2016 will be extremely important in terms of resolving the conflict surrounding Ukraine. To a great extent, the year will be marked by the attempts of the Russian leadership to demonstrate its commitment to finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict, or its desire to blame the Ukrainian side for failing to uphold its end of the Minsk II agreements. We need to understand that it has long since stopped being a national, or even regional, conflict – it is now part of a global geopolitical game.
Predicting how the situation surrounding the conflict in Eastern Ukraine will develop and determining what the architecture of Russia–Ukraine relations moving forward will look like are both reasonably difficult tasks, because the course of events is influenced by a number of objective and subjective factors.
The Minsk II package was extended to 2016, although the actual implementation of the measures contained within it are being implemented only very gradually, which goes some way to justifying the widespread belief that the severity of the agreements is cancelled out by the fact that they are not being followed through. The fragile ceasefire is frequently broken, with rogue armed groups from the self-proclaimed republics apparently carrying out random attacks on Ukrainian positions. The participants in the peace negotiations in Minsk have been unable to find a common denominator with regard to holding elections in the territories that are not under Ukrainian control and establishing full state control in the areas that border the Russian Federation. What is more, the international community has turned its attention away from Ukraine to the war against Islamic State (ISIS) and global terrorism, and to finding a solution to the migration problem. All this makes it increasingly difficult to get international actors involved in bringing the confrontation in Eastern Ukraine to an end.
At the same time, we need to take the significant problems that have appeared in Russia against the background of the Ukrainian conflict, as well as other international processes that have a negative effect on the wellbeing of the country, into account. Pressure continues to be exerted on the Russian economy, a compromise has not been found with the West with regard to the status of Crimea, and a new conflict has emerged with Turkey, which had until recent events been another potential partner for Russia. Since Russia is the only external actor that supports the separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine, the question of whether or not it is time for the country to reassess its policy with regard to Ukraine in the context of the current situation gains traction.
Before making any predictions about how events may unfold, we should first identify the key objectives pursued by Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the United States in their respective foreign policies (we believe it is necessary to assess the situation from the global perspective), as well as examine the results already achieved by the sides, particularly those that focus on the Ukrainian conflict.
The Russian Federation
1. Ensure Ukraine’s non-aligned status and restricting its opportunities for Euro-Atlantic integration
NATO drawing closer to Russian borders would mean strategic defeat for the country, a defeat that would put the Kremlin’s influence in the region into question. The appearance of permanent zones of instability in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions prevents Kiev from developing closer ties with NATO, and in the short term keeps Ukraine contained in terms of its movement towards Euro-Atlantic integration.
Ensuring that the conflict continues unresolved on Ukrainian soil is a key factor in preventing Kiev from speeding up the process of full integration into the European security system.
Right now, we can say that Russia has achieved its goals in this respect. Armed hostilities in Ukraine continue to play into the hands of Russia, insofar as the Kremlin wants to gain leverage when it comes to determining the course of Ukraine’s foreign policy. Ensuring that the conflict continues unresolved on Ukrainian soil is a key factor in preventing Kiev from speeding up the process of full integration into the European security system, meaning that joint military exercises and training can only be carried out under the pretext of partner relations.
2. Impede the full economic integration of Ukraine into the European Union
The change in its foreign policy position has eliminated the possibility of Ukraine joining the Eurasian Economic Union entirely, with its new strategic priority being association with the European Union. The “Eastern belt of instability” did little to stall Ukraine in the achievement of this goal. And the long-standing frictions in the EU–Russia–Ukraine triangle with regard to implementing the economic part of the Association Agreement resulted in Ukraine joining the EU free trade area on January 1, 2016. However, there are many unresolved issues and pitfalls associated with all the EU member states ratifying the document that must be taken into account.
Based on the current situation, we can say that Russia has been unsuccessful in its attempts to keep Ukraine in the “Eurasian system of economic ties”. The conflict in the eastern regions of Ukraine has led to a significant reduction of bilateral trade. And the Ukraine’s burgeoning economic partnership with the European Union has resulted in Russia abolishing its free trade zone with the country.
3. Expand the mechanisms of Russia’s ideological influence in Ukraine
RIAC Working Paper
A major part of Russia’s foreign policy with regard to Ukraine is all-encompassing ideological influence. Despite the conflict between the two states, which has manifested itself in the military operations in the eastern regions, a number of “soft power” institutions continue to operate in Ukraine, most notably the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo). It is with the help of this organization, as well as various other civil groups, that Russia is able to maintain an “ideological presence” in Ukraine, spreading its values and promoting Russia’s views.
An analysis of the socio-political situation in Ukraine would suggest that the Kremlin has made a tactical blunder with regard to the ideological component of its foreign policy. The conflict in Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea has led to fierce criticism on the part of the Ukrainian people of Russian ideals. The patriotism of the Ukrainian people, coupled with the Russian support for the separatist movement in the country, have caused a schism to form between the countries at the level of civil society. What is more, it can be assumed that the Kremlin did not expect the level of support for Russia’s foreign policy to be so low among the residents of large cities in Central and Southern Ukraine – Odessa, Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv. And this is the reason why the idea of the “Russian world” has failed to gain more traction throughout the country. Thus, much more was expected in terms of spreading Russian ideology than actually was the case, and this only served to intensify hostilities between the Russia and Ukraine.
4. Legitimize the annexation of Crimea
Russia has been unsuccessful in its attempts to keep Ukraine in the “Eurasian system of economic ties”.
The Kremlin’s policy with regard to Ukraine give us grounds to believe that legitimizing the annexation of Crimea is its main goal. Russia continues to try and get the international community to recognize Crimea as a part of Russia. But so far all attempts have proved unsuccessful. No matter what Russia has tried – inviting European politicians to visit Crimea, employing all kinds of diplomatic tricks, attempting to separate the sanctions levied by the European Union into “Crimean” sanctions (those directly linked with the annexation of the peninsula) and “Eastern” sanctions (those related to Moscow’s support for the separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine) – it has come up short every time. The West continues to press Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine, meaning that the operation carried out by Russia would be legitimate in the Russian legal system only. The Crimean people organized a referendum themselves, choosing to become part of the Russian Federation. But what Russia considers to be legitimate is seen by Kiev and the West as an annexation of Ukrainian territory.
Based on the priorities of Russia’s relations with Ukraine that we have outlined above, we can talk about the somewhat unsettling results of the Russian leadership’s policy with regard to its neighbour: 1) there are no prerequisites for the global community to recognize Crimea as part of Russia; 2) normalizing Russia–Ukraine relations would appear to be impossible in the near term, both at the state level and at the social and public level; Russia has lost its leverage in terms of influencing public opinion in Ukraine (it has become merely an instrument of the media that operates exclusively in the eastern regions of Ukraine).
The fact that Russia managed to temporarily stall Ukraine’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic system can be considered a success of sorts, inasmuch as the active conflict in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions and the delays in carrying out democratic and other types of reforms negatively affect the possibility of Ukraine becoming full-fledged member of the European Union and NATO. However, we should bear in mind that there are undesirable results for the Kremlin, namely, the further economic expansion of the European Union and the United States into Ukraine and the resulting movement of Kiev towards a visa-free regime with these entities.
Much more was expected in terms of spreading Russian ideology than actually was the case, and this only served to intensify hostilities between the Russia and Ukraine.
1. Expand its partnership relations with the West and initiate the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration
The new Ukrainian government has identified integration into the Western political and economic system as a strategic goal of the country’s foreign policy. Ukraine ultimately wants to become a member state of the European Union and NATO, but its goal in the medium term is to implement the economic part of the EU Association Agreement and introduce a visa-free regime.
Right now, we can say that Ukraine has for the most part achieved its aims. The free trade area with the European Union has come into force, and the long and obstacle-ridden journey towards a visa-free regime is in full swing. Cooperation with the European Union and the United States in solving domestic policy issues is growing (the fact that closer ties are being forged with U.S. partners is of particular note here). U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden’s consultative visit to Ukraine is proof of this, as is his speech to the Verkhovna Rada on the eve of the approval of the country’s draft tax code and the adoption of the budget for 2016.
Focusing on expanding partner relations with Washington, the Ukrainian leadership also take into account the economic and foreign policy interests of its partners, which become even more important against the backdrop of the geopolitical confrontation with Russia for spheres of influence in the former Soviet states.
At the same time, it is important to note that, despite the significant rapprochement with the West, the partnership does not seem entirely firm. In the course of inter-ethnic negotiations, the European Union and the United States have repeatedly stressed the need to step up reforms in Ukraine, intensify the battle against corruption and do more to lessen the influence that the oligarchs wield over the country. Much will depend on the actions of the Ukrainian authorities in this respect.
Ukraine between West and East
2. Establish control over the borders with Russia, suppress separatist tendencies in the eastern regions and put an end to armed hostilities in the region
It would be fair to say that this goal has not been achieved. Despite the fact that a ceasefire has been agreed, there are reports of random gunshots being fired on a regular basis from the territories under the control of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics.
In any case, even given this fact, it can be argued that the active phase of the fighting is over and Ukraine is upholding this part of the Minsk Accords.
Far more problematic for Ukraine has been establishing control over the Donetsk and Lugansk regions’ borders with Russia. Reaching a compromise on this issue has proved difficult, both in the trilateral Minsk talks and in the Normandy format. Russia continues to insist on the following: ensuring constitutional recognition of the special status of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions; holding local elections in problem territories; and only then establishing Ukrainian control over the borders. Ukraine, in turn, maintains that an item “On the Border Area” be included in documents before any political transformations take place. With the appointment of Boris Gryzlov as plenipotentiary representative of the Russian Federation in the Contact Group on Ukraine, negotiations on these issues are expected to intensify. This much is clear from Gryzlov’s visit to Kiev and his meeting with the President of Ukraine.
The European Union
The West continues to press Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine, meaning that the operation carried out by Russia would be legitimate in the Russian legal system only.
1. Continue to implement the Eastern Partnership programme, reorient the foreign policy and economy of Ukraine towards Europe
The fact that the political and economic parts of the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement have come into force shows that the European Union has succeeded in achieving this aim. It has not, however, been able to realize its aspirations with regard to Russia while maintaining full relations with Moscow. The Kremlin responded in a very radical way to the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine the course of its foreign policy on its own, choosing instead to aggressively defend interests in the region. As a result, a new set of priorities appeared within the European Union’s system of foreign policy coordinates with regard to the situation surrounding Ukraine.
2. “Freeze” the conflict along the eastern border of the European Union, normalize relations with Russia, even out the problematic aspects of energy imports
The European Union, under the leadership of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is committed to the peaceful settlement of the conflict in Ukraine, fearing that increased hostilities could have unpredictable consequences for a country that is located at its borders. At the same time, the headaches caused by the systemic problems connected to the migration problem and the settlement of the Middle East conflict mean that the European Union is not opposed to eliminating or localizing the drawn-out standoff in Ukraine. Reaching a compromise on this issue will create the preconditions for putting an end to the political and economic disputes with Russia, which remains an important energy exporter for the European Union and which, if the sanctions are lifted, will once again become an attractive market for investors.
The fact that Russia managed to temporarily stall Ukraine’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic system can be considered a success of sorts.
The United States
1. Expand its influence in the region, ensure the continued movement of NATO eastwards
The situation surrounding the conflict in the eastern regions of Ukraine has drawn the United States into the political life of Ukraine like never before. Washington has assigned itself an important role in the geopolitical standoff with Moscow, whose goal is to keep hold of its significant influence in the region. Right now, we can say that the United States has been successful in achieving its goals here, as the Ukrainian leadership has all but abandoned dialogue with the Kremlin and placed their full trust in their Western partners. And although the essential preconditions for holding talks on Ukraine’s accession to NATO have not currently been met, the United States has expanded its programme of cooperation with the Ukrainian side in terms of training and equipping the military.
2. Ensure that the animosities between the European Union and Russia continue
Washington has made no attempts to hide the fact that it had a hand in the European Union’s decision to impose sanctions against Russia. This clearly work’s in Washington’s favour, as it presents a wonderful opportunity to drive a wedge between the Kremlin and the European Union and the prospects for political and economic rapprochement between the two. It also gives Washington the chance to convince a number of Western European states that they need to revise their views on the international security architecture. The “Russian threat” has served as a catalyst for the United States to increase its military budget and spend more on acquiring the necessary equipment in order to guarantee the security of the country.
Right now, all signs would point to the fact that Washington appears to be outmanoeuvring the Kremlin with regard to the “Ukrainian question”. Even the “soft” (in terms of his foreign policy actions) Barack Obama is gradually resolving issues in the region that might affect Americans, avoiding escalation in the region and defending the national interests of his country.
Playing Russia's Hand in the Ukraine Crisis:
A Response to "The Ukrainian Challenge
A “Frozen” Confrontation
The end of 2015 proved that the main achievement of the Minsk II agreements was the “freezing” of the confrontation in Eastern Ukraine. The stalemate was temporarily beneficial for all sides in the geopolitical conflict.
For example, the ceasefire allows Ukraine to focus on carrying out reforms within the country. The local elections that took place against the backdrop of the ceasefire helped create the conditions for the practical development of a political platform of decentralization, as the current government received the required amount of support from the people in local governments. What is more, the country has been afforded the time to “restore order” in the defence sector and establish trade relations with its western partners.
The European Union has reacted positively to the normalization of the situation and the fact that it has not escalated, insofar as it has been able to solve internal issues related to the endless stream of migrants.
The United States has shifted its focus to the Middle East, while at the same time stepping up its decisions with regard to economic issues in its relations with Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Russia has not achieved the results it had expected from the “freezing” of the situation in Eastern Ukraine – that is, if we do not count the fact that it has been able to focus attention on the operation in Syria. The relative calm in the Ukrainian conflict has freed the Kremlin to concentrate on other geopolitical interests. As far as everything else is concerned, there is a distinct lack of noticeable success. The country failed to get the sanctions lifted and fully restore Russia–EU investments involving western capital in return for “helping the ceasefire in Ukraine” and achieving partial rapprochement with Europe (to a greater extent with France). Attempts to hold local elections in the territories of the self-proclaimed republics under the pretence of the ceasefire failed. The preconditions for implementing another plan of the Kremlin – having the pro-Russian disputed territories actively involved in the political and economic process in Ukraine – did not present themselves. The objectives of this plan were to keep an element of pressure on the Ukrainian authorities and create a zone of permanent instability, no longer calling for a fully autonomous state, but one that is on the fringes of the Ukrainian political system. It should also be noted that Russia has made the least progress during the ceasefire in its attempts to achieve during talks with the European Union and the United State recognition of Crimea as part of Russia.
Right now, we can say that Ukraine has for the most part achieved its aims.
Given the missteps of the Russian leadership with regard to the situation in Ukraine, we can expect the Kremlin to step up its efforts to find a way out of the situation in 2016.
One of the main reasons for Moscow’s increased initiative in the dialogue regarding Ukraine is economic pressure.
The price of oil – the main source of the Russian budget – has plummeted, which has led to unfavourable assessments of the Russian leadership going forward, which has been unable to make any real headway in terms of implementing economic reform and redistributing financial assets in other industries. Oil prices are not expected to increase in the near future, meaning Moscow must either find other sources of income or normalize relations with its western partners, which have suffered greatly as a result of its aggressive foreign policy. Disregarding the interests of the Russian leadership, the European Union chose to extend the sanctions against Russia, which by themselves may not have a critical effect on the Russian economy, but nevertheless significantly affect the outflow of investment from the country and exacerbate Russia–EU relations, particularly in the innovation and technology sphere, a sphere that is of great importance to the Kremlin.
Moscow’s increased political activity in 2016 with regard to Ukraine may also be affected by the need to keep its hold on the European market for exporting energy.
A new set of priorities appeared within the European Union’s system of foreign policy coordinates with regard to the situation surrounding Ukraine.
A strategic priority for the Kremlin in its relations with the European Union is to preserve its export capacities and ensure the uninterrupted transit of gas to European countries. At the present time, the only pipelines that deliver oil to Europe are the one that runs through Ukraine and Nord Stream. And the prospects for planned projects that circumvent Ukraine are looking bleak: South Stream via Bulgaria is long gone, and the conflict with Turkey casts doubt on the short-term prospects for building a different pipeline leading to Southern Europe (the project will only see the light of day if there is a change in power in Ankara). The future of Nord Stream 2 is also unclear – even if the projects comes to be, it will take some time to actually build the pipeline and put it into service. Thus, Russia finds itself in a position whereby the only way of preserving the country’s export potential is to continue to transit oil through Ukraine. And this means holding talks with the Ukrainian authorities on the matter.
In these conditions, the fact that the Kremlin has lost its leverage over Ukrainian politics is an important factor in it stepping up its efforts.
The United States’ influence in Ukraine is increasing, and the conflict in the eastern regions of the country is only helping. The Russian government is playing into the hands of its American counterparts by continuing to support the separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine and allowing its own citizens to fight in another country. Meanwhile, trade turnover between Russia and Ukraine has fallen to a record low, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Kremlin to prevent the European integration of the Ukrainian economy.
The situation surrounding the conflict in the eastern regions of Ukraine has drawn the United States into the political life of Ukraine like never before.
Considering all these factors, it would be fair to say that “freezing” the situation without making any significant changes is detrimental to the Kremlin at the present stage. The country continues to spend money to further its geopolitical interests, but the state treasury is not receiving sufficient funds in return. Talk of shifting the focus of foreign policy towards the east and expanding trade and economic relations with China is more of a long-term strategy and does little to help solve the current problems. The situation will thus force the Kremlin to take the initiative throughout 2016.
Credit where it is due – it would appear that the Russian leadership has realized the complexity of the situation and has taken the first steps to correct it. As we have already noted, Russia’s position in the Contact Group on Ukraine has been bolstered by Boris Gryzlov, an experienced politician who paid a visit to Kiev immediately upon his appointment to the Group. Efforts to untie the knot of contradictions connected with the elections in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions are being stepped up, and the issue of Ukrainian control over its border territories with Russia is also high on the agenda. Dialogue with Washington has been intensified at all levels.
In light of all these factors, we can say that the situation in Ukraine may develop according to the following scenarios in 2016 .
Scenario 1. Intensification of the Negotiation Process
There are a number of possible developments that could occur under this scenario.
Feeling the pressure from all the circumstances mentioned above, the Kremlin will establish an effective dialogue with the West and step up contacts with the Ukrainian leadership directly. Kiev’s will use Moscow’s desire to exploit the transit potential of Ukraine in order to preserve gas supply volumes to Europe and counterbalance the “Ukrainian factor” in normalizing its relations with the West.
Russia will try to ensure that elections are held in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions on its terms, and that they are subsequently integrated into the Ukrainian political and economic system. Developing a decentralization strategy that will give the problem regions a great amount of autonomy and limit political and economic ties with them will become a functional mechanism for preventing Russia from implementing its plans with regard to Ukraine. A “geopolitical buffer zone” could form in Ukraine that is similar to Transnistria or Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Theoretically, this could suit all the players in the conflict: Kiev will be able to follow its Euro-integration aspirations, while Russia will essentially get control of a neutral zone separating its borders from NATO in the event that Ukraine joins the organization.
Preconditions for the partial lifting of sanctions will appear within the European Union – partial because the issue of Crimea will remain unresolved in 2016. Even if elections take place in the self-proclaimed republics, Ukraine will never gain control over the eastern borders. The situation will be “frozen” once more, but for different reasons this time. The global community will again turn its attention to the war on terror and Islamic State, and this will be at the top of the agenda throughout 2016.
All signs would point to the fact that Washington appears to be outmanoeuvring the Kremlin with regard to the “Ukrainian question”.
Events could unfold differently under this scenario. This would involve the Kremlin making good use of its diplomatic channels – perhaps invoking the “Syrian factor” – in order to reach an agreement with its foreign partners of the neutral status of Ukraine, much like that of Finland (Zbigniew Brzezinski talked about this). Kiev will continue to develop relations with the West. The free trade zone with the European Union will come into full operation, and multinational companies will enter the Ukrainian market, substantially increasing their presence in the country’s agro-industrial complex.
Meanwhile, talk of fully integrating Ukraine into NATO and the European Union will be “frozen” temporarily. Preconditions for the partial restoration of Russia–Ukraine political and economic relations will appear on the basis of a normalized dialogue on resolving the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The eastern regions will be given significant power, a situation that would satisfy both Russia and Ukraine.
Both of these possible development scenarios will involve the difficult search on the part of the President of Ukraine for a political consensus within the country concerning constitutional changes and the decentralization of power, which would give the separatist republics a great deal of autonomy. The Ukrainian leader will have to reach a compromise with parliament in order to consolidate the overall political will in a single effective algorithm for structural reform.
Scenario 2. Resumption of Active Hostilities
The stalemate was temporarily beneficial for all sides in the geopolitical conflict.
In this scenario, the trilateral dialogue does not yield any tangible results. All negotiation formats fail to reach a compromise on important issues. Fighting breaks out once again, the aim of which is to change the negotiating positions of all those directly or indirectly involved in the conflict. Sensing that they have the full support of the Kremlin, the self-proclaimed republics will start fighting on the line of contact between the two sides. In response, the Ukrainian authorities will launch its anti-terrorist operation.
With its informational capabilities and diplomatic contacts, Russia will attempt to convince Europe that it was the Ukrainian side that broke the Minsk agreements. What is more, Moscow will try to further fragment Europe politically by emphasizing cooperation with individual states rather than with the European Union as a whole. Nationalist Eurosceptic parties will play a crucial role in “undermining” the European Union, maintaining close ties with the Kremlin. Moscow will attempt to lobby for the construction of a Nord Stream 2 that would bypass Ukraine and thus eliminate Russia’s dependency on the country. It will be extremely important for Kiev in this case to step up its diplomatic activity. Kiev will need to convince its western partners that it was the Kremlin-backed self-proclaimed republics which contravened the Minsk Accords. This will aggravate the conflict between Russia and the European Union and stave off Moscow’s attempts to normalize trade relations with the European business elite by sidestepping existing sanctions.
It will be necessary against the background of the worsening situation to launch a new round of negotiations. This could involve the creation of new measures and programmes for resolving the conflict. The United States will insist on further sanctions, forcing Europe into an even worse situation with regard to its relations with Russia.
This scenario implies that Russia–Ukraine relations will deteriorate even further, and the prospects for their improvement in the short- or medium-term will continue to be bleak.
Scenario 3. External Influence to Change Power in Ukraine
Given the missteps of the Russian leadership with regard to the situation in Ukraine, we can expect the Kremlin to step up its efforts to find a way out of the situation in 2016.
The lack of progress in the dialogue with Ukrainian authorities will compel the Kremlin to try and initiate a change of regime itself. The only way to ensure that the foreign policy priorities of the Ukrainian government undergo radical changes, and that the Kremlin will be able to solve problematic issues with regard to Ukraine, is if a pro-Russian government comes to power.
This scenario is unlikely because the Ukrainian people are extremely critical of the situation surrounding the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. In this respect, questions are raised about the readiness of the Ukrainian people to accept a government that uses pro-Russia rhetoric, and whether or not a movement that is capable of promoting Russian interests even exists within the Ukrainian political elite.
Right now, the most likely candidate for that position is the Opposition Bloc, which has quite a healthy support in a number of regions, as well as several dozen seats in parliament. In addition, many of its followers have sizable financial assets.
If Russia decides to go down this path, then we can expect right-wing radicals to go on the offensive immediately, inciting resentment within the people in order to create grounds for emergency re-elections.
Additional difficulties in terms of keeping the peace among the masses may present themselves in the form the problems experienced by soldiers returning from the zone of the anti-terrorist operation to reintegrate themselves psychologically and socially into Ukrainian society. The Ukrainian government needs to address the issues of providing material support to military officers and helping them find jobs immediately if it is to avoid possible conflict situations.
The Kremlin, understanding this contradictory situation, will try to find an alternative approach in line with its own views on people for government positions. The essence of this approach is to look for relatively neutral politicians who are able to garner the necessary level of support among the western elites.
This scenario implies the greatest threat to order and stability in Ukraine. It calls for aggravating the domestic contradictions that exist within the country and which are capable of giving rise to dangerous social trends there.
“Freezing” the situation without making any significant changes is detrimental to the Kremlin at the present stage.
Which of these scenarios is most likely? The two possible courses of development within the first scenario should be noted here, both of which involve actively searching for compromises. Russia is interested in bringing about some kind of change, as a “frozen” and protracted conflict no longer plays into its hands. Even if it experiences difficulties in achieving the compromises it desires, the Kremlin leadership will use all available means to position itself in the eyes of the global community as the architect of the search for a way to ensure a lasting ceasefire.
A big problem for Moscow is the West’s unwillingness to recognize Crimea as a part of Russia – none of the scenarios described above account for this. Even if Moscow is successful in the negotiations on the eastern regions, the issue of Crimea will nevertheless remain unresolved. The best that Moscow can hope for is a partial easing of sanctions related to its support for the separatist movement in Ukraine, or their division into “Eastern” sanctions and “Crimean” sanctions. And this will only happen after a long period of tense negotiations.
It is important to note here that, no matter the scenario, it is the self-proclaimed republics that are the least likely to achieve economic stability and a consensus among the people. Ukraine does not have the financial resources needed to restore the infrastructure that was destroyed during the conflict. Western countries are unlikely to want to invest money into such risky regions, even if a total ceasefire is achieved. As for Russia, it will not burden its budget with additional expenditures, as restoring the productivity of the region would not be a favourable move in terms of the current tactical realities.
2016 will thus be extremely important in terms of resolving the conflict surrounding Ukraine. To a great extent, the year will be marked by the attempts of the Russian leadership to demonstrate its commitment to finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict, or its desire to blame the Ukrainian side for failing to uphold its end of the Minsk II agreements. We need to understand that it has long since stopped being a national, or even regional, conflict – it is now part of a global geopolitical game. And any changes to the internal political environment of the major players could alter the course of this game completely, as could the appearance of new circumstances in other international processes (the autumn 2016 U.S. presidential elections, for example).
1. These scenarios are the result of extensive research and reflect the personal opinions of the author about the prospects for the development of the situation in Ukraine.