Both the EU and America have been outgunned by Russia on Ukraine – now all the likely outcomes are bad
As Kiev burns, Western policymakers are eating ashes. Our efforts to help Ukraine towards Europe, democracy and the rule of the law have failed spectacularly. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin is celebrating not just sporting triumph in Sochi, but geopolitical victory in the affairs of his most important neighbour.
It is easy to over-complicate the Ukraine story with historical, ethnic and geographical details. The country is often said to be split between east and west, between Russian- and Ukrainian-speakers, between those nostalgic for Soviet certainties and those who want a Western-style future. Ukraine's business elite is divided, too, between the cronies of President Viktor Yanukovych and those who resent his predatory ways. But the real picture is much simpler.
Most Ukrainians want their country to be part of Europe. Russia, the former imperial master, forbids this. It wants Ukraine to be part of its new Eurasian Economic Union – a counterweight to the European Union, run by crooks and spooks in Moscow, rather than eurocrats in Brussels.
Without Putin, Ukraine would be at peace today. It was Russia that forced Ukraine to shun the economic agreement offered by the EU in October, launching a crippling trade war against Ukrainian exports. It was Russia that offered cheap gas and soft loans as the Ukrainian economy tottered.
It was Russia that installed hundreds of 'advisers' in key Ukrainian public bodies and ministries, including the SBU secret police, to ensure they toe the Moscow line.
Without Russia's silent putsch, Ukrainians would have not have needed to build barricades in the streets in protest at the regime's misrule. Even then, without the continued and escalating Russian pressure on Yanukovych, the conflict could have been defused.
Kremlin meddling in Ukraine is not new. It has systematically breached an agreement made in Budapest in 1994 under which Ukraine gave up its Soviet nuclear weapons in return for a promise that Russia would never submit it to economic coercion or other aggression.
It has repeatedly cut gas supplies to Ukraine, and fostered a culture of murky energy-trading intermediaries whose money poisons Ukrainian politics. Russia maintains a naval base, complete with spooks and special forces, in Sevastopol in Crimea. That region is home to a resentful population of ethnic Russians who wonder why this balmy peninsular was handed over to Ukraine in Soviet days.
They are in constant friction with the Crimean Tartars, deported en masse from their ancestral homeland in 1944 in an exceptional act of Stalinist savagery.
But Russia's interference in Ukraine has intensified in recent months, just as Western efforts have floundered. European policymakers still cling to the notion that talks with Russia can bring a mutually beneficial solution to Ukraine's agony. That is a false hope. The Kremlin does not like win-win solutions. It likes outcomes in which it wins, and its detestable Western rivals lose, preferably humiliatingly – this, for Putin, is a matter of personal prestige. In short, though the EU finds the whole notion of geopolitics old-fashioned and unappealing, geopolitics is happening on its doorstep. And it is losing.
America is out of the game, too. The Obama administration has neglected its European allies since the day it took office.
Its senior official dealing with Ukraine, Toria Nuland, is admirably energetic – and blunt (she recently declared "F**k the EU" in a phone call to her ambassador in Kiev, bugged and then leaked by Russian intelligence). But she lacks the clout to make the wheels of policy turn in Washington.
Without Moscow's interference, the EU and US could marshal their modest resources to make a difference. Faced with Russia in all its implacable fury, both are outgunned. The fallout from Edward Snowden's leaks of secret material from the National Security Agency has corroded and weakened the transatlantic alliance: fury with US snooping in countries such as Germany has paralysed what should be vital discussions on security.
Now all the likely outcomes are bad. Perhaps the authorities will decide that they cannot crush the protesters and will draw back, meaning months of tension and uncertainty. Even then, Ukraine's territorial integrity has been shattered, perhaps fatally.
In the west, government buildings have been set ablaze. The region – the old Austro-Hungarian Galicia – was the site of a decade-long, post-war insurrection against Soviet rule. If pro-Moscow authorities in Kiev try to crack down there, civil war looms. That involves not just human suffering (and quite possibly large numbers of refugees) but also economic dislocation and grave risks of outsiders being drawn in. What happens if someone – a real or invented band of nationalist guerrillas, say – attacks one of the east-west oil or gas pipelines?
Equally worrying is Crimea, which could now be the flashpoint for another conflict with Russia, with far more devastating effects. The region is on the verge of declaring independence from Kiev (a move likely to prompt Russian intervention to protect the separatist statelet).
If the crackdown continues, and succeeds, we will see a dreadful roll-back of the gains of the past 10 years. The newly passed repressive laws will be used in full, not just against public protest but against independent media, civil society, and other institutions.
We may see the reintroduction of a visa regime for visitors from Western countries. All kinds of foreign-related and foreign-sponsored activity will be impeded or banned.
Once the country is at the Kremlin's mercy, Putin can extort a heavy price. He is known to disparage the very notion of Ukraine's statehood, in public and in private.
He could demand that it join a Russian-led security alliance. Russia's military integration with Belarus is already proving a headache for Nato, which is struggling to work out how it can defend Europe's north-eastern flank with its slender remaining resources.
If the regime in Kiev proceeds with military and security integration with Russia, Central Europe will experience what the Baltic states have felt for several years: the icy sensation of a hard security threat.
Last time Europe faced a security problem of this magnitude was in the Yugoslav wars in the '90s. For years the West failed to grasp the problem. It is in a far worse state now. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
EDWARD LUCAS IS AUTHOR OF 'THE SNOWDEN OPERATION: INSIDE THE WEST'S GREATEST INTELLIGENCE DISASTER'