Friday

19th Apr 2019

Opinion

The imperative of avoiding another Cold War

  • Prague knows well how controversial the Russian factor in the region can be (Photo: wikipedia)

There is an ongoing, passionate debate in the West on how to address the crisis in Ukraine. The situation on the ground remains dramatic – although the ceasefire has been largely observed, the risk of resumption of hostilities remains high.

There are rising tensions and mistrust between Russia and the West. This has led some commentators to speak about a new Cold War. I would personally prefer to say that we are on the crossroads. And I hope that such dire scenarios can still be avoided.

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  • Have we just raised false hopes among the Ukrainians? (Photo: mac_ivan)

We in the Czech Republic know far too well how complicated a region Central and Eastern Europe is, and how geopolitical brawls can bring about misery to ordinary people. We also know far too well how controversial the Russian factor can be in our region.

In 1945 we welcomed Red Army soldiers as liberators and victors over Nazism, only to see them coming as invaders and occupiers more than two decades later.

The armed conflict in Ukraine is unequivocal at least in one aspect. It ultimately hurts all of us – the Europeans, the Americans, the Russians and above all the Ukrainians. Currently, this crisis has no winners, only losers.

False hopes?

It certainly is tempting for political commentators, columnists and some politicians to play the blame game. One day, attributing blame will be a job for historians. The task of today's statesmen is to find a way out of this tragic confrontation.

Europeans must have a responsible and level-headed discussion with the Ukrainians on the future of mutual relations.

Economic co-operation between the EU and Ukraine would undoubtedly be beneficial. Yet, some European leaders, including the president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, cannot hide their scepticism about Ukraine's membership of Nato.

One of many misunderstandings of the recent past has been the illusion that Ukraine will join the alliance in the near future. Such a step would not only ignore complex geopolitical realities, it is also inconsistent with the current policies of Western states.

There is reluctance in the West to provide outright military assistance to Kiev to fight the separatists in Lugansk and Donetsk regions. Europe faces its own internal difficulties and can hardly support the collapsing Ukrainian economy by itself.

As for the sanctions we imposed on Russia, they turned out to be a mere political demonstration of unity of the West with no practical impact. Are we being honest with ourselves? Are we indeed prepared to pay the necessary price? Or have we just raised false hopes among the Ukrainians?

Challenging but profitable course

Obviously, it is the Ukrainians and their political representatives, who will bear the burden of the country's foreign policy direction. No one has the right to decide on their behalf.

But let's all face the inconvenient truth: the only sensible direction for Ukraine is the policy of balance between its powerful neighbours – Russia in the East and Nato and the EU in the West.

Navigation through the complicated geopolitical environment of eastern Europe will undoubtedly be challenging. However, examples from the past show that such a policy is not only possible, but potentially highly profitable.

Neutral countries like Austria or Finland in the time of Cold War were far from being devastated buffer zones. On the contrary, they were known as flourishing and respected states.

There is homework not only for Ukraine and the West. Russia must also make an effort to calm the situation down.

Most of us have a certain level of understanding for the deep historical and cultural ties between Ukraine and Russia and are aware of the importance of Ukraine in the Russian historical narrative. Nevertheless, one can hardly agree to the use of hard power against a sovereign state.

If Russia wants to remain an attractive partner for Ukraine, it must compete solely by means of soft power.

Crossroads

Ukraine is confronted with a considerable number of issues. On the one hand, it is affected by an internal political rift of huge proportions. On the other, it is confronted with the negligence of past governments in literally all sectors of public life.

Corruption is pervasive. The state bureaucracy is massively inefficient. Political life is dominated by oligarchs and radicals of all sorts. The country's infrastructure is poor.

These are examples of where Ukrainians should concentrate their efforts. These are obstacles that have prevented Ukraine from becoming a state all its inhabitants could identify with. These are fields where its foreign partners and friends can constructively help.

We are at the crossroads.

Should we take a wrong direction, we risk a spiral of mistrust and confrontation potentially resulting in another Cold War. We can already see the symptoms. In the zones of competition between Russia and the West, we are witnessing growing chaos, lawlessness and violence. Ukraine is one sad example.

The other one is the Levant, where conflicting interests of global players helped destabilise Syria and thus enabled the expansion of the so-called Islamic State – probably the most horrific terrorist organisation of our times. The number of foreign jihadists in the region is already higher than during the war in Afghanistan in 1980s.

As a diagnosed optimist, I believe that we have not yet lost the right track - a track that would lead to peace and prosperity in Ukraine and a better political environment around the globe.

The current peace process led jointly by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine is a step in the right direction. But it is only a first step.

Both Russia and the West will have to start thinking differently about Ukraine – not as a coveted sphere of influence, but as a sovereign state seeking dignity, prosperity and stability.

Hynek Kmonicek is the chief foreign policy advisor to the president of the Czech Republic and former Czech envoy to the United Nations

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