Print Читать на русском
Rate this article
(votes: 4, rating: 5)
 (4 votes)
Share this article
Andrey Kortunov

Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

Nearly five years have passed since the start of the dramatic events of the Maidan in Kiev that engendered a profound crisis in Russia’s relations with both Ukraine and the West.

Although the current situation may appear fragile, it demonstrates a high level of stability. Consequently, while the current status quo may not suit Ukrainian and Russian societies as a whole, it does to a certain extent suit at least the influential forces in the political leadership in the two countries. Or, in other words, the parties see the risks involved in a possible change to the status quo as higher than the risks connected with preserving the present state of affairs.

A question arises: How long can this relative and clearly sub-optimal stability last? In another five years, will we still be discussing Ukraine’s domestic situation and Russia–Ukraine relations using current parameters, noting merely insignificant shifts and delaying the ultimate resolution of the “Ukrainian question” to some indefinite future? Or does the current status quo already contain premises for some radical shifts in the coming years if not months?

Four possible scenarios of Russia–Ukraine relations may be proposed:

1. “Status Quo” (a weak Ukraine — confrontation). This scenario proceeds from the premise that in the next few years, Ukraine will fail to significantly progress on its path of economic reforms, bolstering government institutions, improving the effectiveness of state governance and fighting corruption. The questions of Ukraine joining the EU and NATO will be regularly delayed to some ever more distant future, and major western investment will not come into Ukraine. Under such circumstances, confrontation with Russia will remain the crucial source of legitimacy for any potential Ukrainian leader.

2. A Cold War (a strong Ukraine — confrontation). Ukraine will succeed in making the highly necessary breakthrough towards economic, social and political modernization. Socioeconomic stability, transparency, a certainty of the basic rules of the game and an independent judicial system will engender a significant influx of foreign, primarily western, investment. Kiev becomes a key boundary bulwark in the West’s confrontation with the East. For the Russian authorities, Ukraine becomes not merely a major nuisance, but a fundamental existential challenge.

3. “Balkanization” (a weak Ukraine — détente). In this scenario, Ukraine’s domestic development proceeds along the same lines as in the “status quo” scenario, while significant changes for the better take place in Russia–West relations. Moscow succeeds in avoiding further tightening of U.S. and Western sanctions and, moreover, in having them somewhat relieved. Russia succeeds in shifting the major responsibility for non-compliance with the Minsk agreements onto the Ukrainian leadership. The West becomes progressively more annoyed with Kiev. Donbass, which is not controlled by Kiev, becomes an example for other regions demanding broader rights. The “spontaneous federalization” of Ukraine removes the question of its NATO and EU membership from the agenda. Under such circumstances, Ukraine will gradually lose the functions of a full-fledged actor in European and global politics, transforming into an object of manipulation for external forces.

4. “The European Bridge” (a strong Ukraine — détente). This final and most optimistic scenario is based on two stabilizing trends coinciding: stronger Ukrainian statehood (as in the Cold War scenario) and a Russia–West détente (as in the “Balkanization” scenario). An opportunity arises to avoid many of the risks that the other scenarios entail and gradually transform Ukraine into an economic, political and even cultural and civilizational bridge between Russia and the West, which would be in the best long-term interests of all the parties to the present conflict.

For this scenario to materialize, it is crucial that Russia (not only the current Russian authorities, but also a significant part of Russian society today) recognize and accept Ukrainian people and Ukrainian authority as an independent agency.


Nearly five years have passed since the start of the dramatic events of the Maidan in Kiev that engendered a profound crisis in Russia’s relations with both Ukraine and the West. This is not a short period of time: World War I lasted a little over four years, about five years passed between the start of Perestroika and the collapse of the USSR. All wars and crises come to an end, and the more acute the crisis, the faster it moves towards a resolution. It would appear that in five years, the future of Russia–Ukraine relations should have taken definite shape, as should have the future of Ukraine itself.

Today, however, the situation within and around Ukraine is still, just like five years ago, characterized by many uncertainty factors. The “Ukrainian glass” is still half full or half empty. Socioeconomic reforms in the country are barely moving forward. Ukraine, however, did not become a “failed state,” did not declare a default on its foreign debt, and did not abandon its course for a liberal market economy. The Minsk agreements are, for the most part, not being implemented. People in Donbass continue to die, but there is no major military escalation in the east of Ukraine: the Donbass militia did not attempt to take Mariupol, and the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not start a large-scale offensive against Donetsk. Moscow and Kiev trade harsh political statements and economic sanctions. At the same time, as of last year, Russia remains Ukraine’s largest trade partner, and around one million Ukrainians continue to work in Russia. Ukraine is desperately fighting to become energy-independent from Gazprom and is just as desperately fighting to preserve the transit of Russian gas.

In other words, although the current situation may appear fragile, it demonstrates a high level of stability. Consequently, while the current status quo may not suit Ukrainian and Russian societies as a whole, it does to a certain extent suit at least the influential forces in the political leadership in the two countries. Or, in other words, the parties see the risks involved in a possible change to the status quo as higher than the risks connected with preserving the present state of affairs.

A question arises: How long can this relative and clearly sub-optimal stability last? In another five years, will we still be discussing Ukraine’s domestic situation and Russia–Ukraine relations using current parameters, noting merely insignificant shifts and delaying the ultimate resolution of the “Ukrainian question” to some indefinite future? Or does the current status quo already contain premises for some radical shifts in the coming years if not months?

Selecting Independent Variables

Many extremely diverse factors (domestic politics and social, economic, military, strategic and even psychological factors) affect the state of Russia–Ukraine relations. Some are situational (for instance, the upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine), while others are long-term (the process of shaping Ukraine’s civic nation). Some can be considered primarily within the bilateral context, while others need to be analysed against a pan-European or even global background.

Given the great diversity of these factors, a matrix of possible scenarios of Russia–Ukraine relations may be constructed along two axes. The first axis reflects the possible evolution of Ukrainian society and state (the “weak Ukraine — strong Ukraine” axis), the second reflects the possible evolution of the general international background of bilateral relations (the “Russia–West confrontation — détente” axis).

Both axes of selected independent variables require certain explanations. What is a “strong Ukraine”? We believe it does not necessarily need to be a highly centralized state based on the principles of ethnic nationalism and defining its identity through an opposition to Russia. The “strength” indicator is the capacity of the political elite to conduct a long-term independent foreign policy that reflects a broad public consensus (that is, “strength” is Ukraine’s capacity to be not just an object, but a subject in European and global politics). A strong Ukraine is a state with strong institutions rather than strong leaders. Naturally, “strength” entails the implementation of a whole set of socioeconomic and administrative reforms, the improvement of the quality of state governance, the successful fight against corruption, the further development of civic society, etc.

A “détente” in relations between Russia and the West also needs to be defined. We can hardly imagine Moscow going back to the 1990s model in its interaction with its Western partners. Still less can we see Russia becoming a part of the “consolidated West.” However, even with the “East–West” confrontation generally remaining in place, individual formats of such a confrontation can be very different, from balancing on the verge of a big war in Europe to a particular combination of elements of confrontation and cooperation, as was typical of the 1970s–1980s. By “détente,” we primarily mean stabilized relations, the effective management of elements of confrontation and the gradual build-up of elements of cooperation. By “confrontation,” we mean sliding down to the model of the start of the Cold War, i.e. to a confrontation without “red lines” that are clearly understood to both parties, without a developed infrastructure of arms control, etc. Of course, the specifics of the general political background will significantly affect relations between Moscow and Kiev.

“Status Quo” (a Weak Ukraine — Confrontation)

“Status Quo” (a weak Ukraine — confrontation). This scenario proceeds from the premise that in the next few years, Ukraine will fail to significantly progress on its path of economic reforms, bolstering government institutions, improving the effectiveness of state governance and fighting corruption. The split between the authorities and the public will continue, as will the fragmentation of Ukrainian society itself. This does not mean that Ukraine will become a “failed state”: the West will continue to keep the Kiev authorities afloat, providing the necessary minimum of economic and technical cooperation. The questions of Ukraine joining the EU and NATO will, however, be regularly delayed to some ever more distant future, and major western investment will not come into Ukraine. Under such circumstances, confrontation with Russia will remain the crucial source of legitimacy for any potential Ukrainian leader.

At the same time, this scenario entails the continuation and even an intensification of the confrontation between Russia and the West. The economic sanctions of the United States and the European Union will be retained and expanded. An arms race will start in Europe without any effective measures for building up confidence, and certainly without new treaties on arms control. Russia–NATO interaction will be limited to formal contacts within the NATO–Russia Council, while attempts to vest the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) with additional powers in ensuring European security will prove fruitless. The Minsk agreements will exist on paper only, and no significant progress in their implementation will be achieved.

Given such circumstances, there is reason to predict that the current status quo will remain in effect for a long period of time. Russia–Ukraine relations will remain hostile, despite the fact that neither side is likely to risk escalating the conflict or cutting off trade and economic or diplomatic relations entirely. Both Moscow and Kiev will take a “wait and see” approach, hoping that, sooner or later, the other side will be forced to make major concessions. Russian and Ukrainian societies will drift further and further apart in terms of culture and civilization. However, this will not automatically mean that Ukraine will drift closer to Europe. The West will grow progressively more tired of the Russia–Ukraine conflict, and even in the context of confrontation with Russia, emphases will shift to other areas (“meddling” in political processes, attempts to “drive a wedge” between the European Union and the United States).

A Cold War (a Strong Ukraine — Confrontation)

In the second scenario, Ukraine will succeed in making the highly necessary breakthrough towards economic, social and political modernization. Socioeconomic stability, transparency, a certainty of the basic rules of the game and an independent judicial system will engender a significant influx of foreign, primarily western, investment. The country will go through a significant refurbishment of its political and economic elites, which will become progressively more “European.” Kiev will succeed in overcoming the temptations of political authoritarianism and radical ethnic nationalism instead being oriented toward political plurality and the European model of a civic nation.

In the second scenario, Russia–West relations develop the same way as in the first one, in a primarily negative vein. The principal difference is that in the first scenario, Ukraine is an additional burden for the West in its protracted confrontation with Moscow, while in the second scenario, it is a significant additional asset. The role of Ukraine in the “East–West” conflict can be compared to the role of Western Germany during the Cold War: Kiev will become a key boundary bulwark in the West’s confrontation with the East. Understanding its value for the West and relying on significant successes in implementing socioeconomic reforms, Ukraine will more insistently demand a speedy integration into the bodies of NATO and the European Union. Although Ukraine is unlikely to become a full member of either the European Union or NATO in the foreseeable future, cooperation with these organizations will become intense and multifaceted.

If this scenario materializes, then for Russian authorities, Ukraine will become not merely a major nuisance, but a fundamental existential challenge. The prospect of Ukraine inevitably joining NATO entails the intensive militarization of the Russia–Ukraine border. Perceiving the Ukrainian development model as a functional alternative to the political system established in Moscow, the Russian opposition will borrow inspiration and practical experience from the story of Ukraine’s success. Young educated professionals will emigrate from Russia to Ukraine in great numbers. In response, the Russian leadership will have to isolate their country from the “alien” Ukrainian influence with progressive determination, thereby further expanding the abyss between the two societies and countries.

“Balkanization” (a Weak Ukraine — Détente)

In this scenario, Ukraine’s domestic development proceeds along the same lines as in the “status quo” scenario, while significant changes for the better take place in Russia–West relations. Moscow succeeds in avoiding further tightening of U.S. and Western sanctions and, moreover, in having them somewhat relieved. A new peak in the arms race in Europe is prevented. While not friendly, Russia–NATO relations at least emerge from a state of acute conflict. The activities of the NATO–Russia council are re-launched in full, and a set of measures for boosting confidence in Europe is implemented. Gradually, Russia’s collaboration with the European Union is restored, including via the multilateral mechanisms of the Eurasian Economic Union. The visa regime is liberalized on both sides, which, in turn, promotes an upsurge in educational, academic and cultural ties between Russia and Europe. Moscow demonstrates maximum caution and reserve in actions that could be interpreted as meddling in the domestic affairs of European states. Russian support for “Eurosceptics” and right-wing populists in the European Union peters out.

Russia succeeds in shifting the major responsibility for non-compliance with the Minsk agreements onto the Ukrainian leadership. The West becomes progressively more annoyed with Kiev, and this annoyance is further exacerbated by the slow and inconsistent implementation of the necessary socioeconomic and administrative reforms in Ukraine. With ethnic nationalists and right-wing radicals preserving their influence on Ukraine’s political life, Kiev’s traditional political rhetoric becomes less and less effective in the West as Ukraine continues to position itself as an outpost of western culture and democracy in opposing Moscow’s oriental despotism. At the same time, one could envision Kiev’s decreasing control over processes in Ukrainian regions as the regions claim greater autonomy in matters both economic and political (including foreign policy).

Naturally, in this scenario, Ukraine fails to “bring back” Donbass; on the contrary, Donbass, which is not controlled by Kiev, will become an example for other regions demanding broader rights. The “Spontaneous federalization” of Ukraine removes the question of its NATO and EU membership from the agenda. Under such circumstances, Ukraine will gradually lose the functions of a full-fledged actor in European and global politics, transforming into an object of manipulation for external forces. With progressive frequency, Russia and the West will achieve agreements on the “Ukrainian question” over Kiev’s head. The desire of foreign actors to set up some unofficial “influence areas” in Ukraine, or their attempts to establish direct contacts with Ukrainian regions bypassing the Kiev authorities should not be ruled out either. They will be prompted towards this course of action by unresolved problems of ethnic minorities stemming from attempts to shape an ethnic national Ukrainian state. Moscow will be intermittently successful in managing the complex balance of political and economic forces that is emerging in Ukraine. This policy will be akin to the policy the Russian Empire conducted towards the rapidly weakening Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-18th century (prior to the period of divisions of Poland).

“The European Bridge” (a Strong Ukraine — Détente)

This final and most optimistic scenario is based on two stabilizing trends coinciding: stronger Ukrainian statehood (as in the Cold War scenario) and a Russia–West détente (as in the “Balkanization” scenario). If these processes transpire simultaneously, an opportunity arises to avoid many of the risks that the other scenarios entail and gradually transform Ukraine into an economic, political and even cultural and civilizational bridge between Russia and the West, which would be in the best long-term interests of all the parties to the present conflict.

For this scenario to materialize, it is crucial that Russia (not only the current Russian authorities, but also a significant part of Russian society today) recognize and accept Ukrainian people and Ukrainian authority as an independent agency. That is, to accept as given a fact that is far from apparent to everyone: that Russians and Ukrainians are two different peoples, even if they are close both historically and culturally, and that Ukraine is not and will not in the foreseeable future be another “failed state.” Over the five years of the crisis, Ukraine has not collapsed, nor has its economy collapsed. And the so-called “Kiev junta” has not been overthrown by phantom pro-Russian “healthy forces.” This situation is unlikely to radically change in the future; in any case, there is no reason to expect a sharp turn in Ukrainian politics following the upcoming parliamentary elections this year or the presidential elections in 2019. Therefore, relations with Kiev should be built on the same principles as with, for instance, Warsaw, Bratislava or Bucharest. Such a revision of Russian paradigms is primarily in the interests of Russia itself, since it the only thing that makes it possible to take the Ukrainian topic beyond the framework of Russia’s domestic politics.

For Ukraine (primarily for the current Ukrainian political elite, but also for part of Ukrainian society), it will be equally important and no less difficult to acknowledge the remaining regional, socioeconomic, ethnic, denominational, cultural and linguistic plurality in the country. This plurality is the result of a long, complex and contradictory history of that part of Eastern Europe that exists today with a single Ukrainian state. The conflict with Russia might have resulted in the emergence of Ukraine’s “political nation,” but it could not and did not cancel out the diversity that had been shaped over centuries. This means that today’s radically westernizing, ethnic-based nationalistic agenda needs major adjustments, not because this is what Moscow wants, but because it is what Ukraine itself needs, particularly to achieve a stable armistice in Donbass. With the situation in the East stabilizing, retaining the radical political agenda will not only prove a progressively more complicated task, but will also create serious risks for the Ukrainian statehood as such.

For the West (primarily for the leading EU countries, but, as far as possible, for the United States as well), the crucial task would be to acknowledge that, in the future, the scale and nature of western support for Kiev should be determined not so much by the degree of Kiev’s hostility toward Russia, but by the consistency and progress of the socioeconomic and political modernization of Ukraine. In other words, after a stable armistice in Donbass is achieved, European capitals and Washington should view Ukraine as an independent area of their foreign policy, and not as a convenient foothold in their geopolitical confrontation with Moscow. A “frozen” or even completely resolved conflict in the East will inevitably result in foregrounding Ukraine’s social and economic problems. And if, sooner or later, the primary task will no longer be that of ensuring Ukraine’s narrowly construed security, but that of its socioeconomic revival, it will be in the interests of the West not to impede, but, on the contrary, to actively promote cooperation between Russia and Ukraine. The West will find it very hard, if not impossible, to ensure Ukraine’s economic prosperity entirely on its own, without Russia.

Are there Grounds for Optimism?

How feasible is the preferable scenario of the “European Bridge”? The above-listed changes to the basic concepts of the three sides to the Ukrainian conflict will certainly appear painful, vulnerable to criticism and linked to political crises. Mindsets will not change overnight, and the current confrontational logic will long affect the specific political decisions made in Moscow, Kiev and western capitals. However, looking into the future, it is important to note that none of the parties to the conflict — Russia, Ukraine or the West — see the “European Bridge” scenario as a synonym for an admission of defeat in the conflict, much less for their unconditional surrender. The balance of mutual shifts here is quite possible, particularly if the process of adaptation is broken down into many parallel concrete steps that need not be mandatorily set forth in documents similar to the Minsk agreements. The key thing here is not the format, but rather that the parties reconsider their long-term interests and see the changes in their approaches not as forced concessions, but, on the contrary, as necessary steps towards implementing these long-term interests.

Two circumstances could speed up movement towards the “European Bridge” scenario. First, synchronizing or at least bringing the cycles of structural economic reforms in Russia and Ukraine closer together. Despite their numerous differences, these countries suffer from many common post-Soviet ills. If the trajectories of Russian and Ukrainian socioeconomic development draw closer together instead of diverging, the two countries will gain additional opportunities for cooperation, as well as new groups of stakeholders interested in such cooperation.

Second, opening a serious discussion of the prospects of building a new European security system could serve as an important catalyst for future normalization. The point of view popular in the West is that Europe today should proceed from the particular to the general: settle the Ukrainian conflict and restore confidence first, and then go back to the pan-European agenda. Even though European unity cannot be rebuilt without resolving the Ukrainian problem, the Ukrainian problem itself cannot be completely resolved without restoring European unity. The concept of a single and indivisible European security today appears utopian, but it is this system alone that will succeed in removing the problem of Ukraine’s NATO membership and, in the larger context, in avoiding the transformation of Ukraine into a buffer country between Russia and the rest of Europe. Consequently, restoring European unity and resolving the Ukrainian problem should be considered as two processes running in parallel, not consecutively.

The article was first published in Russie 2018. Le Rapport Annuel (Yearbook) by L’Observatoire, Analytical Center at the Franco–Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.


Rate this article
(votes: 4, rating: 5)
 (4 votes)
Share this article

Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
For business
For researchers
For students