Ukraine and the Art of Creative Diplomacy (16/12/2013)

When most people think of diplomats, they think of aristocratic families and their descendants who attend private schools like Eton, Harrow or Le Rosey and universities like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or ENA. When most people think of diplomacy, they think of flying on special planes, feasting at fancy receptions in elegant embassies, sleeping in luxurious suites in hotels like the Hotel Intercontinental or savoring haute cuisine meals in restaurants like the Perle de Lac.

One does not think of diplomats as being creative. However, there are situations in which creativity is needed to get out of seemingly intractable situations. The current crisis in Ukraine is an excellent example. A large country with over 40 million citizens, Ukraine appears torn between entering into a customs union with the Russian Federation and some former Soviet Republics and an accession agreement with the European Union (EU). President Viktor Yanukovich said he would sign the EU agreement in Vilnius at the end of November, then changed his mind and appeared in Russia negotiating with President Putin. No one, perhaps even Yanukovich, knows his intentions.


At the same time protesters are in the streets of bitterly cold Kiev demanding Ukraine’s affiliation with the west, diplomats are calling for a round table discussion to find some non-violent way out of the tug-of war. As the basis of all good diplomacy in these type of situations is a win-win result, what could be a solution to the crisis? (Disclaimer: Although I was in Kiev last week, I was not involved in any of the negotiations.)

Two historical examples come to mind. The first involves Switzerland, Russia and Georgia. The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) acceptance of the Russian Federation as a member was the result of a creative diplomatic solution to the disputed border between Russia and its neighbors. The brief Russian-Georgian War of 2008 not only suspended diplomatic relations between the two countries but also caused international confusion about the definitive border between them. By recognizing the sovereignty of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August 2008, the Russian Federation changed its border with Georgia. From the Georgian perspective, the border had not changed.

The Working Party of the WTO on the accession of the Russian Federation was established in 1993. Admission to the WTO is done by unanimous approval, and the Russian Federation had significant difficulties convincing the other members of its eligibility during the entire 18 year process. 


Finally, in 2012, with the help of Swiss diplomatic activity, a breakthrough took place which allowed all parties to accept Russia’s becoming a member of the WTO.  The Russian Federation and Georgia were able to agree on a border to deal with customs between the two countries while not agreeing on the definitive geopolitical border between them, a most creative diplomatic solution to the border question.


The second example also involved borders, this time between Ecuador and Peru. Their dispute was the Western Hemisphere’s oldest conflict and the scene of numerous violent outbreaks. Since 1884, there had been at least 30 military confrontations, and as recently as January 1995, war broke out between the two countries that involved 5,000 troops and between 200 and 1,500 casualties. Finally an agreement was reached in October 1998 overseen by four “Guarantor” states. Whereas the agreement to allow Russia to join the WTO involved a customs border, the agreement between Ecuador and Peru involved a demilitarized ecological zone as well as a mutual security arrangement designed to prevent future conflicts and billions of dollars in financial assistance from major international institutions such as the World Bank. Neither Ecuador nor Peru was perceived to be losing territory in the arrangement. Both countries agreed to establish an ecological park on either side of the disputed border with free transit and no military forces allowed.


The current crisis in Ukraine does not involve a specific border. It does, however, at least superficially, involve membership in two competing organizations. As the two examples above illustrate, there is the possibility for creative diplomacy to come to a win-win conclusion. Let’s see how ingenious the diplomats can be if a win-lose situation is to be avoided.

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