Russia vs. Ukraine: More of the same?
By Steven Pifer
The aggression that Russia unleashed against Ukraine in 2014 is now well into its fifth year. Unfortunately, Moscow has shown no readiness to end the conflict it keeps simmering in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, let alone address the status of Crimea. Hopes of a year ago that a U.N. peacekeeping force might offer a path out of the Donbas morass have dimmed. It appears the Kremlin will wait another year, until after the presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine, to reconsider its policy.
In the meantime, attitudes among Ukrainians toward Russia continue to harden. The country is deepening its links to Europe while severing ties to its eastern neighbor. The longer that Moscow holds off on changing its policy, the more the already wide gulf between Ukraine and Russia will grow.
Soldiers in Russian-style combat fatigues (but without identifying insignia) seized Crimea in late February 2014. Ukrainians called them “little green men.” Russian President Vladimir Putin denied they were the Russian military. Weeks later, he admitted that they were and awarded their commanders commendations for the seizure.
Little green men appeared again in Donbas, triggering a conflict that has now claimed well more than 10,000 lives. While Moscow has tried to minimize its visible footprint in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics,” those entities survive only due to Russian assistance, which comes in the form of funding, leadership, heavy weapons, ammunition and, at times, regular units of the Russian army.
The Minsk II agreement, brokered in 2015 by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-French President François Hollande, aimed to end the fighting and provide a path, if less than well-defined, to a settlement of the Donbas conflict. More than three years later, its first two provisions—ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy arms away from the line of contact—have yet to be implemented. Most attribute blame for this failure to Russia and Russian proxy forces.
September 2018 generated hope that a way to resolve the conflict could be found. Mr. Putin suggested that Russia might agree to a U.N. peacekeeping force, though Russian officials envisaged it operating only along the line of conflict and limited to providing protection for Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitors.
That kind of mandate seemed overly narrow, and OSCE officials privately indicated that armed escorts would put their monitors at greater risk. Ukrainian officials, including Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, nevertheless indicated a readiness to consider a U.N. peacekeeping force—provided that its mandate was properly structured and that it could relatively quickly expand its area of operations to cover all of occupied Donbas, including the Ukraine-Russia border.
Serious countries have offered to provide troops. Those include Finland, Sweden, and Austria. A peacekeeping force, perhaps complemented by an interim international administration, offers a means to ensure a peaceful and orderly transition of Donbas back to Ukrainian sovereignty. It also offers the Kremlin a face-saving way to extract itself from a conflict that has no goal or end in sight.
Some analysts, including Russians, speculated that Mr. Putin might look for a way out after he won reelection in March. That election, however, is long past, and five months have gone by since the Russian president’s inauguration. It may be that the Kremlin has decided to wait until after next year’s elections in Ukraine to use the peacekeeping plan, or some other notion, to produce a settlement in Donbas.
Ukraine’s 2019 calendar has a presidential ballot on March 31 and Rada (parliamentary) elections no later than October. No clear favorite has emerged in either. The Kremlin undoubtedly will seek to influence both elections with money, supportive electronic media, active social media, and cyber operations. The few openly pro-Russian faces that remain in Ukraine, such as Victor Medvedchuk, also will likely help out.
Moscow’s influence campaign faces challenges, however. Ukrainians are on the alert for Russian interference. Moreover, no candidate or party wants a “pro-Moscow” label. And Russia’s occupation of Crimea and part of the Donbas means that a significant portion of the electorate that in the past has been pro-Russian will not be voting.
Russian interference thus may make the Ukrainian elections more chaotic. It will not, however, deliver a pro-Russian president or sizable pro-Russian bloc in the Rada.
In the Meantime
While the Kremlin continues the simmering conflict in Donbas and waits for change in Kyiv, Ukraine is steadily moving away from Russia.
Ukraine is steadily moving away from Russia.
Opinion polls reflect this. A June survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology showed 47 percent of Ukrainians favoring integration with the European Union, as opposed to 12 percent who supported joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. In a country where the Russian language was once used as commonly as Ukrainian, many today have made the political choice to use Ukrainian.
Big changes are afoot in Ukraine’s religious scene. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, once the largest in numbers of adherents and parishes, has in recent years lost followers to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate. Sometime this fall, the Ukrainian church is expected to gain independent recognition from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. That will sever links between the Ukrainian church and Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church bitterly opposes this but appears to have little leverage to stop it.
Ukraine is moving west in economic terms as well. The European Union has displaced Russia to become Kyiv’s largest trading partner. Ukraine-EU trade made up more than 40 percent of Ukraine’s total in 2017. The decline in energy trade has accounted for a big part of the overall drop in Ukraine-Russia trade. Ukraine today imports no natural gas directly from Russia, a striking fact given that in the 1990s some 75 percent of Ukraine’s natural gas came from Russia or from Central Asia via Russia. Any Russian-origin gas that Ukraine now uses comes from Central Europe.
Ukraine is becoming more connected in other ways with the West and less so with Russia. In September, low-cost carrier Ryanair announced connecting flights between Kyiv and 12 European cities. In contrast, there have been no regular direct passenger flights between Ukraine and Russia since late 2015 (a boon for the Minsk airport). Ukraine’s transportation minister, citing Russia’s continuing aggression, this summer suggested ending rail and bus links between the two countries as well.
The Kremlin could choose to adopt a course aimed at settling the conflict in Donbas. However, it seems unready to do so. As it continues its present approach, the gulf between Ukraine and Russia continues to widen. While the two will remain neighbors in a geographic sense (you cannot move one or the other), Moscow’s policy makes restoration of good, stable, neighborly relations a more difficult and difficult task.
One has to question whether a policy that drives Ukraine away and presses it closer to the West really is in Russia’s interest. The answer lies in the Kremlin—with Mr. Putin.