The toxic myth of “understanding and engaging” Russia

French President Emmanuel Macron (right) has come under criticism for his proposal to "relaunch" the EU's relationship with Russia and its president Vladimir Putin (left). One year after, the initiative has yet to bear fruit, French Armed Forces Minister said on 2 July. Photo: Kremlin.ru 

International, Op-ed, War in the Donbas

Article by: Alya Shandra

Editor’s Note

The fighting in Ukraine is only the tip of the iceberg of Russia’s aggressive policies, the end goal of which is to return Ukraine to the Russian sphere of influence as Russia rebuilds its empire, yearning to redraw the world order. Attempts to exempt Russia from responsibility for its aggression that are currently being promoted under the guise of “understanding and engagement” are naive. The most recent ones remarkably reek of victimblaming: it is Ukraine that provoked Russia by tiptoeing away from the Russian sphere of influence, so of course Russia felt threatened, and we should try to understand Russia’s feelings.

These are some issues raised by Euromaidan Press editor Alya Shandra during the discussion “The Minsk conundrum: Western policy and Russia’s war against Ukraine” held online by this year’s Kyiv Security Forum. We publish her full talk.

Recent western attempts to help “solve” the conflict in Donbas

Russia’s war against Ukraine in Donbas is understandingly attracting engagement from the international community: apart from the onerous consequences of war for Ukraine, relations with Russia are at a record low with ensuing financial consequences, namely, sanctions.

Thus, different roadmaps and plans to “solve” what is frequently called the “conflict in and around Ukraine” are emerging. Among the latest are a 12-point plan at the Munich Security Conference, drafted by its chairman Wolfgang Ischinger, and signed by such dignitaries as General Breedlove, Alexander Hug, Dr. Sabine Fischer, among many others, and the report “Peace in Ukraine I: A European War” by the International Crisis Group, along with statements by Western politicians about the broad need to make new attempts to “understand” and engage Russia, most notably – the Macron initiative.

If we are to take these initiatives at face value, namely, as commendable attempts to stop the war, as the International Crisis Group puts it, without losses for Ukraine’s sovereignty, then they all suffer one common flaw, namely – the belief that stopping the fighting in Donbas means stopping Russia’s war against Ukraine, and therefore if Russia and Ukraine meet somewhere in the middle in the Minsk agreements so that Russia will have incentives to stop the fighting, the problem is solved. That is patently false:

the fighting in Donbas is only the most visible part of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the end goal of which is to return Ukraine to the Russian sphere of influence as Russia rebuilds its empire, yearning to redraw the world order.

The Minsk protocols have been drafted by Russia in order to achieve its end goal in a cunning fashion. Aside from the fact that Russia as the reason for the war is nowhere to be mentioned, they have the appearance of being a compromise that establish peace, while in reality being a gateway to Russia’s victory and Ukraine’s defeat.

While a resolution of the conflict would be the reintegration of the belligerent Russian-backed regions into Ukraine, as Petro Poroshenko’s original peace plan foresaw, envision the petrification of these Russian creations in Ukraine’s organism.

It is notable that Minsk-1 contains the original provision of Poroshenko’s peace plan to create a security zone on the Ukrainian-Russian border, but Minsk-2 relocates the buffer zone to the border between the “LDNR” and government-controlled territory; as well, it now enshrines the special status of the Russian proxy republics among the other administrative regions.

This not only creates a zone of permanent distress but sets a precedent for this scenario of “special rights” for separate regions of Ukraine being replicated, embodying the Kremlin’s mantra of a divided and conflicted Ukraine.

The hacked correspondence of Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov outlines how the Kremlin crafted out the best ways to ensure a “special status” for the disaster zone it created and stopping on the option of changing Ukraine’s Constitution, which consequently became enshrined in the second Minsk protocol. The same correspondence reveals that a frozen conflict zone in Donbas is beneficial for Russia – it allows to “unfreeze” the conflict zone at any moment and thus have leverage over Ukraine’s foreign policy decisions.

This leaves no doubt that the protocols, especially Minsk-2, were engineered to ensure Ukraine’s capitulation. And they must be seen as such.

In a nutshell, the Kremlin is not only pushing for a “special status” for its Frankenstein statelets in Ukraine. It’s pushing for a “special status” for the whole of Ukraine: namely, that the country remains ostensibly sovereign but in essence, becomes a tool for Russian foreign policy.

The toxic myth of “understanding and engaging” Russia

1. “War is peace”

Quite cunningly, Russia is trying to market its potential victory in the war over Ukraine – the implementation of Russia’s demands for the Minsk protocols – as peace, while Ukraine’s defense of its territorial integrity as war. And this deceptive view is at the basis of all recent attempts to “understand and engage” Russia.

2. “Russia is threatened by the West”

Another deceptive notion underpinning all recent “peace memorandums” is that of a misunderstood Russia, which started a war against Ukraine because it felt threatened by NATO expansion. This is a myth cultivated by Russia over the years, and the fact that it is being regarded as reality testifies both to the successes of Russian simulacrum-making and the ignorance of western players engaging with this simulacrum as if it were reality.

3. A racism of low expectations

The West’s attempts to “understand and engage” Russia also reek of a racism of low expectations: in civilized society, one does not simply start wars because its neighbor decided to pursue a relationship one doesn’t like. However, for some reason, the West expects Russia to be unable to behave in a civilized manner.

The existence of this discourse can also be counted as a success of Russian propaganda operations since one of the major concepts Russia tries to sell the West is that it’s existentially different and can’t be judged or understood by western standards.

4. Classic victim-blaming

As well, from the Ukrainian perspective, it is a classic example of victim-blaming: Ukraine is being blamed of provoking the attack of its aggressor. Since when do we justify attacks the innocent by saying that aggressors are unable to control their urges, and since when do we stop aggression by telling victims to behave less provocatively?

5. “Sanctions are too harsh so let’s lift them”

Yet another misleading idea in both documents is that there is no progress in the Minsk process because the sanctions on Russia are too harsh and it sees no incentive for lifting them. It’s difficult for me to grasp the logic behind this concept, but we know from history that Russian aggression proliferates if not challenged, and there is no reason to believe that it will be different with Ukraine.

Appeasing aggressors didn’t work in WWII, and will not work today

Everything what I have said can be summed up in four words: appeasing aggressors doesn’t work.

Yet ironically, 70 years after the Munich agreement proved this concept, yet again plans for appeasing aggressors are being drawn up in Munich, with the expectation that this time it will be different. It is understandable that the prospect of a long-term conflict with Russia is daunting to the West, but believing that this time appeasing the aggressor will work is simply wishful thinking passing off as a “revolutionary” perspective.

The aforementioned warnings are applicable if the initiatives honestly aim to preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty. But in Ukraine, suspicions are rising that some people behind these initiatives have the goal of sacrificing Ukraine’s sovereignty for the sake of getting back to normal with Russia – namely, getting back to economic normal – and the faulty reasoning is but a fig leaf for covering up this economic desire.

The radical notion that Ukraine should be free to decide its own fate is increasingly being seen as a thorn in the side for European countries. For many, it would be quite beneficial if Ukraine just “laid down and died,” succumbing to its “place” in the sphere of Russian interests. But this view is extremely short-sighted: a resurgent Russia, replete with Ukraine’s economic, geostrategic, and military resources, will pose a greater danger to the EU and is a road to disaster. Believing otherwise is wishful thinking.

The Kyiv Security Forum was established in 2007 by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, former Prime Minister of Ukraine (2014-2016), sponsored by Yatsenyuk’s Open Ukraine Foundation. Today, the international security forum is an annual event that provides a platform for high-level discussion of Ukraine’s national security (including the Black Sea region), security in Europe, and security virtually around the globe. The forum brings together representatives of governments and of regional and global organizations, independent experts, influential intellectuals, politicians, academics, and journalists, among others.

This year, due to the COVID-19 lockdown, the forum conducted 13 online sessions. Key topics included the lack of trust of democratic politics in the U.S. and Europe, rising Chinese authoritarianism and its growing influence, and Russia’s ongoing aggression. With regard to Russia, talks focused on the Minsk Agreements reached in 2014/2015 between Russia and Ukraine. Agreements that are no longer relevant since they are constantly violated by Russia’s proxy insurgents but at the same time they can’t be just replaced because they define international sanctions against Russia.

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