What Nagorno-Karabakh means for Ukraine

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
What Nagorno-Karabakh means for Ukraine
Russian peacekeeping soldiers at a checkpoint in Nagorno-Karabakh. Credit: Belga

Tensions remain high after the Russia-brokered peace agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh redrew the map of the South Caucasus.

As the local populations feel a contradictory mix of gratitude, mistrust and fear, the deal is a point victory for Russia: not only has Moscow successfully established itself as a security guarantor in the EU’s near abroad and increased its troop presence, but the EU’s overall bad showing is risking making it irrelevant in the region.

The conflict was a sobering testament to the fact that Brussels’s almost exclusive focus on diplomacy and economic repercussions is ineffective against an expansionist Russia in an Eastern neighbourhood whose policy environment is more militarised than ever. However, the EU is not the only one who should be worried about the implications of Russia’s power play. Ukraine too will feel highly threatened by recent events – having its sovereignty already compromised and fearing for its national security – and will have found little confidence in the EU’s recent conduct.

No more business as usual in Ukraine

Locked into a territorial conflict with Moscow since 2014, comparisons between Nagorno-Karabakh and the “hybrid war” in the Ukrainian region of Donbas have abounded even before the recent peace settlement. Regardless if the actors on the ground are national armies, like in Nagorno-Karabakh, or ethnically-divided citizens of the same country, as in Donbas, the result seems to always be the same: increased Russian control and “little green men” arriving on the scene.

It’s not surprising then that the outcome of the Nagorno-Karabakh war has added to the already immense urgency for Kiev to improve its national security. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has long emphasized the need for reform of the country’s security sector, in particular the country’s security agency (SBU), in order to compete with Russia’s massive intelligence services in an attempt to protect the country from further hostile encroachment.

Unfortunately, this has been easier said than done, because Zelensky’s efforts have repeatedly met with fierce resistance from vested interests, primarily oligarchs with Russian connections as well as organized crime. A powerful coalition of actors seeking to protect the status quo formed almost immediately upon Zelensky becoming president, which has scored some successes delaying some of his much anticipated institutional reforms. This process has nowhere been more blatantly on display than with the draft law on SBU reform.

Vested interests against SBU reform

Originally conceived to strengthen the agency, its current form is but a shadow of what it was originally supposed to represent. SBU chief Ivan Bakanov’s had hoped to “make the Service strong, institutionally capable and modern”, boosting its abilities to “not only counter modern security challenges and threats, but also, in cooperation with representatives of the national security and defence sector, to restore the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country”.

Instead, the “legislative manipulations” denounced by Bakanov now threaten to render the SBU ineffective in fighting organized crime “used by foreign special services for intelligence and subversive activities against Ukraine. This is the financing of terrorism and separatism, and the corrupt infiltration of agents into government agencies.” According to the SBU chief, the service managed to expose more than 120 organized crime group over the last two years, some of which were used by Russian intelligence services.

But Bakanov’s main concern is that the current draft will bar the SBU from investigating economic crimes and corruption, thereby leaving Ukraine exposed to Russia’s proxy war. What’s more, the bill proposes to radically slash the number of SBU employees by ten thousand over the next three years to just 17,000, which, compared to the Russian FSB’s and Belarussian KGB’s more than 200,000 employees, raises additional questions about the future effectiveness of the SBU.

Don’t stand idly by

That something is wrong was noted by NATO officials as well, with the Head of the NATO Representation to Ukraine questioning the draft law’s consistency with “Euro-Atlantic norms, principles, and best practices”. The observation, if couched in diplomatic parlance, was astute and is a signal that Ukraine’s reforms are under close scrutiny from abroad. But in its pointedness, the comment was arguably directed at Brussels and Washington as much as at Kiev.

After all, international observers and reform-minded Ukrainians alike are very aware that much of the initial progress made since the Euromaidan protests is susceptible to quick reversal – even more so without a reliable national security infrastructure in place.

It’s therefore imperative that the transatlantic community, but especially the European Union, is stepping up explicit support for Ukraine and the government’s reform efforts. Failing to do so, and repeating the mistakes made in Nagorno-Karabakh, would be a painful blow to the EU and NATO, considering Ukraine’s strategic location as a vital security partner in Eastern Europe.

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