Russia and Ukraine: A Corridor of Opportunities
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Ph.D in History, Leading Researcher of the Euro-Atlantic Security Center at the MGIMO Institute, RIAC Expert
PhD in History, Associate Professor, Department of Post-Soviet Countries, Russian State University for the Humanities, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Post-Soviet and Interregional Studies, RIAC expert
The Ukrainian crisis presents the most serious and dangerous challenge to European security since the collapse of Yugoslavia and the series of ethnic conflicts it gave rise to in the Balkans. What we are witnessing is the combination of the largest confrontation between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War, growing animosities between Russia and Ukraine over Crimea and south-eastern Ukraine, and the transformation of the Ukrainian government project into something closer to hard line national statehood. Ukraine is the nexus where the interests of such key players as Russia, the European Union and the United States have clashed, making this purely domestic crisis turn into a regional and even global issue. There are several possible scenarios of how the crisis might unfold: military confrontation, “deep freeze” (or maintaining the status quo), and decentralization and compromise.
Scenarios of How the Crisis may Unfold
The Ukrainian crisis presents the most serious and dangerous challenge to European security since the collapse of Yugoslavia and the series of ethnic conflicts it gave rise to in the Balkans. What we are witnessing is the combination of the largest confrontation between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War, growing animosities between Russia and Ukraine over Crimea and south-eastern Ukraine, and the transformation of the Ukrainian government project into something closer to hard line national statehood. Ukraine is the nexus where the interests of such key players as Russia, the European Union and the United States have clashed, making this purely domestic crisis turn into a regional and even global issue.
The crisis in Ukraine has not revealed anything fundamentally new in the strained relations between Russia on the one hand, and the United States and the European Union on the other. But it has drawn a line under two decades of attempts on the Russian side to move towards integration and cooperation with the West and overcome differences and disagreements. These efforts have been replaced by confrontation, one that is similar in nature to the ideological Cold War, but which implies the uncompromising assertion of one’s own geopolitical and economic interests, including military and political intervention. In the West, this is perceived as a violation of international law and the foundations of world order. Russia, on the other hand, believes it is ensuring its independence and protecting its vital interests.
Politics in post-Soviet Ukraine has from the very beginning been dominated by two approaches: the identification model, which is based on the idea of establishing a new political identity; and the rational-bureaucratic model, which focuses on the creation of a bureaucratic state that does not place an emphasis on all things “Ukrainian”.
In the early days of its independence, Ukraine followed a line of balanced relations with Russia and the West. In late 2013 to early 2014, however, the country changed the vector of its policy dramatically and aligned itself with Europe and the United States. This happened in parallel with the transformation of the Ukrainian national statehood project. Politics in post-Soviet Ukraine has from the very beginning been dominated by two approaches: the identification model, which is based on the idea of establishing a new political identity; and the rational-bureaucratic model, which focuses on the creation of a bureaucratic state that does not place an emphasis on all things “Ukrainian” as a tool for uniting the people and building the state. 2014 has seen the complete victory of the first approach, which was met with fierce resistance in Crimea and south-eastern Ukraine and eventually led to a change of jurisdiction in the first case and military conflict in the Donbass. The decision of the political elite in Ukraine to follow the path set out by the identification model, which by its very nature would provoke a sharp reaction from Russia, has contributed to the worsening of all the antagonisms that had been building up between the two states following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As such, the Ukrainian crisis currently has a number of dimensions. First, the political tensions between Russia and the West, which have been caused by global issues such as competition in the post-Soviet space and Russian attempts to prevent the global military hegemony of the United States, as well as Moscow’s desire to reshape the world order. Second, there is the clash between Russia and Ukraine, where the former sees the latter as belonging to its sphere of influence; for Russia, Ukraine represents a key element in its integration projects and a factor that provides a significant degree of consolidation within Russian society based on the propagation of ideas about the common history and historical memory of the two nations. Ukraine, in turn, is exerting great efforts to formulate and build up its own state project, seeing Russia as a hindrance to accomplishing this aim. Finally, the armed conflict in the Donbass region and the disagreements among the Ukrainian elite make it difficult for Moscow to find suitable negotiating partners, weaken Ukraine from the inside and do nothing to help smooth out the already existing regional differences in the country.
In this respect, there are several possible scenarios of how the crisis might unfold: military confrontation, “deep freeze” (or maintaining the status quo), and decentralization and compromise. “Unforeseen circumstances” may also arise. Each of these scenarios has its own set of possible changes, and each has positive and negative aspects for the various parties. For this reason, we will consciously avoid such descriptions of the scenarios as “positive”, “negative” and “neutral”. It is important to stress that the future development of events could very well combine different elements of the three scenarios. This may alter the scenarios somewhat, but, in our opinion, not enough as to change their pivotal component. What is more, unforeseen circumstances have already influenced the development of the Ukrainian crisis and acquired great political significance of their own (the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, for example). In the future, similar events could have a considerable impact. Potentially dangerous scenarios with unpredictable consequences include possible attacks on Russian gas pipelines to Europe (and any action that threatens energy transit) and attempts on the lives of top Ukrainian officials and officials of the breakaway republics in the southeast of the country or of the governments involved in resolving the crisis. The consequences of such incidents could be escalations in violence, which would contribute to the violation and breakdown of agreements. They may also serve to push the country towards compromise in order for it to avoid slipping into chaos and a situation of total collapse.
Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko talks with
his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, as
France's President Francois Hollande watches
during a meeting in Milan October 17, 2014
Decentralization and Compromise
Of all the possible scenarios, this is the least likely to be achieved – especially following the G20 Summit in Brisbane and the introduction by Ukraine of an economic blockade in Donbass, and even taking into account the views expressed by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin in an interview following the Summit about the federalization of Donbass and Lugansk. http://www.rg.ru/sujet/4558 Nevertheless, this scenario would only be possible as part of a broader package deal, one that would also have an impact on the fate of Crimea. At present, considering just how far the conflict has gone and, more importantly, the seriousness of the crisis of confidence between all the interested parties, we can only talk about possible methods and first steps towards making this scenario a reality.
In return for suspending sanctions and dropping the Crimea question Russia would thus agree to recognize the territorial integrity of Ukraine – albeit after broad decentralization and with elements of a federal structure, but maintaining Ukraine as a unitary state de jure.
In our opinion, decentralization and compromise presuppose a number of key parameters. Among these are successful practical actions in the short-term to find a mutually acceptable solution to the gas problem with the mediation of the European institutions (the signing of the trilateral agreement on 30 October 2014, can be seen as an important step in this direction). It is also important to enter into effective discussions with the West – and with Ukraine in particular – on the country’s non-bloc status and to curb the active resistance to its European political leanings. It is absolutely vital that a more or less acceptable solution regarding the future status of the “people’s republics” in Donbass (the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic) is worked out. In the longer term, a re-examination of the forms of interaction with the Ukrainian elites is called for, as is a restructuring of the conditional “pro-Russian” forces. This would take into account a rethink of the ostentatious attitude towards Ukrainian statehood as being invalid, as well as an understanding of the need for systemic work both with the representatives of the political elite and with the country’s youth – introducing publicly funded educational and cultural projects as part of the “soft power” government model.
This scenario, which we can tentatively call positive, presupposes the freezing and gradual lifting of sanctions by the United States and the European Union, as well as the West abandoning efforts to initiate discussions of the status of Crimea at the international level. In return for suspending sanctions and dropping the Crimea question (even assuming that the West is unlikely to officially recognize Crimea as part of Russia), Russia would thus agree to recognize the territorial integrity of Ukraine – albeit after broad decentralization and with elements of a federal structure, but maintaining Ukraine as a unitary state de jure.
At the present time it is highly unlikely that all the conditions of decentralization and compromise scenario, which can tentatively be considered positive, will be met.
If the question of Ukraine’s non-bloc status and the search for new mechanisms for working with the elite can be put off to a later date, then the gas issue and the status of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics certainly cannot. The most desirable scenario for Russia would be one whereby the conflict could be steered into state of moderate calm and Kiev forced into talks with the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics on their status within Ukraine. In order for this to happen, it is necessary to politically neutralize the more radical separatist leaders and give a greater role to the moderates, those who are prepared to enter into discussions with Kiev. The Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics could then raise the issue of these regions (and not just the areas of these regions that are controlled by the separatists, but the whole of the Donetsk and Lugansk) becoming part of a thoroughly decentralized and partly federalized Ukraine. This would allow Moscow to avoid taking full responsibility for the reconstruction of the infrastructure in these regions, formulate a stronger position with regard to Ukraine’s non-bloc status, minimize Ukraine’s involvement in the Crimean question and get Kiev to soften its position on Transnistria.
At this stage, given the different interpretations of the Minsk Protocol, the question of the status of the republics is of key importance. Now more than ever it is clear that by exerting an element of pressure on Ukraine and the West, in this case in the form of two self-proclaimed governments, Russia should have had a better understanding of how supporting these breakaway regions could have led to the growth of common problems, including attracting sanctions. The West clearly expects Russia to give up on the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics sooner or later. But Moscow, on the contrary, seeks to legitimize the regimes in these regions – this legitimacy may well be dubious and it may never be recognized by the West, but it has symbolic meaning and helps explain the presence of the authorities that are in place right now. Obviously, a consensus on the status of these republics will not be reached any time soon. From this perspective, the elections in the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics to a certain degree allow the regions to avert a state of complete chaos and possible infighting between the various separatist commanders in the field. At the same time, Russia will not officially recognize these republics in the given scenario.
At the present time it is highly unlikely that all the conditions of decentralization and compromise scenario, which can tentatively be considered positive, will be met. It is only possible if Kiev is able to set in motion a genuine project for the creation of new form of Ukrainian statehood based on the European ideal, abandon the old models of corruption that thrived during the Kuchma and Yanukovych administrations, establish a workable coalition and continue along the trajectory towards a peaceful resolution of problems. Otherwise, any attempt to resolve the issue expeditiously through military means based on the hope that a heavily sanctioned Moscow will not come to the aid of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics may result not only in defeat for Kiev and military intervention by Russia, and then possibly NATO, but also complete chaos in the entire region. This is a far from desirable situation for Ukraine and Russia. In this context, the agreement to deliver gas for the winter period is an important and positive step; it may not have been completely finalized, but it does at least guarantee that hostilities will not resume this winter. In general, at the moment we can only talk about the possibility of implementing individual elements of the decentralization and compromise scenario, which as a whole is quite promising.
If this scenario (which is more favourable for Russia in the long term) pans out, Russia would demand that the reunification of Crimea be left out of negotiations for the foreseeable future and that it be officially recognized de facto as a part of Russia, as it is today. The second element should be the decentralization of south-eastern Ukraine coupled with Russia’s cooperation in rebuilding, reformatting and gradually strengthening political power in Ukraine, which should be free of anti-Russian influence. The problem is that even if the main points of compromise are implemented, Russia still needs guarantees on Crimea, i.e. that its status be consolidated in a form that would mean it is no longer referred to as Ukrainian territory, a step that the West is still not prepared to take. It is unlikely that simple verbal guarantees will satisfy Moscow, given its negative experience with the West over the past few decades. Nevertheless, progress in this area is possible and can be helped by the significant losses being incurred by several EU countries as a result of the sanctions and the “informational overload” on the Ukrainian crisis.
This scenario assumes that the military and political conflict in south-eastern Ukraine will continue to grow, with the possible direct or indirect involvement of Russia and the United States and its NATO allies. We are talking here about the breakdown of the Minsk Process or a partial breach of its clauses. The various interpretations of what the conflicting sides consider to be in accordance with, or in violation of, the terms of the September agreement present an acute danger.
Possible negative developments include escalations of military activity in Donbass (with end results ranging from the full restoration of Ukrainian jurisdiction over the breakaway territories to the military defeat of Kiev) and destabilization (simultaneous and one by one) on both sides of the imaginary line of confrontation, whether it be a third Maidan in the Ukrainian capital or the transformation of Donbass into a federation controlled by “warlords”. In any case, the escalation of military and political violence, the spreading of the conflict and the deepening of antagonism between Russia and the West will be inevitable. As a result, European security system as a whole will probably deteriorate.
The current situation within Ukraine and surrounding the country is characterized by the extreme fragility of the existing structures, from the Ukrainian authorities themselves and the breakaway republics to the mutual relations between external players with regard to the prospects for resolving the crisis that is unfolding in the centre of Europe. In this situation, it is tempting to speed up the development of events and, rather than meticulously untying each of the knots, deciding to sever them completely. The lack of unity within the Ukrainian leadership (made worse by the fact that the presidential bloc was unable to secure an outright victory in the parliamentary elections) could lead to attempts to eliminate this deficiency by the way of a strong military offensive targeted against the two breakaway republics in Donbass.
Military Confrontation assumes that the military and political conflict in south-eastern Ukraine will continue to grow, with the possible direct or indirect involvement of Russia and the United States and its NATO allies.
And the offensive will be presented not only as the completion of the “anti-terror” operation (ATO) that started in April 2014 and the fight against separatists, but also as counteracting Russia, its imperial policy and occupation. The offensive may be backed by the West, which itself is not prepared for a military showdown with Moscow. If this option materializes, the situation may develop in several different ways.
The first is a repeat of the Republic of Serbian Krajina in 1995, when Croatian armed forces and volunteer units, with the military, political and information support of the United States and its European allies, crushed the infrastructure of the unrecognized Republic of Serbian Krajina and managed to “restore the country’s territorial integrity”, thus avoiding many years of negotiations, concessions and compromises. In the event that Russia, fearing further Western sanctions and possible NATO involvement in the conflict, accepts this scenario, it would mean the biggest defeat for Moscow in the post-Soviet space, far beyond comparison with the consequences of the “colour revolutions”. Unlike the events in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan of 2003–2005, it would mark both a political and military defeat. Such an outcome would undermine the popularity of the government inside the country and fuel discontent with the Kremlin’s actions (and this may result in the convergence of the extreme positions of those who oppose any interference in Ukrainian affairs and the “imperialists” who would like to see “a march on Kiev”). This would make the future of Eurasian integration uncertain and may even put an end to the project. Moscow’s closest allies (such as Armenia and Tajikistan), faced with Russia’s unreliability, will start casting about for geopolitical compensations. Such a development, in turn, would put into question the status quo in the South Caucasus (the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Abkhazia, South Ossetia) by giving impetus to the activities of Georgian and Azeri diplomacy. One cannot rule out that the “Krajina scenario” would be replicated (if it works in south-eastern Ukraine) by Azerbaijan.
However, this scenario does not promise significant gains for Moscow either, because in addition to getting a “European Somalia” on its doorstep, it would be targeted by new Western sanctions and it would have new obligations to develop Donbass.
However, an attempt to quickly solve the issue in the ATO zone by force may lead to other consequences that would be reminiscent not of the events in the Balkans in 1995, but of the Caucasus scenario of 2008. On that occasion, the U.S.-backed attempts of the President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili to gain control of the unrecognized South Ossetia prompted military intervention by Russia and the subsequent recognition of the independence of the two former autonomies of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. The West’s reaction was limited and largely demonstrative. If events take this course, Kiev risks not only seeing Russia become openly involved in the military confrontation in Donbass, but very probably a recognition of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics as independent states by Moscow or a repeat of the Crimean scenario in south-eastern Ukraine. That would automatically lead to new sanctions and a deterioration of the economic situation inside Russia because, in addition to the negative impact of the sanctions, Russia would have major social and economic obligations to restore Donbass. Meanwhile, even in today’s configuration, these two “people’s republics” control twice the territory of Abkhazia and have twice the population of the Crimea and Sevastopol. A military defeat of the Ukrainian Army and the National Guard in Donbass is likely to lead to a “third Maidan”, which may bring together both the opponents of the ATO and those who advocate war until a victorious end. Today’s Ukraine does not have the degree of consolidation of state power around the top leader that Georgia had in 2008, or that Azerbaijan has today. A third Maidan may precipitate the disintegration of Ukraine, which would be split into several power centres that would preserve the trappings of unity, but may also choose not to do so.
However, this scenario does not promise significant gains for Moscow either, because in addition to getting a “European Somalia” on its doorstep, it would be targeted by new Western sanctions (at least in the short and medium term) and it would have new obligations to develop Donbass. Yet, unlike in the Krajina 2 scenario, Moscow will not suffer a crushing defeat on the foreign policy and domestic fronts. Even so, its success in Donbass would be encumbered by a range of serious problems in the economy and on the international arena and by increased isolation (symbolic designation as a “rogue state” would be a possibility).
On the whole, we believe that the conflict scenario would be the least beneficial for Russia because it may lead to escalation not only in Ukraine, but in the whole post-Soviet space.
Another negative scenario is internal political destabilization both inside Ukraine and in the south-east of the country, which is not controlled by Kiev, even without the military offensive in Donbass. The absence of consolidated power and the multiplicity of decision-making centres increases the risks of unpredictable Ukrainian actions and attempts to use mobs to strengthen this or that group. This raises the risk of losing effective control over the country and its subsequent regionalization. If developments follow this course, Kiev would have no time for ATO or holding onto Donbass.
The advocates of Novorossiya (New Russia) within still broader territorial boundaries may take advantage of this. However, today there is no unity among its defenders or the leaders of the two “people’s republics” in Donbass. Indeed, a conflict potential has built up. This may lead to the emergence of a regime that is basically a “federation of warlords”, incapable of creating a real state (similar to Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria) with the fragmentation of territories and armed clashes between warlords. The scenario can be called a “Ukrainian Ichkeria”. Chaos may build up in Kiev and Donbass, simultaneously creating the danger of a reformatting of the “Kiev – People’s Republics” conflict into a war of all against all and turning Ukraine into a failed state. For Russia and the West this situation is fraught with massive confrontation, although eventually it may prompt Moscow, Washington and Brussels to act in concert to prevent the export of Ukrainian instability to Europe and the Russian Federation.
On the whole, we believe that the conflict scenario would be the least beneficial for Russia because it may lead to escalation not only in Ukraine, but in the whole post-Soviet space. Under this scenario, only a major military success could demonstrate the seriousness of Russia’s intentions, above all to Europe. But Europe will not officially recognize Greater Novorossiya, although Russia could “freeze” the conflict, with not just the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, but the whole south-east of Ukraine becoming de facto states. Most probably it would put paid to Greater Ukraine and turn Novorossiya into a large buffer quasi-state, whose existence Moscow will claim as its regional victory. Nevertheless, it is more probable that it would lead to a global clash with the United States and trigger a cold war in accordance with new principles and on new terms, forcing Russia to pump more and more financial and human resources into Novorossiya (compared with the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics) in order to restore the infrastructure and win the loyalty of the population.
“Deep Freeze” (Status Quo)
This is the most likely scenario considering the overall thrust of the foreign policy of Russia and Ukraine (as well as that of the United States and the European Union), the development of the situation in south-eastern Ukraine and the results of the elections in the country, which have shown the prevalence of pro-European sentiments (despite some success of the Opposition Bloc in the eastern regions). It may go hand-in-hand with more negative trends or compromise versions, but the main vector most likely will be the deep freezing of the conflict in terms of the situation in south-eastern Ukrainian, Russian–Ukrainian relations and relations between Russia and the West.
This scenario would put the solution of the issue of the status of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics on hold. The agreement on gas would hardly have any impact in south-eastern Ukraine and would most probably be seen as giving the sides breathing space until the spring of 2015 in order to provide gas supply for Europe. Under this scenario Russia, having recognized the elections in the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, would try to form a vertical power structure in these unrecognized republics and continue to wield great influence on their internal political life. Russia will also become a donor to these republics to guarantee that the population survives the winter period and 2015. Additionally, Russia will shoulder much of the burden of restoring the infrastructure. The Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics would become not simply an element of pressure on Kiev, but an attempt to build a Transnistria-type political system as the role of field commanders gradually diminishes.
Under the status quo scenario, Ukraine would refuse to conduct official negotiations with the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics and instead concentrate on building up a defence line, expanding its military forces, carrying out a military reform with particular attention to the Eastern regions of the country, including Ukrainian units in the Donetsk and Lugansk Regions by providing economic assistance and decentralization. In many ways it would develop into a contest of efficient governance and restoration of the infrastructure between the West-supported Ukraine and the Moscow-backed breakaway republics.
At the same time, it would be more difficult for Russia to implement all these global projects because of the sanctions that would not merely remain in place but, in this particular scenario, may be toughened, and by the overall negative economic trends.
If the status quo scenario prevails, one may expect Russia and Ukraine to deliver periodic verbal broadsides against each other, a new spiral in the gas conflict after the spring of 2015 and overall Russian economic pressure on Ukraine. The Ukrainian media would continue building up the image of Russia as an enemy, while the Russian media would portray Ukraine as an aggressive anti-Russian country (perhaps toning down the rhetoric against Nazism and “Bandera followers” being mindful of the results of the Ukrainian elections) and the periodic exchange of fire and sniper activity on the lines of confrontation between the Ukrainian armed forces and the separatists.
Under the status quo scenario, there would be no cardinal changes in relations between Russia and the West. They would probably be worth describing as a low-intensity cold war, which may very well be less ideological and more localized than in the Soviet years. Cooperation would not be ruled out in certain areas, but it certainly would not determine the overall character of the relations. The status quo scenario would involve serious changes in Russia’s policy in the post-Soviet space, notably more determined attempts to turn the Eurasian Economic Community into a geopolitical project, even at the expense of its economic element.
At the same time, it would be more difficult for Russia to implement all these global projects because of the sanctions that would not merely remain in place but, in this particular scenario, may be toughened, and by the overall negative economic trends. The hope that the European Union will split and renounce sanctions is unlikely to play out. This does not mean that some countries may exempt individual companies or sectors from sanctions, but the general course of sanctions will be preserved in any case, bringing heavy pressure on the Russian economy.
This is the most likely scenario considering the overall thrust of the foreign policy of Russia and Ukraine, the development of the situation in south-eastern Ukraine and the results of the elections in the country, which have shown the prevalence of pro-European sentiments.
The status quo scenario would put the revision of Russia’s relations with NATO (the Founding Act) and the further strengthening of NATO through the rapid deployment forces along Russia’s western borders, especially in the Baltic countries, back on the agenda.
In the event that the status quo scenario plays out, Russia will have to face the problem of a prolonged confrontation with the West in the context of sanctions. Gradually, using various formats, including the OSCE, it may try to uphold its position through contact groups, seeking federalization of the south-east while simultaneously assisting Donbass and promoting those politicians in the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics who are prepared to compromise with Kiev, but only on federative terms. That process would take several years and all this time Russia would be under sanctions, which may be toughened not only because of the events in the conflict zone, but, for example, in the event that the United States changes its foreign policy after the departure of Barack Obama. The question of Crimea will remain unresolved from the international legal point of view and Russia will not be able to wrest any concessions from the West on the subject for the foreseeable future. Because of the long-term nature of the “deep freeze” scenario, the social and economic situation in Russia and Ukraine takes on added significance both in terms of the ability to allocate enough resources to meet the challenges facing them and in terms of the competition between the Ukrainian and Novorossiya projects from the economic, social and image-building point of view.