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Countdown for a major decision centering Ukraine


Countdown for a major decision centering Ukraine

Nikolas K. Gvosdev

The countdown for settling Ukraine’s geopolitical position within Europe and greater Eurasia is entering its final stages. Barring his resignation or removal from office, the denouement will occur under the watch of Ukraine’s populist-comedian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Zelensky and his “Servant of the People” political movement won an overwhelming mandate from Ukrainian voters in 2019 by promising to succeed where Zelensky’s immediate predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, and the Ukrainian political establishment (which was largely voted out of office) had failed: to settle the conflict with Russia while presiding over Ukraine’s eventual integration into the Euro-Atlantic world. Time, however, is not on his side. Barring a last-minute miracle, Russia’s longstanding effort to bypass Ukraine as its conduit to Western markets will be completed, while changes in both European and American political priorities and strategic assessments may diminish the importance and relevance of Ukraine as a central component in relations between Russia and the West.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine, the eponymous “borderland” between Russia and Central Europe, emerged as the principal bellwether of the temperature of relations between Moscow and the West. From the disposition of Ukraine’s Soviet nuclear weapons legacy to the stability of Russian energy supplies to Western European markets, from the formulation of the European Union’s (EU) wider neighborhood policy to the prospect of NATO’s eastern enlargement, the health of the Russia-Ukraine relationship could not be separated from the type of partnership Russia could realistically forge with the United States and Europe. Given Ukraine’s geographic realities—its northern and eastern borders nestled right up against the soft underbelly of the Russian Federation, and its western marches—courtesy of Josef Stalin’s postwar shifting of borders—controlling the access points into the heart of Europe—neither Moscow nor NATO could be indifferent to Ukraine’s ultimate geostrategic alignment.


For the last thirty years, U.S. policy towards Ukraine has been guided by former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s aphorism: a Russia with Ukraine is an empire (and by extension, a threat to the security of the Euro-Atlantic area), but a Russia without Ukraine has the chance to become a “normal” nation-state (and, by implication, is better “balanced” vis-à-vis the principal European powers of France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy). While this created a clear imperative for the United States to oppose Ukraine’s absorption into some sort of greater Russia, it left unclear whether it was necessary—or worth the cost—for Ukraine to be brought fully into the Western security structure, or whether the American strategy for Euro-Atlantic security could be secured by Ukrainian neutrality. For its part, post-Soviet Russia, even during the heyday of the Atlanticists during the first Yeltsin administration, always drew a bright shining line at Ukraine’s entry into NATO (unless Russia was also a member). Even when recognizing Ukraine’s political independence, Russia maintained that Ukraine’s cultural and economic links necessitated a special relationship between Moscow and Kiev.

Had post-1991 Ukraine been led by presidents in the geopolitical image of Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, Ukraine might have embraced the benefits of positioning itself as the keystone state connecting the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian worlds. As a Euro-Atlantic bridge, Kiev could have avoided a security dilemma with Russia but used its leverage—since in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR Ukraine remained Russia’s primary linkage to the West—to deal with Russia from a position of strength and near-equality. But the vicissitudes of Ukrainian domestic politics prevented this from happening. First, there was the geographic divide within the country between the southeastern regions, which wanted to maintain close economic and political ties with Russia, and the west, which wanted to break Ukraine once and for all out of the Russian embrace. At the same time, the Ukrainian economic oligarchy mouthed slogans promising reform and the achievement of the country’s European destiny but was more than happy to become enmeshed in corrupt deals with Russian entities. Whereas the Baltic States took very hard and painful measures to reorient their economies away from Russia—and, in turn, Russia rerouted its own export infrastructure away from the Baltic States towards a new St. Petersburg-Vyborg corridor—Ukraine was content to remain addicted to cheap Russian energy and subsidies. To paraphrase Robert Kaplan’s assessment of Greek politics, Ukraine was hoping to continue its affair with Russian money while seeking a formal marriage with the West.


As long as Central Europe itself remained outside the Euro-Atlantic world, Ukraine’s own dalliances were less critical. By 2004, however, the integration of Central Europe into both the EU and NATO brought the border of the Euro-Atlantic world squarely against Ukraine’s western frontiers. The assessment, including a famous article in these very pages at the dawn of the new millennium, was that Russia was “finished” as a great power. This led to calculations that the inexorable eastward enlargement of the West would continue without imposing any major costs on the United States or Western Europe—and without provoking a major reaction from Moscow. At the same time, the sense that Ukraine could find itself on the wrong side of a new dividing line in Europe—and that Ukraine’s European dream was in danger from a corrupt elite who benefited from Moscow’s largess—helped to fuel the 2004 Orange Revolution, which brought Viktor Yushchenko to power. Yushchenko and his erstwhile ally, Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, made it clear that they wished to end Ukraine’s borderland status in favor of Ukraine becoming the eastward redoubt of the Euro-Atlantic world.

The Orange Revolution (along with the Rose Revolution in Georgia the preceding year) fundamentally changed the tenor of U.S.-Russia relations and strained Russia’s ties with Europe. From 1991 until 2003, it was routine for Russian and American officials to proclaim that the Cold War was over and that the two countries enjoyed a strategic partnership. The EU, particularly under the leadership of EU Commission president Romano Prodi, had also sketched out a vision of EU-Russia cooperation that would fulfill Charles de Gaulle’s vision of a Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals (or Vladivostok, by extension). But after 2004, there was now a government in Kiev that was demanding that NATO and the EU live up to their claims that any European state could join—and was asking for political, economic and even military assistance to secure Ukraine’s freedom to choose against the levers that Russia could deploy to stop Ukraine’s westward movement.


From this point onward, the Ukraine issue could never be segregated from other aspects of the U.S.-Russia relationship. There was no basis to “agree to disagree.” For the United States to comply with Russian demands that Ukraine be Finlandized as a permanent neutral would be a tacit admission that the open door of the Euro-Atlantic world to new members was not so open, and that Washington was prepared to recognize a de facto Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet space. All other items on the bilateral agenda—counterterrorism, stopping the Iranian nuclear program, energy cooperation and so on—gradually became subordinated to the unresolved tensions surrounding Ukraine. Moreover, the first waves of EU and NATO enlargement changed the center of gravity in both organizations. Germany had pushed for enlargement so that its eastern border would not be the frontier of the European world. But now Poland and other Central European states were similarly interested in changing their position—from being Euro-Atlantic frontline states to shifting that line further east.

After 2004, Russia adopted new strategies. It began to explore ways to reduce Ukraine’s role as Russia’s conduit to Europe, leading to a new pipeline project (Nord Stream) that would connect the recently-constructed energy export infrastructure in St. Petersburg directly to Germany. It strengthened its capabilities to involve itself in Ukrainian politics, particularly via the “Party of Regions.” With the Orange Revolution having deprived Russia of friendly elements at the national level of governance, Moscow’s approach shifted to pushing for the decentralization of power in Ukraine, ensuring that pro-Russian regions would be able to exercise veto power over the country’s foreign policy (and so forestall Ukraine’s ability to eventually join NATO and the EU). Russia also promoted new efforts to strengthen Eurasian integration and lock the former Soviet states into those arrangements.


At the same time, Moscow, having seen that European-level institutions were less well disposed to Russia, intensified efforts to deal bilaterally with its major European partners and, whenever possible, find ways to exclude EU involvement by stressing the importance of national sovereignty. Finally, Moscow stepped up its efforts to probe how strong the rhetorical American commitment to countries like Ukraine and Georgia would be in the event of clashes breaking out—both to judge the efficacy of the American response and demonstrate, as far as possible, the hollowness of any American guarantees. All of this culminated in the Russia-Georgia clash in August 2008—which indeed exposed the limits of Western promises and the circumscribed nature of their response.

FOLLOWING THE Georgian war, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and later, newly-elected U.S. president Barack Obama initiated so-called “reset” efforts to back away from a more confrontational stance between Russia and the West. Ukrainian elites took notice. Former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma drew the following conclusion after watching the “say-do” gap in the Western response to Georgia: “Is there anyone [who] really thinks we need to tilt against Russia and someone will take our side? I’m sure that neither [the] EU nor the U.S. won’t lift a finger.”


In a closely-fought and contentious presidential campaign to replace Yushchenko as president, Viktor Yanukovych—who stood for the oligarch status quo with Russia—narrowly beat out his rival Tymoshenko to take the presidency in the 2010 elections. Yanukovych immediately took steps to reassure Moscow—extending the lease for Russia’s naval bases in Crimea, shepherding legislation giving status to the Russian language and, most importantly, formally giving notice that Ukraine no longer sought membership in NATO.

Yanukovych thus removed Ukraine as the principal irritant in relations between the West and Russia. The Obama administration and the Europeans could argue that they had remained committed to their principles of sovereign choice, because Ukraine had ostensibly freely chosen not to join NATO. Yanukovych’s presidency also cleared the way for the reset to take off, resulting in Moscow’s willingness to sign a new arms control treaty, tighten restrictions on Iran and work for resolving other problems in the relationship, all while the Obama administration touted the possibility of expanding economic ties and American investment into Russia.


Yet there were still undercurrents. Russia’s clear turn towards more authoritarian rule was now matched by Yanukovych’s own willingness to adopt more dictatorial methods in Ukraine, raising the possibility of democratic recession throughout Eastern Europe. And, in one of her last official statements as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton indicated her opposition to Putin’s plans for a Eurasian Economic Union, deeming it a threat to U.S. national interests. That, combined with Clinton’s statements decrying election fraud in Russia’s 2011–12 Duma and presidential elections, left the impression in Moscow that the reset might be more ephemeral in nature.

The Kremlin was also misinformed about the EU eastern partnership process. Moscow assumed that it would be possible for Yanukovych to sign some sort of agreement with the EU that would satisfy some of his domestic constituencies while still preserving the possibility of closer Ukrainian integration with Russia. When it became clear that the EU Association Agreement for Ukraine would be incompatible with Russian preferences—and particularly in foreclosing some of the nontransparent processes by which Ukraine and Russia did business—Moscow, in 2013, forced the issue: Yanukovych would have to choose between Moscow and Brussels. Yanukovych obliged the Kremlin by withdrawing his signature from the EU agreement—a decision that provoked an immediate protest from key segments of the Ukrainian elite as well as a significant portion of the population.


The history of the Maidan uprising is well known and need not be recounted here, except for one point. As with the Rose and Orange Revolutions a decade earlier, this manifestation quickly acquired a geopolitical patina that categorized the struggle as one between “pro-Western” and “pro-Russian” elements to determine Ukraine’s “civilizational choice.” But the United States and the European powers assumed that, just as in 2004, Moscow would accept the results of the revolution. However, Moscow had spent ten years developing plans and honing capabilities to deal with precisely this scenario. The Russians went into action once the power-sharing deal that would have kept Yanukovych in place was overturned by the revolutionary enthusiasm of the leaders and the crowds in Maidan pushed for a complete break with the old regime—and Moscow’s equities.

The Kremlin dusted off its plans to detach Crimea from the rest of Ukraine via a rapid fait accompli that left the provisional Ukrainian government—as well as the United States and the Europeans—no time to react. Moreover, in keeping with Vladimir Putin’s not-so-veiled threat to George W. Bush at the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008, Moscow showed that if it could not persuade Kiev and the West to halt plans for Ukrainian integration into the Euro-Atlantic world, the Kremlin would rely on making Ukraine an unpalatable candidate by instigating separatist uprisings that would lead to unresolvable conflicts. Based on their read of NATO and EU attitudes—the sense that the effort to bring a divided Cyprus into the EU had been a failure and unease about considering NATO membership for Georgia in light of the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia—a Ukraine that would not be a neutral bridge between Russia and the West would have to be broken.


At the same time, Russia accelerated its timetable for its bypass strategy so as to no longer be dependent on Ukraine’s economy or the country’s geography. Plans that had been put on hiatus during the Yanukovych presidency were reactivated, starting with a second Nord Stream pipeline, and, after the European Union’s regulatory apparatus overruled Russia’s attempt to bypass the country via the Black Sea (the South Stream pipeline), the Russians shifted to a line that would enter Turkey first.

The pipelines—as well as the Kerch Strait bridge connecting mainland Russia with Crimea—have drawn the most attention, but another facet of the Russian strategy has longer-term implications. Moscow has spent the last five years attempting to recreate on Russian soil the Ukrainian enterprises and industrial concerns that it had previously purchased goods and services from—including by recruiting the necessary human capital from the Donbass and other parts of eastern Ukraine. The disconnection of the Russian defense complex from Ukrainian industry is nearing completion. Moreover, by fast-tracking the ability of Ukrainians to become Russian citizens, the Kremlin helps to contribute to Ukraine’s brain drain while bolstering its own base.


Even with the drag exerted by corruption and inefficient use of resources, Russia’s efforts have begun to change the geo-economic landscape. Within a few years, Russia will have completed its bypass of Ukraine and its disconnection from Ukrainian industry. This, in turn, will allow the Kremlin to permit the current stalemate to become the norm, since Russia will no longer have an interest in cultivating Ukrainian goodwill. Moreover, the Zelensky administration, which won a good deal of its popular support from its promise to improve living standards, will face the prospect of losing billions of dollars in revenues, which it will have to make up from other sources.

Today, Moscow has a primarily negative strategy with regards to Ukraine: make Ukraine unpalatable for EU/NATO membership; prevent a consolidation of the Ukrainian political system; and reroute Russia’s geo-economic connections. The goal is to recreate a failing state and throw responsibility for its financial upkeep onto the Europeans and the United States. Putin’s gamble is that the West will be disinclined to take upon itself the burden of renovating Ukraine.


THE WEST was caught by surprise by the speed and severity of Russia’s reaction to the Maidan revolution. Hampering that response further was the lack of a unified Euro-Atlantic perspective on the Ukraine crisis. It was clear that Russian actions had violated the norms of the post-Cold War European settlement, but the seizure of Crimea and Russian fomenting of armed revolt in eastern Ukraine did not trouble all Western capitals in the same measure. Quite the contrary. It soon became apparent that Ukraine was not an existential issue for the United States or even for Western Europe, which limited possible responses, since there were no major constituencies prepared to make sacrifices. The seizure of Crimea, on paper, might be as damaging to the international order as Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait. In contrast, while an international coalition quickly assembled to make sure that Kuwait’s forcible change in status would not prevail, Russian control of Crimea did not have much impact on the day-to-day interests of any major world power. Indeed, Russian missteps—the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over the conflict zone and Putin’s efforts to mislead German chancellor Angela Merkel among them—did far more to galvanize the push for stronger economic and financial sanctions on Russia than any appeal to defend the post-Cold War settlement in Europe.

Moreover, the core European states wanted to balance their own outrage over Ukraine with maintaining their economic and political agendas with Moscow. The Obama administration, meanwhile, found little appetite among the American public for a strong, sustained response to Russian activity that would bring any risk to the U.S. economy or risk a military clash with a nuclear-armed Russia. The Western alliance, relying in large part on the partnership forged between President Obama and Chancellor Merkel, settled on a set of punitive personal sanctions and broad-ranging sectoral sanctions targeting key sectors of the Russian economy, especially the energy industry—but eschewed complete expulsion of Russia from the Western-led international economic system or a complete embargo on Russian energy imports. Security assistance was also carefully limited and restricted. The hope was that Moscow would become overstretched and overtaxed by its interventions (both in Ukraine and in Syria) while sanctions would exacerbate the economic strain on Russia and force Putin to back down. The Obama administration, in particular, took the position that Russia was a power in decline that would not be able to mount any long-term sustained resistance to Western sanctions.


Sanctions have caused Russia pain and severely limited economic growth, contributing to political unrest inside Russia, but perhaps not to the extent Obama had envisioned. Russia demonstrated a degree of resiliency and willingness to use counter-sanctions that targeted the weaker links in the European Union. The sanctions regime also gave the Kremlin a useful narrative—that the West was trying to deprive Russia of its rightful place in the global order and was pursuing regime change.

The Kremlin also began to alter its assessment of the utility of cooperation with the West. In 2011, Moscow had abstained from a key United Nations Security Council resolution that the Kremlin believed would authorize the creation of humanitarian safe zones inside revolution-wracked Libya and create conditions for a political settlement. Instead, the resolution was used by the NATO countries to provide cover for what Moscow termed blatant regime change designed to eliminate Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi. Moscow believed a similar bait and switch had taken place in 2014: hours after an agreement had been brokered by the EU Troika in Kiev providing for early elections, Yanukovych was instead overthrown and forced to flee into exile in Russia. From 2014 onward, therefore, Moscow intensified its efforts to prop up perceived pro-Russian leaders from deposition at the hands of the United States—starting with Bashar al-Assad in Syria and continuing with Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, relying less on massive amounts of Russian support and more on U.S. unwillingness to back its rhetoric with the requisite levels of blood and treasure.


At the same time, if the West was going to increase its hostile actions towards Russia, then, by that logic, it made strategic sense for Russia to use unconventional means, especially via political interference, to weaken EU cohesion and strengthen trends in the United States towards nonintervention in foreign affairs. It does not seem accidental that increased Russian efforts to influence Western political processes picked up after 2014.

THE RECORD is mixed: while Russia has been able to sustain its position in Ukraine and engage in limited interventions around the world without any of these efforts metastasizing into the equivalent of the disastrous Soviet-Afghan War, it has not been able to convert any of these efforts into secured long-term gains. Russian political operations have created problems in Western democracies, which are now grappling with the collapse of centrist coalitions in the face of new forms of left- and right-wing populism and have exacerbated pre-existing dissatisfactions with the structure of the Western alliances (Euro-skepticism, Brexit and America First). At the same time, these operations created problems for normalizing Russia’s relations with the West, particularly with the United States, where the reaction to Russian meddling in the 2016 elections solidified a bipartisan majority in the U.S. Congress for strengthening sanctions on Russia. Unease at Russian actions also helped to spur NATO allies to take seriously their commitments to spend more on defense.


Yet there is also the first signs of “Ukraine fatigue” in Western capitals. After the initial burst of enthusiasm in the wake of the Maidan revolution for helping Ukraine, the perception grew that the new government of Petro Poroshenko was not doing enough to push reform—especially after the cadre of Baltic advisors, who hoped to bring the experience of how their countries had instituted the painful reforms needed to become eligible for further integration with the EU and NATO, gradually left the Ukrainian government. This weakened the willingness of European states to give up their lucrative connections with Russia. Today, the EU’s position is stuck in a Mexican standoff whereby no country is prepared to remove any of the existing sanctions, but every effort to strengthen economic pressure on Russia is also stoutheartedly resisted by enough EU states so as to forestall any such effort. Moreover, Europe’s political landscape has changed since 2014. For the most part, European populists tend to prioritize the “euro bottom line” in relations with Russia over abstract notions of the “international liberal order.”

The Trump administration has continued to enforce the Obama-era sanctions and even began to supply weapons to the Ukrainian military—a move once seen as a red line by strategists in the Kremlin. President Donald Trump himself criticizes European governments, especially Germany, for their energy and economic interconnections with Russia and condemns the new Russian pipelines. At the same time though, Trump’s personal interest in seeing whether some sort of grand bargain “deal” with Putin might be in the cards, along with the departure from his administration of many of the officials who were actually pushing for keeping pressure on Russia, raises the question of whether U.S. policy might change in the future. Finally, new U.S. disputes with allies like Germany and Turkey create opportunities for Russia to weaken what remains of the old Obama-Merkel consensus.


And for non-European U.S. allies, Ukraine is not the most important issue in the U.S.-Russia relationship. For Saudi Arabia and Israel, enticing Russia to play a more constructive role in the region vis-à-vis Syria and Iran trumps the Crimea question. For Japan and Korea, maintaining Russia as part of the Northeast Asian regional balance of power limits the extent of the economic pressure they are willing to countenance in support of the Euro-Atlantic position on Ukraine. Finally, the resumption of U.S. sanctions on Iran and the threat of Middle Eastern instability makes energy consumers like India far less willing to curtail their relations with Moscow over Ukraine.

The risk for Ukraine, therefore, is that much of the world learns to live with de facto Russian control of Crimea—much in the same way that, despite numerous United Nations resolutions affirming the territorial integrity of Cyprus, Northern Cyprus has been maintained by Turkey as a separate entity since 1974. The Europeans are formally committed to the Minsk Protocol for settling the Donbass problem as a precondition for the lifting of the most critical of the existing EU sanctions, but that consensus is not set in stone. And while U.S. sanctions on Russia over Ukraine and election interference are more durable, the challenge for Washington is the extent it is willing to penalize third countries that decide to restore their pre-2014 relations with Moscow.


In 2019, the first signs of a possible disturbing trend—the restoration of Russian voting rights in the Council of Europe (despite Russia not having met the stated requirements for regaining its position) and the reversal by the Trump administration on its position regarding Ukrainian sailors detained by Russia after the November 2018 Kerch Strait incident—highlighted the possibility that, over time, Ukraine’s conflict with Russia could become normalized. From there, it could then be compartmentalized as a factor in relations between Russia and the West. Putin himself indicated as much during a July 2019 visit to Rome, where he voiced his hope “for the complete return to normal relations between Russia and Europe as a whole.”

DOES ZELENSKY’S surprise victory in the 2019 presidential poll—and the willingness of Ukrainian voters to throw out many of their established political figures from the Verkhovna Rada in the subsequent parliamentary elections, instead choosing to roll the dice with new, untested figures and fresh faces—change any of these dynamics? Has Ukraine been given a third chance, after 2004 and 2014, to change its destiny?

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the Captain Jerome E. Levy chair of economic geography and national security at the U.S. Naval War College. He is also a Black Sea Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

National Interest

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