At an event in Vienna, experts from Russia, Ukraine and Europe discussed the factors and conditions that would be required to finally resolve the Ukraine crisis. 


OSCE representatives watch a prisoner-of-war swap between the Lugansk People's Republic and Kiev under the "three by six" format on the contact line, Eastern Ukraine. Photo: RIA Novosti

Attempts to find a compromise solution to the Ukraine crisis continue, despite continued flare-ups of emotional rhetoric from political leaders in Europe, Russia and Ukraine. The emerging consensus is that the international presence in the conflict zone in Eastern Ukraine should be strengthened to stop the hostilities and provide the necessary humanitarian relief to the local population.

That, in turn, may lead to easing of the painful emotional backdrop of Russian-Ukrainian relations. Moreover, there is a pressing need to start building an overarching European security system that would incorporate both NATO and Russia. And the Ukrainian government should become more oriented to the social needs of the population, since that had been one of the main motives of the Maidan revolution.

These are some of the key ideas expressed earlier this week in Vienna, where a group of European, Ukrainian and Russian experts convened at the Karl Renner Institute, the political academy of the Austrian Social Democratic movement, for a public discussion, “Ukraine – Between Stagnation and Breakthrough.”

The panel’s co-organizers – the recently launched Eurasian Studies Center at Vienna University, the International Institute for Peace and the Karl Renner Institute – put forward the difficult task of holding a non-confrontational discussion of Ukraine’s present economic situation and ways out of the crisis. Participants treaded carefully through explosive issues and largely succeeded in coming up with a positive agenda.

However, a presentation made by Kerstin Jobst, an Austrian professor of Ukrainian History at Vienna University, was seen as cliché-ridden by many in the audience and angered the Ukrainian participants. Ukraine’s ambassador to Austria, Olexander Scherba, in a passionate speech from the floor and comments posted subsequently on his Facebook page, lambasted not only “Putin’s aggression,” but also the stereotype of Ukraine as a fragmented country. “Fragmentation of Ukraine? I am sorry. There is no country that would not be fragmented one way or the other,” he said before leaving the hall in discontent.

Recommended: "Russia is still searching for a new normal in its relationship with Europe"

Yet, apart from that, the discussion was held in a remarkably constructive mood compared to similar attempts to have a multilateral public discussion of the Ukraine crisis.

“State capture”

Aleksei Yakubin, a sociologist from the Ukrainian Technical University in Kiev, emphasized that the primary reason behind the current popular dissatisfaction with the Ukrainian government is the lack of a social emphasis in its policies.

“Many citizens had hoped that the new post-Maidan government would make a new social contract with the people, that the government would work more for social programs and improvement of living standards. Maidan to a large extent raised the issue of social justice. It was seen as a turn for a new social contract in Ukraine. But that has not happened,” Yakubin said. The change of cabinet so far has not led to a change in this policy.

The conflict in Eastern Ukraine has, of course, contributed to the social problems, he added. But he also emphasized the continued dependency of the country’s politics on the wealthy businessmen known as oligarchs.

“It is a paradox, but the devaluation of the oligarchs’ assets does not lead to them playing a role in the settlement of the crisis,” Yakubin said.  

It is the other way around, he added, as some oligarchs are “making money on the war.”  He cited the example of former Dnepropetrovsk governor Ihor Kolomoisky, who contributes to “maintaining a high level of militarized rhetoric in the country.”

While the oligarchs remain in a “clinch,” Ukraine demonstrates signs of “state capture,” Yakubin said, using the term describing the systemic political corruption.

“People use European slogans to come to power riding on the people’s European dream, which is real, and then increase their own wealth,” the Ukrainian speaker added.

No signs of a breakthrough

Peter Havlik, senior economist of the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies, presented his research on the disparities in the Ukrainian economy before and after the Maidan. In his opinion, the title of the event was too optimistic.

Ukraine is not between stagnation and breakthrough, but between stagnation and crisis.  We see very few indications of some sort of a breakthrough,” Havlik said.

The Ukraine-EU Association Agreement has generated unfounded expectations, he said, criticizing the recent statement of Ukraine’s Prime Minister Volodymyr Groisman saying that in 10 years Ukraine would become an EU member.

“This absolutely does not correspond to the reality, it is totally unrealistic and, in my opinion, also dangerous, because it generates expectations among the people who will be disappointed,” the Austrian economist said.

He also emphasized that Russia remains an important trade partner for Ukraine. And Russia is significantly bigger than even the largest EU players in the Ukrainian market – Germany and Poland. “It is a challenge,” he said.

European security superstructure

The most eminent participant on the panel, the president of the International Institute for Peace and longtime member of the European Parliament, Hannes Swoboda, said that the international crisis around Ukraine proceeds from two irreconcilable approaches to its sovereign rights.

While the West holds to the position that any country is free to choose its alliances, Russia “insists on the old concept of spheres of influence, which is not fixed anywhere in the international law.” Such a concept can be part of a Realpolitik discourse, but has no legal basis in international law, just as the U.S. Monroe Doctrine of the 19th century had no basis in law.

Also read: "Russia-EU relations: Still waiting for a new shift in momentum"

In Swoboda’s opinion, the West “certainly won the Cold War and as the winner should have settled the relations with the loser, but it has not happened.” The West – both NATO and EU – have indeed expanded to Russian borders, which Russia sees as a threat to its security and an encroachment on its interests, he said. It is important, however, that all of this was happening on the basis of Eastern European countries’ sovereign and voluntary decisions.

This creates a contradiction that, in Swoboda’s view, cannot be solved in a short-term perspective and leads to the task of creating a new comprehensive European security system – an undertaking that Austria as OSCE Chairman in 2017 should take seriously.

“One should think how to create a common European security structure, in which both the West and Russia can identify themselves. We are not speaking, of course, of finding it in two weeks. But we are speaking of whether there is a readiness for that,” Swoboda said.

In his view, the NATO-Russia Council is not the right framework to create such a system and NATO is not sufficient to provide security in Europe, especially in the border territories such as Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ukraine.

The new system should not “invalidate NATO, but should bring Russia and NATO together in a superstructure,” that would be able to create conditions for peace in Europe, he concluded.

Greater mandate for international organizations

That has led the discussion to the role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its mandate in Ukraine, which Swoboda considers to be insufficient either to stop the violence or to provide relief for the suffering people living in the devastated areas.

“The mandate is too weak to support and help the people (in the conflict zone). The rebels have thrown out the Médecins Sans Frontières [Doctors Without Borders – Editor’s Note] and the UN organizations that were planning to distribute aid to people. So, a more solid mandate is necessary for either the OSCE or the UN to prevent all hostilities that are taking place there,” Swoboda said.

Read the Q&A with the Secretary General of the OSCE: "How the OSCE views Europe's war on terror"

Furthermore, a new Minsk agreement is necessary, he said, and it is necessary to talk to the rebels while not absolving Russia from its responsibility for supplying the self-proclaimed entities in Eastern Ukraine. Otherwise, “we should count on a protracted conflict,” the former Austrian politician said.

Hope for stabilization

Sergey Utkin, head of the Strategic Assessment Department at the Russian Academy of Sciences‘ Center for Situation Analysis, sees signs of hope for a potential stabilization in the Russia-U.S dialogue, which has been carried out in recent months by President Vladimir Putin’s special advisor Vladislav Surkov and U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland – people that he described as “competent in the details of the conflict around Ukraine from the beginning.”

“That means that behind closed doors, without making it public at the first stage, there is a desire of the sides taking part in the conflict one way or the other, to come to a more stable situation,” Utkin said. 

There is a discussion now underway in Moscow on the future policy, he added. One side insists that the tough policy vis-à-vis Ukraine and the West should be continued and not an inch should be given up in concession. The other position, Utkin said, is that although the current situation can be sustained for years, it is damaging for the Russian economy and the quality of the Russian political system.

“We have become so enthralled by the situation in Ukraine that we forget about the development of our country. These considerations cannot be totally ignored by the Russian authorities. Despite the fact that very tough policy was formulated and carried out, it doesn’t mean that this cannot evolve,” Utkin said.

For Moscow’s policy to become more cooperative, the Kremlin has to be convinced that Russia would not lose out in such a situation, he added.

Also watch the video with Dmitri Trenin: "A realistic scenario of what's going to happen next with the Minsk Agreements"

Utkin agreed with Swoboda that an increased role and stronger mandate for international actors in the conflict zone of Eastern Ukraine could offer a hope for a solution, particularly given the suffering of people living in the conflict zone, which should take precedent to the complicated status issues.

“I cannot guarantee a positive reaction to this from the Russian authorities, but when I look at this conflict, it appears that increasing the role of international organizations not only as peacemakers but also as administrators in the conflict zone, providing for the normalization of people’s daily lives, is a way that could help us make our dialogue healthier,” Utkin said.

The conflict in Ukraine, which took away lives of so many people, will not remain without long-term consequences for Russia-Ukrainian relations, he added. But both sides have an interest in leaving it behind “as a black spot in our history” without turning it into “an endless black path” ahead, he concluded.