In 2005, Vladimir Putin referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. Last week, at the Kiev Security Forum, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk repeated the infamous phrase — but added an addendum. “The greatest tragedy,” he warned, “will happen when a new Soviet Union is formed in this century.”
The Kiev Security Forum is an annual European security conference organized by the Open Ukraine Foundation and set up by Yatsenyuk himself in 2007. But until this year, nobody really gave a shit about it. What with the Ukraine teetering on the brink of a civil war and slap bang in the middle of a looming new conflict between East and West, that’s no longer the case. It seems that a country with a Russian troop build-up along its border, armed insurrection and a government-backed anti-terrorism campaign is the perfect backdrop for a security conference. Last week, the 2014 Forum, held in Kiev’s swanky Fairmont Hotel, was filled to bursting and I was there. (Full disclosure: I was invited as a participant.)
At times, the participants got pretty agitated. A normally measured Prime Minister Yatsenyuk lashed out at Western leaders for creating a security vacuum in Ukraine. Other times, they were nostalgic for the early 1990s, when it seemed like Russia and the West might get along after all. Carl Bildt, Sweden’s Foreign Affairs Minister, recalled a quiet dinner with former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, on a mid-summer day in 1994. Yeltsin, said Bildt, was clear in his allegiance: “I want to be with you.”
Things have changed. And along the way, some of Europe’s post-Soviet borders were drawn haphazardly, perhaps unwisely. “But at the same time,” Bildt cautioned on Friday, “if you start to change them, rivers of blood will flow.”
On Tuesday, Ukraine began a military operation to regain control of its eastern region, much of which has been overwhelmed by pro-Russia forces. Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov dubbed the move an “anti-terrorist operation”. Ukraine’s head of state security promised that if pro-Russia troops open fire, “we will annihilate them.” It was no idle threat — on Wednesday, three pro-Russian separatists were shot dead by the Ukrainian army as a group of 300 men attacked a military base with Molotov cocktails and stun grenades in Mariupol, in the east of the country.
Just days earlier, the Ukrainian government in Kiev had issued an ultimatum to armed groups in the east: put down your weapons, or else. On Monday, the government’s deadline came and went.
Russiadenies that it has anything to do with the highly organized, well-equipped, regionally coordinated and Russian-speaking provocateurs who spent the weekend occupying buildings in eastern cities. But the West isn’t buying it. “We know who is behind this,” scoffed American diplomat Samantha Power, at an emergency meeting of the United Nations on Sunday night.
The Security Forum took place away from all that though, in downtown Kiev. The morning the conference opened, bulldozers were working to push down some of the barricades that had, for months, separated protesters from pro-government police on the now iconic Euromaidan.
A recurring theme at the Security Forum was that Ukraine has been dicked around by the West. Opening the conference, Yatsenyuk looked back to the 1994 Budapest Memorandums, signed by Russia, the US and the UK, which promised Ukraine security and territorial integrity – if Kiev promised to give up what was then a massive nuclear weapons stockpile. The UK and US have not honored their end of the deal, says Yatsenyuk, leaving Ukraine without protective nukes and with allies who for now seem willing to do little more than tut disapprovingly at threats to Ukrainian sovereignty.
Similarly, MP Borys Tarasyuk, Ukraine’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, criticized the EU for refusing to sign an association agreement with Ukraine’s new government. “Maybe someone inside the EU operates by the same logic as the Russians,” he charged — a real zinger.
The Ukrainian contingent was cagier on the issue of NATO membership. Though Ukraine will probably join NATO eventually, it's not going to happen right away – now is not the time to annoy Russia. Back in March, Yatsenyuk explained, “Strictly with a view to maintaining Ukraine’s unity, the question of joining NATO is not on the agenda.” Similarly, Poroshenko has argued that the NATO issue could “ruin the country” for lack of consensus. At the forum, nobody really mentioned it.
Some speakers delicately tried to point out that Ukraine's problems aren't all someone else's fault. Ukraine should not see the EU as a “monumental miracle,” cautioned Poland’s Jan Tombinski, head of the EU’s delegation to Ukraine. A Russian threat can’t mask incompetence back home and many observers claim that Ukraine post-revolution is still pretty corrupt.
The question of how to disarm the thousands of men and women in western Ukraine who participated in the Euromaidan protests wasn't really touch on, either. On April 1, Ukraine’s parliament passed a resolution ordering that these groups “immediately disarm,” but the chaos in the east might give the militias in the west some time to consolidate – and some of them virulently oppose the new government. Ukrainian professor Oleksii Haran warned that some activists believe that “the Maidan has sold out and we should do something more radical.”
Similarly, little was said about what should happen to the men who stood with Yanukovych’s government during the Euromaidan: the venomous Berkut special police, but also the ordinary officers who followed orders to the end and faced off against the people. Many speakers cautioned Ukraine to take an “inclusive” approach and to consider the views of all Ukrainians (read: ethnic Russians).
Throughout the conference, conversations were peppered with American-English diplo-jargon — “business as usual”, “ball in their court” — in addition to plenty of Iron Curtain rhetoric. The view seemed to be that we are witnessing a “re-Sovietization” — though one or two speakers hoped that this might instead be the final, bed-ridden thrashes of a dying Soviet Empire.
American and EU speakers at the Forum were keen not to bait Russia too much. US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland (of “Fuck the EU” fame) offered cautious praise for President Barack Obama’s Russian “reset” – his now-maligned, post-election commitment to strengthening ties with Moscow. Some good came out of it, Nuland insisted, including a revised New Start treaty, which will decrease nuclear weapons “on all sides.”
A related point was raised by German MP Franz Thönnes. We will need Russia, he insisted, “when we withdraw troops from Afghanistan.” One critical exit pathway — for the personnel and troops that will soon be withdrawn from the country — winds through Russia and Central Asia, into Kazakhstan. This is Putin terrain. But last week, Russia’s state news agencyRussia Today reported: “One result of the diplomatic breakdown is that Russia now refuses to permit NATO military cargoes from passing through its territory.”
So far, international negotiators have been careful to separate Ukraine from discussion of other geopolitical crises. But depending on what transpires this week, that diplomatic dance may fall apart.
Some of Europe’s caution surely has something to do with the thought of shivering through the winter without gas. It’s no secret that Russia is a key supplier of energy to Europe, with many of its gas pipelines running through Ukraine. At the Forum, several speakers demanded that Europe stand ready to divert gas from its emergency stores back to Ukraine, should Kiev’s supply be cut off. Miroslav Lajcak, a Slovakian Minister, acknowledged that his country has “already started technical preparations” for reverse gas-flow.
But others — namely the Swedish minister, Bildt — pushed Ukraine to take responsibility for its own predicament. Interestingly, Bildt’s criticisms were not recounted in the session summaries sent out by Forum organizers each day. Ukraine has been pursuing “disastrous policies” for decades, Bildt charged. “You spend, I think, five times as much subsidizing the waste of gas as most European countries spend on defense. This is insane.”
One looming question is whether Ukraine will remain a unified country. Russia, appealing to the alleged desires of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, has called for Ukraine to devolve into a federation. It's a bit of a weird suggestion, given that a recent Gallup poll said the majority of ethnic Russians do not want union with Moscow. The government in Kiev refuses to consider a federal structure – but has started to speak of a “decentralized” Ukraine.
National elections are scheduled for the 25th of May. Some have accused Moscow of trying to delay the vote via its maneuverings in eastern Ukraine. At the Security Forum, the likely future leader of Ukraine, Poroshenko warned, “those who suggest… that elections should not be at the top of the agenda are traitors of the state” and guilty of “high treason”. Perhaps an unfortunate way to speak of Ukraine’s next throw of the democratic dice, but nobody challenged Poroshenko’s point.
These broad concerns of how, when and whether to integrate Ukraine into regional bodies; how to win over ethnic Russians; what to do about natural gas supplies, unregistered arms and corrupt elites aren’t going away. But for now, the Ukrainian government and its European allies have moved on: to the more immediate task of preventing an all-out war by the Black Sea.
Follow Katie Gelhart on Twotter: @katieengelhart