As Ukraine’s winter of domestic political discord transformed into a spring of territorial partition and instability, European and American officials seemed to be speaking from an agreed set of talking points in their public remarks on the crisis. While hopeful transatlanticists sought to construe this remarkable consistency as a demonstration of a new seriousness of purpose in the West, the litany of warnings, threats and prescriptions for resolution (inevitably characterised as either an ‘off-ramp’ or ‘de-escalation’) spoke more to the desperation of those uttering them to quickly find a new, stable equilibrium for Ukraine, Russia and the international system. Yet the talking points and buzzwords, no matter how many times they are repeated, do not in fact describe either a sustainable equilibrium or an end point to the crisis. Instead, the disequilibrium and instability triggered by the Ukraine crisis seems likely to endure for some time: the search for a ‘new normal’ promises to be long, costly and highly disruptive of both individuals’ lives and the international order.
Not just Crimea, then
Until mid-April, when pro-Russia groups in Ukraine’s south and east seized several administrative buildings, the search for a new equilibrium had been focused on drawing a line at Russia’s annexation of Crimea. As British Prime Minister David Cameron said on 25 March, ‘there’s a view that the status quo [Russian occupation of Crimea] is unacceptable, but there’s then another very, very strong view that any further steps into Eastern Ukraine would be even more serious and would result in much greater sanctions.’ Russia would keep Crimea, even if most of the world found Russia’s actions objectionable, and the West would support the new Ukrainian government to become prosperous and democratic. Eventually, Russia would recognise the new Ukrainian government, and ratchet down the economic and military pressure. As a White House statement issued on 6 March put it, ‘de-escalation’ would take the following form:
The governments of Ukraine and Russia would hold direct talks, facilitated by the international community; international monitors could ensure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected, including ethnic Russians; Russian forces would return to their bases; and the international community would work together to support the Ukrainian people as they prepare for elections in May.
In theory, this proposed outcome to the crisis – let’s call it ‘just Crimea’ – seemed quite reasonable.
However, ‘just Crimea’ proved more wishful thinking than sustainable end point. Above all, it could not be maintained because winning Crimea and losing the rest of Ukraine was not an acceptable outcome for Russia. Put differently, Russia did not invade Crimea in order to annex Crimea; it did so in a desperate attempt to secure Russian interests in Ukraine, which extend far beyond the Crimean peninsula. Indeed, the timeline of Moscow’s statements and decisions suggests that the annexation (or what is called ‘the reunification’ in Russia) of Crimea did not necessarily reflect a coherent strategy. In the final days of February, when Russian President Vladimir Putin took the decision to insert special forces, paratroopers and other servicemen into Crimea, he was seeking to prevent a strategic setback in Kiev from becoming a strategic catastrophe: Russia’s nightmare scenario of being completely pushed out of Ukraine by the West. That decision – meant to secure the most important Russian physical assets on the peninsula, and to coerce the new Ukrainian authorities into accommodating Moscow’s broader interests in Ukraine – had almost immediate knock-on effects on the ground. It released latent separatist sentiment among the majority of the Crimean population, and hardened the position of the new government in Kiev. In other words, despite Putin’s statements reaffirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity as late as 4 March, the invasion foreclosed options other than annexation.
The swiftness of the annexation seemed to contribute to the false impression that Russia had achieved its objectives. Many in the West apparently wanted to believe that the story would end there, since this belief has persisted despite a complete lack of evidence to support such a conclusion.
On 15 March, the day before a so-called ‘referendum’ on the status of Crimea was held in that territory, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov handed US Secretary of State John Kerry a draft text of a ‘Friends of Ukraine’ international action plan. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published the proposal online two days later. The document contains five actionable points. Firstly, it calls for the fulfillment of the pledges contained in the agreement reached by the Ukrainian opposition and then-President Victor Yanukovich on 21 February to disband armed groups and de-occupy buildings in Ukraine. (That settlement, which had been brokered by Russia and the European Union, lasted mere hours before falling apart.) Secondly, it outlines a new federal constitutional order for Ukraine, providing for, inter alia, neutrality; the direct election of regional governments, which would be granted a wide range of powers currently held by Kiev; and the elevation of Russian as an official state language along with Ukrainian. Thirdly, after this constitution is approved by popular referendum, the Russian plan proposes that new elections, at both the regional and national levels, take place. Fourthly, the document stipulates that the right to self-determination of the people of Crimea, as expressed in the 16 March ‘referendum’, should be respected. Finally, the EU, the US and Russia are called upon to serve as guarantors of the above, which will be codified in a United Nations Security Council Resolution.
The contents of this document reveal that it was naive at best to believe that Putin could be sated by Crimea alone. As clearly articulated in the ‘Friends of Ukraine’ plan, Russia has interests in that country that go far beyond the territory it has claimed.
The Russian document should have also given Western leaders pause about the feasibility of their declared mission to transform Ukraine. The agreed EU–US policy for Ukraine was to double down on support (political, diplomatic and financial, including via a new IMF loan package) for the interim government, and to push through rapid structural reforms to modernise Ukraine’s perpetually underperforming, largely unreformed economy. Integration with the EU and cooperation with NATO would be accelerated, while democracy and support for civil society would receive a significant boost. The strategic goal was to create a Western-oriented and -integrated, prosperous, secure and democratic Ukraine.
That Russia’s acquiescence to – if not outright support for – this plan would be necessary for its success was apparently too politically uncomfortable to acknowledge. But noble intentions cannot overcome the economic fact that Ukraine’s economy is highly dependent on Russia in a variety of ways that the West cannot afford to undo. In the short term, the most acute dependence is on energy: Ukraine’s economy will not survive this crisis – despite the IMF package and no matter how radical the reforms implemented by the new government – if it is required to pay the full price for gas outlined in its 2009 contract with Russia. That price is somewhat higher than the European average, a function of the high oil price at the time of its signing. (It is much lower than that paid by most Asian countries for liquefied natural gas, but then Ukraine’s economy is nowhere near as competitive as those of the Asian tigers.) Moreover, Ukraine’s dependency on Russia is not limited to gas: up to a third of its exports go to Russia (indeed, many of its value-added exports, particularly military-industrial ones, have no other market), millions of Ukrainians work in Russia and send remittances home, and so on.
In short, the ugly truth is that Russia, having annexed part of Ukraine, can still undermine any Western plan for Ukraine’s future if it so chooses. And the current plan is to create what the Russian leadership would consider a strategic defeat for Russia in Ukraine. From the Russian perspective, in the aftermath of the Crimean annexation, the US and the EU have declared an intention to recreate the conditions that led to the initial invasion.
It should have come as no surprise, therefore, that Russia moved quickly after the annexation to ratchet up the pressure on the Ukrainian government. A snap exercise on the border became a sustained build-up of a strike force estimated to be 20,000–40,000 strong. Allegedly, special forces and operatives crossed the border to capitalise on southern and eastern Ukraine’s discontent with the new government. And the Kremlin demanded pre-payment (as provided for by the 2009 contract in response to the non-payment of previous bills) for the following month’s gas delivery.
Immediately, fears of a repeat of the ‘Crimea scenario’ for the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine spread through Kiev and Western capitals. A decision from Moscow to launch another land invasion, however, was and remains unlikely. Russia has demonstrated in recent weeks that it can effectively intervene in the bordering regions without a fully fledged invasion. And recent polling data suggests that only 11% of the region’s residents would support such a move, compared to the near-universal welcome Russia received in Crimea. But territory in itself is not what motivates Russia, and sabotage and incitement in the south and east are less costly ways of furthering the same objective that motivated the annexation of Crimea: securing Russian interests in Ukraine.
While Moscow may not want another land invasion, the forces set in motion by its moves have produced such a high level of tension that such an outcome is possible even if decision-makers might want to avoid it. In the wake of the Crimea referendum, Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchinov began arming a new ‘national guard’ to defend the country against ‘extremists from within and from outside’. A rapid increase in the number of armed, poorly disciplined young men, disproportionately from Ukraine’s centre and west, in the context of a violent insurgency in the south and east significantly increases the risk of civil war. Such an intra-Ukrainian conflict could easily precipitate a Russian invasion. Indeed, a range of other contingencies could produce the same outcome, such as any move by Kiev to cut off Crimea, which remains dependent on mainland Ukraine for everything from drinking water to heating fuel.
Barring those contingencies, Moscow has little incentive to launch an overt invasion; the instability in the south and east has already compelled concessions from Kiev. The Ukrainian government declared its intention to reform the constitution, decentralising decision-making, allowing for elected regional governors and providing for regional language rights. While Russia’s brazen aggression has achieved this much, it has also made following through on these declarations an even more politically fraught task. After all, the Ukrainian government has several other constituencies to worry about besides the south and east, including its electoral base in the centre and west; the civically engaged Ukrainians who led the ‘EuroMaidan’ movement; and armed nationalist groups that transformed that peaceful protest into an armed uprising, especially Right Sector, an extreme group that is still occupying City Hall and the central post office in Kiev. None of these constituencies want the government to make any major concessions on governance to a country currently occupying sovereign Ukrainian territory, especially not concessions that would empower their political foes.
Ukraine’s presidential election, scheduled for 25 May, further raises the stakes. The problem with that election – if indeed it takes place; an increasingly big ‘if’, given Russian opposition – is that only one person can win it. If previous Ukrainian presidential elections are any guide, the two candidates who face off in an eventual second-round vote (no one is likely to get over 50% of the vote and thus win the contest in the first round) are likely to reflect Ukraine’s regional cleavages, and the campaign may well further accentuate these divides. While the government and its Western backers insist on the importance of the vote, a divisive election might well completely rend asunder Ukraine’s delicate social fabric and spark a nightmarish civil conflict.
In fact, that fabric might already have been irrevocably damaged by the way in which Yanukovich was overthrown, specifically that he was ousted under pressure from armed far-right groups, which remain armed and in control of buildings in Kiev; and that his government, largely made up of southerners and easterners like him, was replaced by a new cabinet of which more than half the members are from the four former Hapsburg provinces in the west of the country. These regions comprise 12% of Ukraine’s population, compared to about 50% in the south and east.
All this is not to say that Ukrainians in the south and east have any special affection for the now-exiled former president, given the endemic corruption and economic stagnation over which he presided towards the end of his term. But considering how lopsided the new government is in terms of its regional make-up, it comes as no surprise that half of the residents in these areas believe the events of late February to have been an ‘armed coup’ that brought to power a government and an acting president they consider to be ‘illegal’. In the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, those holding such views amount to over 70% of the population.
The hope of some in the West that the Russian aggression would unite Ukrainians on the issues that have always divided them has turned out to be another case of wishful thinking. NATO membership remains popular only in western Ukraine (64% in favour) but, even after the annexation of Crimea, joining the Alliance is deeply unpopular in the south (11% in favour) and the east (14% in favour). As Keith Darden has written, ‘even surrounded by battle-ready Russian forces and at risk of annexation, southerners and easterners seem more interested in having the Russian military protect them from NATO than they are in having NATO protect them from Russia’.
Previous Ukrainian governments had the luxury of governing without taking into account their country’s regional divides. This one does not. Kiev needs to start pursuing national unity with a seriousness of purpose we have yet to see – and to stop sending in the military to confront its own citizens under the guise of ‘counter-terrorism’ – if it is to have any country left to govern.
Seriousness of purpose is also lacking in the current Western approach to the diplomatic track. Thus far, the US and the EU have been faithful to President Obama’s pronouncement that ‘[on] the fundamental principle that is at stake here – the ability of nations and peoples to make their own choices – there can be no going back’. This is a noble principle, to be sure. But, given Russia’s influence, determination and willingness to absorb costs for this cause, if the West is not prepared to intervene directly and coerce results, it should be prepared to compromise and negotiate a deal. Yet there has been little support for this view in Western capitals.
Rather than a definitive outcome, therefore, this crisis is likely to lead to a period of sustained disequilibrium and instability, first and foremost for Ukraine, but also for Russia and the international system. Even in a best-case scenario, Russia will be under EU and US sanctions for decades: the measures implemented at the time of writing were explicitly linked to the annexation of Crimea, and it will be decades before that move is undone, if ever. While Russia has not yet deliberately made trouble for the West on other international issues, it seems inevitable that Moscow will at some point begin to play the spoiler on any number of unrelated topics that matter to Washington and Brussels. The international order, such as it is, depends on a basic level of comity among the permanent members of the UN Security Council. For Russia, that level of comity is gone and might never return. The possibility of collective action to address global challenges might well be the most significant victim of this crisis.
Samuel Charap is IISS Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia.