, to try to get to a settlement that will be less advantageous to Western (or even Ukrainian) interests than if the groundwork had been laid, either for Ukraine’s westward movement or to reach some sort of accommodation with Moscow. And while Ukraine dominates the headlines—and sucks up all the oxygen in the policy process—what other long term troubles quietly stirring under the water where proactive action might make a difference are being ignored—until we have our next Ukraine erupting into the headlines?


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.

See online: The Deep Policy Failures That Led to Ukraine