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Opinion: Russia is in the driving seat of the Ukrainian crisis and she’s taking the West for a dangerous spin

Western powers have been reactive rather than proactive in their approach to the situation all summer, writes Jack Lahart.

Jack Lahart

JOSÉ MANUEL BAROSSO told EU leaders at last week’s summit in Brussels about an interesting conversation he had with Russia’s Vladimir Putin the previous day. According to Italian newspaper La Repubblica, the Russian President told Barroso that “if I wanted to, I could take Kiev in two weeks”.

The report caused a diplomatic spat with the Kremlin, who argued that the comments were taken out of context.

And perhaps they had been. But even so, the most interesting thing about this reported conversation is that Putin wasn’t lying. “The Gatherer of Russian Lands,” as he has become known, could, if he wanted to, take Kiev within two weeks. While in reality, this almost certainly won’t happen, the fact remains that the West has so far responded incredibly inefficiently to the crisis in Ukraine.

Reactive rather than proactive

Western powers have been reactive rather than proactive in their approach to the situation all summer. Russia is in the driving seat when it comes to the crisis in Ukraine, and she’s taking the West for a dangerous spin.

When we examine the timeline of events throughout the conflict, we find it difficult to pin-point a time when the EU and other Western powers actually seemed on top of things in Ukraine. Even the downing of Malaysia flight MH17 in July at the hands of Russian backed separatists did not spur the West into formulating a coherent strategy to put a stop to Putin’s Ukrainian adventure.

The response was strong rhetoric from Europe and a set of sanctions, which, even though comprehensive in nature, will do nothing to tighten the leash of the Russian leader. What we are seeing in Ukraine is a dangerous violation of one of the most primal of laws in the international system – state sovereignty.

Ukraine’s border

Russia’s escalating involvement in backing Eastern separatists, and now the apparent presence of Russian troops within Ukraine’s borders indicates that even with the recently agreed ‘ceasefire,’ Putin’s intentions extend far beyond what he claims is the protection of Russian speaking civilians in the East.

The West’s, and particularly Europe’s reactive approach to Ukraine is giving Russia the breathing room to gain little but significant wins in the region, that will culminate in something bigger unless a stronger stance against the Kremlin is taken.

At the NATO summit in Wales this week, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen described the situation posed by the Ukrainian crisis and the problem of Islamic State as an ‘arc of crisis.’ Indeed, this type of global instability has not been witnessed perhaps since the 1970s, when a series of global crises rocked the international system.

But simply identifying the problems do little to solve them. NATO has little doubt as to what is going on in Ukraine. Analysts last week pointed to what they say are Russian troops blatantly spilling onto Ukrainian soil. Thus, the NATO summit in Celtic Manor in Wales ambitiously sought to address this ‘arc of crisis’ and single-handedly mend the woes of the international system - a little too late, some might say.

Too little, too late?

But while the solution of a newly created NATO Readiness Action Plan is to be welcomed, one must ask why on earth this idea wasn’t put forward months ago.

What NATO and most Western states don’t seem to realise is that they are an inherent part of the Ukrainian problem. For the last number of years, Western foreign policy has been in retreat. Disillusionment with foreign engagement, a woeful recession and a need to focus on domestic issues has resulted in a lack of will for the West to be pro-actively engaged in world affairs.

It has become harder for Western democracies to build coherent coalitions to act in international relations, and it seems that being able to identify what lies in the collective interests of the West is now almost impossible.

The result of this is that when an international crisis occurs – be it a revolution in Tahrir Square, the rise of an obscure but powerful terrorist group such as IS in the Middle East, or a military conflict on the fringes of Europe – the West is left scrambling for solutions. It ends up reacting rather than influencing, allowing other groups or states to gain a foothold in strategic locations and ultimately bringing instability to the international system.

Inefficient foreign policy 

This is an incredibly inefficient way to conduct any foreign policy strategy, be it of a single state or a group of states. The result is incoherent muddling and host of sub-optimal outcomes, both aspects that are on display in the way the West has handled Ukraine.

The Arc of Crisis described by Rasmussen is an effect of which the West is partly responsible for. There is a bitter irony in the fact that in identifying the solutions, some states are blind to the fact that they have been, and still are, part of the problem. When Vladimir Putin says he can reach Kiev in two weeks, I now, unfortunately, believe him. And in terms of 21st international relations, that is a frightening thought.

Jack Lahart has a Masters degree in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He also holds a B.A. in History, Politics and International Relations from UCD. He is currently working in the field of Political Intelligence in and Communications and specialises in U.S. foreign policy and international affairs. For more writing by Jack Lahart you can view his blog here.

Read: Fears over Ukraine truce as woman killed in heavy fighting overnight>

Read: Russia warns it will “react” against new sanctions from Europe>

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Jack Lahart

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