West fails to get a grip on Ukraine crisis

West fails to get a grip on Ukraine crisis
Unknown ultra-nationalists activists march towards the Independence Square to commemorate "Maidan heroes" in Kiev on April 29, 2014.

The decision by the United States and the European Union to impose visa bans and asset freezes on some of Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest advisers represents a considerable escalation in the East-West confrontation over the fate of Ukraine.

But Western governments have no answer yet as to what should be done to avert Ukraine's territorial disintegration. The new sanctions will hurt but are not expected to ease the pressure that Mr Putin is putting on Ukraine.

Announcing the third round of sanctions that America has imposed since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region last month, US President Barack Obama denied that his goal was "to go after Mr Putin personally". Instead, he told journalists on Monday that Washington's objective is to change the Russian leader's "calculus" in Ukraine "over the long haul".

Still, the inclusion of Mr Igor Sechin on the list of Russian officials who will be denied entry to most Western countries and access to any funds or properties he may have in the West is a blow aimed right at the heart of Russia's political establishment.

Mr Sechin is not only the chairman of Russia's Rosneft, the world's single largest oil company, he also effectively decides Russia's energy policies. He is also the leader of the so-called Siloviki faction, the tightly knit group of former intelligence officers who first propelled Mr Putin to power in the late 1990s and has kept him in office ever since.

Until this week, the belief in both the White House and European capitals was that slapping sanctions on Mr Sechin was counterproductive, for it foreclosed the possibility of a compromise between Russia and the West. The fact that the US administration has now gone after Mr Sechin is an indication that Washington has concluded that the chances of a diplomatic deal over Ukraine have vanished.

The targeting of Mr Sechin will have a major impact on Russia's foreign policy, although not in the way the US may be envisaging.

Mr Sechin is likely to compensate for his personal isolation from Western markets by suggesting that Russia should divert most of its oil and gas sales to China, a policy which he has already launched. This will become evident next month, when Mr Putin is scheduled to visit Beijing.

A furious Kremlin has promised to inflict "painful" retaliation and Mr Putin has ordered his senior officials to shut down communications with their American counterparts.

The European Union, Canada and Japan too have joined the US in blacklisting companies, banks and associates of Mr Putin. General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of Russia's armed forces, was one of 15 people slapped with a travel ban and asset freeze by the EU.

However, none of these moves makes the slightest bit of difference to the fate of Ukraine. The deal which US Secretary of State John Kerry thought he brokered with his counterpart, Mr Sergei Lavrov, last week, under which Moscow was expected to clamp down on ethnic Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine in return for a promise of autonomy for these communities, is clearly dead.

Russia has done nothing to keep its side of the deal and ministers in Moscow have not even pretended they were trying.

A new round of US-Russian negotiations is also highly unlikely in the short term: Mr Kerry has said that he and Mr Lavrov see developments in Ukraine in such a different light as to make any conversation "bizarre".

Yet, the reality is that Russia calls all the shots in Ukraine. The ethnic Russian rebellion is now so extensive that it precludes a military response from Ukraine's government forces without a massive loss of life which would prompt a Russian military intervention.

The rebellion is also spreading, as evidenced by the shooting of Mr Gennady Kernes, the Mayor of Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city which hitherto had avoided the turmoil.

And time is running out; if separatists remain in control of large swathes of eastern Ukraine, they could make a mockery out of the Ukrainian presidential election scheduled for May 25.

Western defence analysts are still trying to work out what Russia really wants in Ukraine. Some argue that Mr Putin plans to divide the country, while others suggest that he may settle for a Constitution which effectively grants ethnic Russians inside the country independence.

But all analysts agree that further violence is inevitable and that Mr Putin is unlikely to disown the separatists.

Meanwhile, Western governments will continue to plan for fresh waves of economic sanctions, which are no longer designed to save Ukraine from disaster but, rather, to punish Russia for the deeds of its political leaders. Sanctions targeting major Russian companies are next in line.

None of these measures counts as a policy in itself; all are an admission of frustration due to the West's inability to devise a coherent response.

This article was published on April 30 in The Straits Times.

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