How to resolve the crisis in Ukraine

How to resolve the crisis in Ukraine

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WASHINGTON, April 18, 2014 — The Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) urges Congress, the Obama administration and policymakers throughout the European Union to adopt  policies toward the Ukraine crisis that deescalate the conflict while providing a constructive path forward. The diplomatic deal struck this week by diplomats from the United States, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union, who agreed to a framework plan designed to end violence in Ukraine, is a positive step in that direction.

As with many intractable conflicts, the root cause has to do with unmet basic human needs, whether identity-related, economically-related, or other. Ukraine’s political and economic institutions have struggled for years to provide sustainable livelihoods for its population, including Crimea’s, making the country vulnerable to instability and susceptible to violence.  Western engagement with economic aid should be focused on constructively supporting and strengthening the country’s indigenous institutions and markets.

Beyond economic aid to Ukraine and other Eastern European nations, we have identified four overarching themes that should be reinforced and reaffirmed by Congress and the administration.

Uphold International Law

Russian President Vladimir Putin contravened international law in taking control of Crimea. If the international community wants to ensure that international law is upheld going forward, it must do a better job of holding all actors accountable.

Calling for accountability in Putin’s case requires the international community to also call for accountability in cases involving the U.S. government, current and recent. That means that the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq (which occurred without the support of the U.N. Security Council), Libya, Yemen and others, must be held to the same standard that we are now holding Putin. For more on this, please read “Ukraine and the Crisis of International Law” by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs.

The recent history of the United States and other governments supporting secessionist movements has further confused the international precedent in the case of Ukraine. Examples include the U.S.  support for Somaliland and Puntland in Somalia and U.S. efforts to undermine sovereign Somalia and their government in Mogadishu, and the West’s support for changing borders in South Sudan, Kosovo, Falklands, Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and Kashmir, must also be questioned and evaluated with the same rigor and regulations that Crimean sovereignty is considered. 

Deescalate Military Momentum

The Friends Committee on National Legislation is very supportive of the diplomatic deal that was struck this month to disarm, and provide amnesty for, separatist militants operating in eastern Ukraine. This is very positive nonmilitary move in the direction of de-escalation.  Relatedly, FCNL does not support the expansion of NATO forces in Eastern Europe. The call for increased NATO presence is primarily coming from Washington and the NATO member states are not unified on this approach.  While Eastern European countries, such as Poland and some Baltic states, are understandably concerned about Russian aggression, expanding NATO involvement will put their countries at greater risk of violence and instability, not less. 

The European Union has a substantial number of contracts and financial commitments in Russia that give these countries a huge stake in, and influence over, the continued negotiations. Given the strength of these economic ties, this network provides a basis for actions to encourage and, if necessary, apply pressure for a long-term solution to the Ukraine crisis.

Sanctions are often viewed as the best instrument to force a change in policy, but sanctions can force the sanctioned country to be more recalcitrant rather than more compliant (as many in the West publically assume would happen with tougher sanctions).  Germany’s 6,000-strong business ties to Russia, for example, should be utilized to encourage constructive Russian action going forward. Incentivizing good political behavior often goes far further, in getting the desired action, than castigation from the international community.

Transition off Fossil Fuels

Western Europe’s partial reliance on Russian natural gas for its energy portfolio has led some public officials in the United States to call on Washington to supplant Russian gas with U.S. gas and crude oil.  A move like this, which would take years to materialize, would increase fracking throughout America and increase America’s carbon footprint— thanks to energy- and-carbon-intensive crude oil. There is a reason why many of these exports have been banned up until this point. A careless and quick removal of that ban, then, is ill-advised.

The European reliance on Russia also should not be overstated.  Germany, for example, imports roughly 35 percent of its gas from Russia (one of the largest European importers of Russian gas) but Germany’s overall gas use makes up only 11 percent of its total energy portfolio.  Germany, furthermore, is quickly transitioning to renewable energy sources, maintains some of the most aggressive targets in the EU, and will soon no longer need gas imports on par with current precedent.

Rather than seeking to increase fossil fuel dependence, the U.S. government could use this opportunity to stress the importance of building up a renewable energy infrastructure, which will offer a more sustainable future politically, financially, and, of course, environmentally.  For more on how and why this should be done, please read “Ukraine Crisis Underscores Need for Renewables Push” by Michael Shank and former U.S. Congressman Russ Carnahan.

Support Multi-Track Diplomacy

The only long-term solution to this crisis will come through diplomacy. The most important next step is developing increased communication across all available channels, among actors in Washington and Brussels and Moscow and everyone in between. This is an all-hands-on-deck diplomatic situation.  While President Obama and President Putin started talking this month, much more dialogue is needed. Additionally, Secretary of State John Kerry’s conversations with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov offer some solid foundation for continued conversation but, at present, remain insufficient.  Comparing the present situation to the Cold War is unhelpful.

Going forward, the U.S. and the EU should engage public and private sector stakeholders who have pre-existing relationships with Russian counterparts to make fertile the ground for continued political diplomatic discussions and deal making. It requires business, civil society, religious and academic communities to leverage their cross-boundary ties for the benefit of Eastern Europeans who face instability and insecurity.  The time is now before violence escalates, positions harden, and the conflict becomes completely intractable. For more on ways in which the West can defuse this crisis, please read “How to Defuse the Ukraine Crisis.”

The other “step” that we think is needed is emergency, short-term economic assistance to Ukraine. Ukraine’s economy was unstable before Crimea; it may now be on verge of a complete collapse. In addition to aid, the U.S. could suspend all import tariffs from Ukraine for the next two years and urge the E.U. to do the same. Other direct economic assistance may also be needed.

FCNL’s Associate Director for Legislative Affairs, Michael Shank recently participated in a high-level U.S.-EU transatlantic dialogue in Germany and Poland, sponsored by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a German foundation, on the crisis in Ukraine and how the West should deal with Russia going forward. Since that trip, Shank has been writing regularly on the conflict, suggesting alternatives and nonviolent solutions to this crisis.

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Michael Shank
Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington DC. Michael is also Adjunct Faculty and a Board Member at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Board Member at Communities Without Boundaries International, Senior Fellow at the French American Global Forum and the Just Jobs Network, and Associate at the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict. Prior to joining FCNL, Michael served for four years as a congressional staffer, working as US Congressman Michael Honda's Senior Policy Advisor and Communications Director. Michael's career over the past 20 years has involved UN, government and non-governmental organizations in the US, Europe, Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America, as an adviser on diplomatic, economic, energy, and environmental security and policy initiatives. Michael's Ph.D. from George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution focused on Climate Conflict.