Geopolitics and Security
Ukraine is no longer the country that it was in 2014. It has acquired the sense of national purpose that eluded it for most of its history. Although the so-called ‘Revolution of Dignity’ – which toppled President Viktor Yanukovych and confirmed a foreign policy tilt towards Europe – has not fulfilled its promise of political and the homeland.renewal, Ukrainians have treated the war with Russia not as a referendum on their political leaders but as an attack on
In this sense Ukraine today differs from the France of 1940, where state weakness led to national collapse. The qualities that have enabled Ukrainians to circumvent and resist a corrupt state have also mobilized the country against an external enemy. Thanks to two areas of state success, macroeconomic management and energy policy, Ukraine is far more able to shoulder the burdens of war than it was in 2014, when the economy was in free fall and less than one month’s worth of reserves remained in the central bank. The armed forces and National Guard are considerably more capable than the volunteer battalions of 2014, and have established a measure of deterrence against Russian forces still able to inflict devastating damage on the country.
For all of these accomplishments, confidence in Ukraine’s future continues to rest on faith more than capacity. To prevail against a state determined to cripple it, Ukraine requires effective and responsible governance, not only voluntary action. Public support, modernization of the state, the renewal of elites, the transformation of dysfunctional working practices and the rescue of the economy from ‘shadow structures’ of power are not simply prerequisites to European integration, but matters of national security. They cannot be accomplished by bottom-up efforts alone.
Although a basis for optimism now exists, the partial hiatus afforded by the Minsk accords of 2014 and 2015 appears to be drawing to a close. Ukraine’s greatest trials might lie ahead of it. For Russia, Ukraine’s sustainability over the past three-and-a-half years has been unexpected. But the Kremlin remains determined to subordinate Ukraine or wreck it. For the third time since February 2014, it is raising the stakes and changing its strategy in ways that foreshadow a less familiar and more testing struggle for Ukraine. The same will be true for Ukraine’s Western partners, upon whom much continues to depend.
Ukraine and the West: an unsettled partnership
Three-and-a-half years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the events of 2014 have lost their power to outrage Western opinion. They have become a wearisome and deceptively stable set of facts no more unsettling than others that few anticipated several years ago: refugee crises, nationalist populism in Europe and political revolution in the US. In 2014, the West was resolved to bring Russia back into compliance with international law and was hopeful that it could do so without war or undue risk. Today, that clarity and optimism are much diminished. Many view a baleful but managed status quo as the only realistic alternative to a wider and uncontrollable conflict. Those who take a more far-sighted and critical view of these matters must struggle to maintain their influence. Resources remain woefully out of balance with policy commitments. The gap in perceptions between national security establishments, broader political elites and electorates is significant. In an age of asymmetrical warfare, the contrast between the intermittent attentiveness of Western governments and the fixed, determined focus of the Kremlin has become a dangerous asymmetry in itself.
Nevertheless, over the past year, Russian assertiveness has been achieving the unthinkable: reviving Western cohesion. The Kremlin’s intrusions into the domestic politics (and inner workings of electoral systems) in France, Germany and the US have created a sense of threat among many who recently believed there was none. Russia’s antagonism towards the liberal democratic order is no longer simply a perception of experts. Even if Ukraine’s cause arouses less enthusiasm than it did in 2014, it has become politically difficult – even for the US president, Donald Trump – to challenge established Western policy.
Since the annexation of Crimea, that policy has had four dimensions: diplomacy, economic sanctions against Russia, economic support for Ukraine, and training and advisory assistance to Ukraine’s armed forces. In each area, fortitude and timidity, acumen and misjudgment have been present in equal measure. At the same time, Ukraine’s own determination to renovate and transform itself remains a critical, if unspoken, variable in Western political will. The stronger Ukraine’s commitment to reform, the stronger the West’s likely commitment to supporting it against Russia. The converse, of course, also applies. The purpose of this chapter is to assess whether the West’s policies on Ukraine and responses to Russian aggression towards the country are fit for purpose, and whether Ukraine’s own actions help or hinder these efforts.
The events of 2014 underscored what many knew and pretended not to know: that Russia now defines its interests in opposition to the post-Cold War security order, which extended the principles of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act to the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet states. In the words of France’s permanent representative to the UN, Russia’s actions in early 2014 had ‘vetoed the Charter of the United Nations’. Consequently, the initial aims of Western diplomacy following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine were not to compromise or negotiate, but to assist in the formation of a unified response and impress upon Russia the necessity of restoring Ukraine’s borders, territorial integrity and sovereignty. Even so, the gravity of the situation was underestimated.
In August 2014, and yet more dramatically in February 2015, Russia raised the stakes by bringing its conventional military forces on to the battlefield in Ukraine. This unnerved the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who up until then had been the bulwark of the West’s tough policy towards Russia. The two agreements that followed – the Protocol on the Results of Consultations of the Trilateral Contact Group (known as ‘Minsk I’, 5 September 2014), and the Package of Measures for Implementation of the Minsk Agreements (‘Minsk II’, 12 February 2015) – compromised the singularity of purpose that had prevailed until that point.
These agreements were the products of military coercion, and their terms reflected this unpalatable fact. The Implementation Package (Minsk II) committed the parties to a settlement that compromised Ukraine’s sovereignty; that formalized the pretence that Russia was an interested party rather than a belligerent; that gave quasi-legitimacy to the separatist leaders; and that mandated a process of accord [soglasovanie] between them and the Ukrainian government. This led to the ‘separate districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts’ (ORDLO) in the east of the country being granted far-reaching autonomy (‘special status’), including a right to independent relations with contiguous Russian regions (specified in point 11, note 1 of Minsk II).
At the same time, Minsk II reaffirmed several fundamental Ukrainian interests. It called for an immediate and complete ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons and unimpeded access for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission throughout the conflict zone (points 1–3); the withdrawal of foreign forces (point 10); the holding of OSCE-monitored elections (point 11); and, at the end of the process, ‘reinstatement of full control of the state border by the government of Ukraine’ (point 9). Key Russian and separatist demands fell outside the rubric of the agreements: notably, ‘federalization’ (full autonomy for the ORDLO and the right of veto on Ukraine’s state policy), as opposed to the provisions of ‘special status’ that Ukraine has provisionally incorporated into its constitutional reform.
The ambiguities in Minsk II have given Russia pretexts to shrug off the agreement’s core provisions
Taken in the round, the ambiguities in Minsk II have given Russia pretexts to shrug off the agreement’s core provisions. Instead of a roadmap, the implementation process has become a maze. Rather than offer robust objections, the European interlocutors in the ‘Normandy Format’ at the time – President François Hollande of France, and Germany’s Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier – allowed themselves to be pulled further into the minutiae of timing and sequencing.
Beginning in January 2016, Washington invested in a separate channel of negotiation between US Under-Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and President Vladimir Putin’s special representative, Vladislav Surkov. That channel swiftly led nowhere, the overall process stalled, and by the end of the October 2016 Normandy meeting many were prepared to conclude that the Minsk initiative had definitively failed. Following his meeting with Merkel in Sochi on 2 May 2017, Putin all but said as much.
Yet if the Minsk process is dead in practice, Europe has been unwilling to say as much. As Vladimir Socor has observed, ‘the German government (on a bipartisan basis) is firmly beholden to the Minsk process, connecting its fulfilment with the lifting of sanctions on Russia’. Where Germany leads, the EU follows. In the wider German polity, it is axiomatic that even the toughest policy must be accompanied by dialogue. If not Minsk, then what? Thus far, nobody in Europe has answered that question, and almost nobody is thinking about it.
In Washington, this hesitancy has disappeared. The appointment of Kurt Volker, former ambassador to NATO, as US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations is one of the clearest indications yet that the Trump administration, rather than President Trump himself, exercises stewardship over the US’s Russia policy. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s 31 March 2017 statement at the NATO-Ukraine Commission was more severe and categorical than any issued by his predecessor, John Kerry, or by President Barack Obama. Tillerson’s perfunctory nod to the Normandy partners – ‘we thank France and Germany for their determination to find a diplomatic solution’ – was a forewarning that the US would no longer follow their meandering lead. Russia would be held ‘accountable’ to its Minsk commitments. Yet in an apparent departure from the policy of linking sanctions to the terms of the Minsk agreements, Tillerson warned that ‘sanctions will remain until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered our sanctions’. The repetition of this formula in Kyiv in July, as well as the appointment of Volker, an adamant critic of Russia’s policy, signalled a clarity of purpose that has long been wanting., Yet just how that purpose is to be realized is not certain at all in this most opaque of American administrations.
This most bizarre configuration of power and responsibility in Washington has caused perplexity in Moscow. The actions of the previous US administration were resented but predictable, indeed disarmingly transparent. The actions of the Trump administration are unpredictable and thus instil caution on Russia’s part. The US missile strike on Syria, Russia’s ally, in April 2017 and the subsequent downing of a Syrian air force Su-22 jet two months later demonstrated a new-found American willingness to act unilaterally, decisively and without warning. The message seems clear enough: if red lines are crossed, expect a sharp response. Will this principle be applied to Russia in Donbas, and if so by what means?
For Ukraine, the issues are no less acute than they are for Russia. Hitherto, it could count on a unified Western policy, with all its evident limitations (notably the absence of lethal military assistance). Kyiv’s dialogues with Washington and Berlin proceeded along separate channels but as part of one conversation. For now, the West remains committed to a common goal, but consensus on the means can no longer be taken for granted. For all the robust messages that Tillerson’s statements of March and July delivered, one formula of the Obama era was missing: ‘no decisions on Ukraine without Ukraine’. Despite its internal discordance, this is a tough-minded US administration, determined to hold others to their commitments. If Ukraine is to secure its own interests, it will need to raise its standing among its interlocutors and supporters, as well as showing greater commitment to delivering the institutional improvements expected of it. Key to achieving this are institutional capacity and credibility, to be demonstrated, in Tillerson’s words, by ‘efforts to implement challenging reforms’. Ukraine has no long-term future as a ward of the West.
To date, economic sanctions form the only coercive component of Western policy towards Russia. In 2014, this fact reflected an underestimation of the tenacity of Putin’s Russia and its willingness to shrug off Western opprobrium, tolerate penalties and raise the stakes at times of its choosing. By 2017, sanctions represented the sole common denominator of Western policy.
In this contest as in others, four factors determine the effectiveness of sanctions: the adequacy of their design, the unity of action underpinning them, their duration, and their integration with other policy instruments.
In design the sanctions are both considered and coherent. The enhanced format adopted in September 2014 (Tier 3) encompasses ‘restrictive measures’ (asset freezes and travel bans) as well as ‘economic measures’ (restrictions on access to capital markets and dual-use technology transfer). The separate package of sanctions on Crimea, which can be ramped up at a time of the West’s choosing, also encompasses asset freezes and prohibitions on investment, travel and contact. In both cases, the sanctions have neither the aim nor the potential to cripple the Russian economy. But they constrain investment in several high-priority areas and add to the structural ills that Russia’s unreformed economy imposes upon itself. Inevitably, the sanctions have provoked countermeasures and, for better or worse, strengthened defiant and autarkic impulses in what by now is a highly ‘mobilized’ state. But they are not a matter of indifference to Russia. They are a hardship that will be borne as long as the Kremlin calculates that it can achieve its goals.
Western unity in enforcing sanctions is closely linked to their duration. As long as the Russian economy continues to suffer the effects of a combination of sanctions and chronic hydrocarbon dependency, the costs and trade-offs associated with the present political course will gradually increase. Yet while sanctions constrain capacity, there is no guarantee that they will constrain short-term behaviour. The intensification of sanctions preceded Russia’s biggest military offensive in January/February 2015. Despite these limitations, on 28 June 2017 the EU extended its restrictive measures by another six months. US congressional leaders finalized a yet more stringent set of measures on 22 July. Nevertheless, the adverse reaction in Brussels to some elements of the US sanctions package shows that Western unity has limits. This will remain the case as long as the collateral effects of sanctions fall disproportionately on Europe and, within the EU, more heavily on some member states than others.
The provision of economic support to Ukraine is not a response to Russian agression per se. It has been a mainstay of Western policy from the time Ukraine joined the IMF in September 1992. Its enhancement since 2014 has not, for the most part, been stimulated by Russia, but by the change of power in Ukraine and the expectations that the Revolution of Dignity has raised in the West. Outlays committed (as opposed to those disbursed) since 2014 amount to $40 billion, backed by the IMF, of which $15 billion represents the writing off of sovereign and sovereign-guaranteed debt, mostly owed to the private sector. Although most support has taken the form of macroeconomic assistance, much is also targeted at sectoral reform, regional development and humanitarian aid.
Despite two popular uprisings with revolutionary potential, Ukraine’s baleful culture of power has managed to adapt and reformat itself
Ukrainians routinely note that such sums pale in comparison with the funding committed to Greece (estimated in 2012 by José Manuel Barroso, then president of the European Commission, at €380 billion). The comparison is unhelpful for two reasons. First, it arouses needless irritation. As an EU member state, Greece has a prima facie claim to greater support, and the potential impact of a default on the euro underscored this fact. Second, it weakens Ukraine’s message. Ukraine’s debt crisis was minor by Greek standards, and it was arrested in 2014–15 primarily by resolute action on the part of the country’s own authorities. External support of $15 billion was sufficient to restore currency stability and bring external debt and national reserves to sustainable levels. The sums required to support Ukraine are reasonable and, given the security stakes, justifiable.
The crux of the matter is that economic assistance in itself will not cure Ukraine’s ills, which are the result not of macroeconomic mismanagement but of the dysfunctionalities of a bloated, destructively centralized and extortionate state. Despite two popular uprisings with revolutionary potential, Ukraine’s baleful culture of power has managed to adapt and reformat itself. So long as this culture exists, so will opaque, non-market relations and a semi-criminalized economy. Injections of further financial assistance – in effect throwing good money after bad – will feed these pathologies rather than cure them. When the IMF and other donors link disbursements to strict conditionality and review, they are acting in Ukraine’s interests. Conditionality has provided essential support to the Ukrainian reformers who presided over the restructuring of Ukraine’s banking sector in the face of pressure and personal threats, and to those who transformed the state-owned oil and gas company, Naftogaz, into a profitable entity. Equally, in late 2016, the US was entirely within its rights in curtailing assistance to the State Customs Service when Ukraine failed to honour its commitment to reform the management of this agency.
Overcoming these problems requires political will, but also realism about what Ukraine can reasonably achieve over the short to medium term. The system in Ukraine has repeatedly proved itself to be more powerful than individuals, including presidents. The current president, Petro Poroshenko, is a product of this system. He appoints subordinates on the basis of loyalty rather than excellence. His commitment to reform is less than his commitment to power. In effect, he is a weak monarch in a neo-feudal and oligarchic system. His powers are limited, and reform does not depend solely upon him. The powers of Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, a more committed reformer, are even more limited. Rather, it is mainly countervailing forces – civil society, the IMF and the war itself – that are putting the system under pressure.
The decision of Ukraine’s post-Euromaidan authorities to designate the conflict with Russia an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ rather than war reflected three concerns: a fear of escalation; a need to keep the West on board; and the provisions of the Ukrainian constitution, which link the declaration of war to a state of emergency and restrictions on civil liberties. The limited nature of Western military support to Ukraine since then throws into relief the inordinate burden on economic sanctions as the primary means of reversing Russian aggression. Kuwait, a non-NATO state with no pretence to democratic governance, was deemed worthy of armed assistance in 1990 because international law was brazenly defied, and major security interests were at stake. In contrast, Ukraine is not seeking, nor does it require, the intervention of Western armed forces. Its demand for other forms of military assistance, including defensive weapons, is intrinsically legitimate. One cannot combat an armed assailant by robbing his bank account.
The question is also whether providing Ukraine with more extensive military support is prudent. President Obama believed that it was not. To this day, Chancellor Merkel is adamant that there can be no ‘military solution’ to the Ukraine conflict. For its part, Russia boasts that Ukrainian resistance could be crushed in a matter of days.
This is far from axiomatic. Ukraine’s armed forces and National Guard are considerably more capable than the troops that were so savagely mauled in Ilovaysk and Debaltseve, in eastern Ukraine, in mid-2014 and early 2015. Allied train-and-equip missions have acquired impressive momentum, and the capacity of Ukraine’s forces to absorb and amend what is taught is equally impressive. It is they, after all, not NATO, who have direct experience of Russia’s ‘new generation’ war.
Moreover, Russia’s armed forces have limitations as well as strengths. They are not occupation troops. They strike and withdraw. Russia has already shown itself reluctant to risk prolonged exposure of ethnic Russian servicemen to the potential hostility of Russian-speaking populations in eastern Ukraine. The hazards and burdens of seizing and holding large parts of the east (let alone other parts of the country) would be considerable. Russia’s system of state ‘mobilization’ – the complex of state measures for moving the country on to a wartime footing – is not only taut, but stretched. While ‘training by fighting’ enhances the combat effectiveness of Russia’s armed forces, the continuous deployment of battle groups on Ukraine’s borders requires extensive infrastructure and support. That burden is compounded by Russia’s expeditionary operation in Syria, the economic strains of a long-term programme of defence modernization, and the costs of Crimea’s annexation (which partly reflect the high cost of supplying electricity and water to Crimea, services formerly provided by Ukraine). However, the fact remains that Ukraine’s forces would suffer grievous losses in high-intensity combat with Russia’s battle groups.
There are no silver bullets in this equation. Ukraine’s principal vulnerability is not the absence of lethal weapons from the West. The army is encumbered by a largely unreformed defence system, a lack of cohesion and interoperability across units and branches, distrust between frontline units and higher command echelons, and a deficit of competent command and staff officers above unit level. Nevertheless, it is also dangerously outmatched by Russia in many areas of hard capability. Ukraine’s defence-industrial complex is capable of supplying much of what is needed, but not all.
The aim of Western policy should be to strengthen Russian prudence. Until Russia’s military options are curtailed and its margins of advantage reduced, force and the threat of force will remain credible instruments of its policy. To counter this threat, a structure of deterrence is needed inside Ukraine, not only on the eastern border of NATO. Western military assistance has a role to play in this enterprise, as do weapons systems that improve Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. The aims of such assistance should be: to restrain (rather than defeat) Russia and its separatist allies; to reinforce Ukraine’s capacity for self-defence; to diminish incentives for offensive military action (on both sides); to underscore the unviability of the separatist enclaves; and to increase incentives for diplomacy.
Ukraine will not have the military capacity it needs until it builds state capacity. That is something that only Ukraine can do
Deterrence depends still more on Ukraine. The leadership’s commitment to reform in defence is no less vital than it is in other sectors. It will require sustained effort and presidential support to modernize command structures and the higher management of defence. Ukraine will not have the military capacity it needs until it builds state capacity. That is something that only Ukraine can do.
Russia: a tenacious and adaptable adversary
Where Ukraine is concerned, Western reproaches have done little but sustain and reinforce Russian grievances since the dissolution of the USSR. The premise underpinning current Western policy – that Russia’s actions in Ukraine constitute an act of aggression and a breach of international law – arouses little more than cynicism in Moscow and much of the rest of Russia. Russian interests in Ukraine have emerged from an amalgam of factors, but identity is the strongest of these. Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s celebrated axiom – ‘without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire’ – evokes the Russian riposte that ‘without Ukraine, Russia can be an empire, but it cannot be Russia’. This conviction, now reinforced by state ideology, arises from far older sentiments and mythologies. The campaigns of Catherine II, who established Novorossiya in what is now southern Ukraine, were wars not of liberation but of conquest, designed to eradicate the foreignness of those whom Aleksandr II would later redefine as a branch of the ‘tripartite Russian people’.
Russia’s geopolitical traditions are at least as old as these civilizational ones. The concepts of buffer zones, spheres of influence and the limited sovereignty of neighbours became central to Russian geopolitical thinking in imperial times, and these building blocks of security have retained their place in the post-Soviet era. Russia’s military establishment defines threat in terms of proximity; security is equated with control of space (irrespective of the views of those who inhabit it) and uncontested defence perimeters. During the post-Cold War ‘unipolar moment’, Western policy on issues from Kosovo to Iraq, and of course on NATO enlargement, helped to restore these premises to orthodoxy in Russia, as did Ukraine’s 2004–05 Orange Revolution (which fatefully coincided with the EU’s eastern enlargement). Moscow thus views the post-Cold War ‘order’ as a system of ‘diktat’ and encroachment designed to isolate Russia and, in the words of Leonid Reshetnikov, then director of the Presidential Administration’s official analytical centre, ‘overthrow President Putin and produce the breakup [raskol] of the country’.
Russia’s interests in Ukraine are the product of history, geography and sentiment. But its policy towards the country is the product of means, opportunity and constraint. Russia’s actions in 2014 resulted from urgency and improvisation as much as planning. Well before Putin came to office, Russia had used the means at its disposal to influence and penetrate Ukraine’s political, business and security structures. By de-professionalizing and hollowing out the state for his own reasons, Yanukovych facilitated this process. Had he remained in power, Russia would have had no evident reason to annex Crimea or foment insurgency in Donbas. Yet he lost power and did so with apparent suddenness. Three months after securing everything it had asked for, Russia faced a new leadership in Kyiv and a sudden loss of influence. By invading and annexing Crimea, Russia turned the tables. It re-established its relevance and, in the process, transformed the balance of power in the Black Sea. What it profoundly misjudged was Ukraine’s spirit and its capacity to resist – but this has been covered elsewhere and needs no retelling.
As in every complex undertaking, Russian policy in Ukraine proceeds by stages and adapts to opposition. Since the conflict began, its aim has been to secure Ukraine’s ‘federalization’ (i.e. fragmentation and neutralization), with Western agreement and in binding form. Yet individuals and institutions close to the Russian state (including the State Duma) have occasionally articulated more maximalist objectives without official censure. At every stage, Russian policy has targeted points of perceived weakness.
The key phases in this foreign policy evolution are as follows:
Phase 1: Novorossiya (March–September 2014). Ukraine’s historically Russian-speaking lands were initially seen as points of weakness, and they became the focus of Russian operational planning. Published correspondence and recordings confirm that in early 2014 the Kremlin financed and directed armed actions not only in Donbas but also in Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Mariupol, Zaporizhia and Odesa. These efforts were hastily improvised and largely ineffective. In the border regions of eastern Donbas, where they were more successful, documents confirm that the Kremlin’s overall kurator [overseer], Vladislav Surkov, approved each ministerial appointment before its ‘candidature’ was announced. The Novorossiya project effectively ended when the Russians launched their combined-arms offensive of , September 2014.
Phase 2: Minsk (September 2014–February 2017). After concluding the Minsk agreements, Moscow proceeded as if the points of Ukraine’s weakness lay in Berlin, Paris and Washington. Nominally, it claimed to ‘want these [separatist] republics to be part of Ukraine’. But in reality Russia sought to commit the West to a form of integration that would compromise Ukraine’s territorial integrity and effectively derail its Euro-Atlantic course. The West’s persistent search for compromise formulas has only demoralized Kyiv, as has endless reiteration of the mantra that ‘both sides’ should observe an agreement that has been significantly violated by only one. That said, the West has neither budged on the agreement’s core provisions nor sought to coerce Kyiv into accepting Moscow’s blueprint for settlement. Despite repeated war scares and incursions, Ukraine has not been provoked into reckless acts or lost its nerve. During the six-day engagement surrounding Avdiivka in February 2017, Ukraine’s forces outmanoeuvred and defeated a Russian-commanded separatist force despite the latter’s considerable advantage in artillery.
Phase 3: Destabilization. The more Russia insists on its commitment to the Minsk agreements, the more implausible the proposition becomes. On 18 February 2017, Putin signed a decree giving legal standing (albeit on a temporary basis) to the separatist republics’ internal passports and introduced the Russian rouble as legal tender within those jurisdictions. In the ensuing weeks, with Moscow’s blessing, the pro-Russian authorities in the ORDLO expropriated a number of Ukrainian state-owned and private enterprises that, despite hostilities, had been providing unoccupied Ukraine with anthracite coal, industrial components and tax revenue. The main impetus behind these seizures was the economic stringencies reducing Russia’s subsidies to the republics. Fortunately for Moscow, the initially unsanctioned Ukrainian blockade of the ORDLO by veterans of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) provided a convenient pretext.,
Map 2: Eastern Ukraine, status of conflict, September 2017
Yet the broader purpose of Russia’s latest efforts is becoming more visible. On 18 July, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, president of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, decreed the establishment (ostensibly the revival) of the Federation of Malorossiya. Unlike Novorossiya, which refers to a region of what is now Ukraine, Malorossiya (meaning ‘Little Russia’) is a historical (and, for Ukrainians, derogatory) term referring to almost all of Ukraine (19 of today’s 26 oblasts, including Kyiv). In Zakharchenko’s formulation, Kyiv would lose its status as national capital and be reduced to a ‘centre of historical and cultural importance’.
As much as in March 2014, Russia remains determined to get its way or make Ukraine ungovernable
The Kremlin was quick to distance itself from the Malorossiya initiative and reaffirm its adherence to the Minsk process. Inevitably, however, the situation was not as simple as that. Within hours, prominent Russian officials – including Leonid Kalashnikov, head of the State Duma’s Committee for CIS Affairs – were praising the initiative. The assessment by Surkov (whose lack of forewarning can be doubted) is indicative: ‘All this hype around a fantasy state Malorossiya is useful in general [author’s emphasis]. What is important is that Donbas is fighting not to get detached from Ukraine but for its integrity.’ In other words, Zakharchenko’s proclamation – while not ‘real politics’, in the words of Boris Gryzlov, Russia’s official representative to the Minsk Contact Group – signals nothing less than an escalation of ideological war against the Ukrainian state. Its aim, according to details of an alleged meeting of the Russian state leadership released by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), is squarely to ‘reset the ruling regime in Ukraine’.
Yet as a component of hybrid war, ideological war is not limited to rhetoric. ‘Hard’ methods have also reappeared in unoccupied Ukraine. Since late 2016, these have included a campaign of assassinations against Ukrainian special forces commanders, which Ukraine’s security services seem powerless to prevent. Less dramatically, such methods also encompass growing militancy by the pro-Russian opposition (notably at the 9 May victory parade in Kyiv, where police were unwilling or unable to prevent the savage beating of Ukrainian ATO veterans); resourceful utilization of criminal groups to commit violent political acts; ‘false flag’ operations by supposed nationalists; cyberattacks; and, according to expert testimony, ever more brazen infiltration of law enforcement agencies and other state structures. Ukraine’s decision to initiate the ATO in the spring of 2014, and to refrain from declaring war, was justified at the time as a means of respecting civil liberties, reassuring Western partners and facilitating diplomatic progress. Today, it is depriving Ukraine of the legal means to combat a holistic Russian effort to penetrate and sabotage the state. Current legislative efforts to introduce a state of emergency in a selected number of eastern districts seem calculated more to solidify Poroshenko’s electoral position than to strengthen national security.
The audit of war
Engels once warned that ‘war puts nations to the test, pronouncing its sentence of death on social organisms that have grown calcified’. The conflict that began in 2014 has yet to pronounce its sentence on Ukraine. Indeed, the struggle is far from over. At the start of 2017, hopes in the West were growing that Russia’s aggressiveness against its neighbour had peaked. This forecast is premature and possibly mistaken.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Lenin resolved to transform the conflict from an interstate war into an international civil war between proletariats and ruling elites. This mode of thinking retains its hold over those who now frame Russian foreign policy. One dare not lose sight of this, because from Moscow’s standpoint the conflict in Ukraine is one between Russia and a Western bloc determined to shatter the unity of Russian civilization. Today, Lenin’s methodology is evident on three levels. First, Moscow seeks to persuade influential voices in Europe and North America that the war in Donbas is a civil war in which Russia is a legitimate stakeholder rather than a belligerent. This gambit has not failed completely, because ignorance about Ukraine is widespread and the resources Russia devotes to sustaining its own narrative are formidable. Moreover, the ‘civil war’ paradigm contains elements of truth. The war in Ukraine is an interstate conflict, but like other irregular wars that Russia has fought on its periphery, it has civil and internecine dimensions. Blurring the frontiers between the two is both an aim and a method of what we now call ‘hybrid war’, but it has a long pedigree.
Second, much of Russia’s hybrid methodology is being applied across Europe and the US. Russia is not the author of the West’s post-modern discontents. But it has identified them, and has invested in fuelling the underlying grievances with intensity and on an ambitious scale. Possibly, it has done this too well, making its hand in the domestic affairs of other countries odiously visible and thereby damaging to its own cause.
Third, despite the importance of what Russia is doing elsewhere, it is in Ukraine that the employment of its hard and covert tools threatens state survival. As much as in March 2014, Russia remains determined to get its way or make Ukraine ungovernable. This is understood by a solid majority of Ukrainians. For the most part, Russia’s narrative and methods have been manifestly counterproductive: entrenching images of it as the enemy where these perceptions already existed, and arousing the hostility of many who had once regarded the Russians as a kindred people.
But such views are not universal. In much of the Donbas region, the war has produced alienation and a distrust of all sides. In some districts wrested from separatist control, identification with Ukraine is weaker than it was in 2014. This partly reflects the migration of younger, more professional and better-educated cohorts of the population to comparatively ‘normal’ regions of Ukraine, many of which are experiencing a new economic dynamism. It also reflects the failure of Ukraine’s authorities to counter the reach of Russia’s intensive and delusory media coverage and, more abjectly, their apparent indifference to the social and material needs of regions battered by war. Elsewhere, the daily inconveniences of life have been borne with remarkable stoicism, but the economic inequalities between different groups and regions are a latent threat to stability at least as great as Russian infiltrators. Thus far, Russia’s attempts to subordinate Ukraine have mostly aroused defiance rather than submission. But it would be perilous to take the forbearance of Ukrainians for granted.
The economic inequalities between different groups and regions are a latent threat to stability at least as great as Russian infiltrators
It is equally important that Ukraine’s leaders respect the basis of national solidarity and do nothing to damage it. The architects of Ukraine’s post-1991 statehood, as well as its Euro-Atlantic orientation, were in significant measure members of Russian-speaking, eastern Ukrainian elites. The ethos of the state, faithfully represented in the 1996 constitution, has been civic, ecumenical and plural. As noted in an earlier Chatham House report: ‘Between 1992 and 2014, it was the absence of conflict across ethnic, confessional and linguistic lines that was noted by the UN, OSCE and PACE (the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe).’ For good and natural reasons, the war has revived respect for the Ukrainian character of Ukraine. But there comes a point at which cultural Russophobia becomes the toxin rather than the antidote. The language provisions of the 25 September 2017 Education Act might pass this point, further damaging relations not only with Russia but with Hungary, Romania and Poland as well.
However relations between Russia and the West evolve, Ukraine will remain the key protagonist in its own drama. As former president Leonid Kuchma said 20 years ago, the test of independence is ‘the ability of the country to pull together at a crucial moment’. Three-and-a-half years of conflict have demonstrated that this ability exists. But it is not inexhaustible, and it remains dependent not only on Western steadfastness but on the moral clarity and political wisdom of Ukraine’s leaders and on the fortitude of its people.
10 In 2014, it was not uncommon to hear the view, as confided to the author by one regime ideologist that November, that ‘by next winter, there will be no Ukraine’.
11 Rossiyskaya Gazeta (2015), ‘Dialog a ne voyna: Sergey Naryshkin prizval liderov Zapada uchit’ “uroki Yalty”’ [Dialogue rather than War: Sergey Naryshkin calls upon Western leaders to study the “lessons of Yalta”], 4 February 2015, https://news.rambler.ru/politics/29025835-sergey-naryshkin-prizval-liderov-zapada-uchit-uroki-yalty/. In this he echoed Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Club speech which contrasted the ‘mechanisms’ established after the Second World War (based on ‘balance of power’ and ‘respect’) with the emergence of US diktat after the Cold War. Not a word was said about the post-Cold War system that Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin co-authored. See Office of the President of the Russian Federation (2014), ‘Zasedaniye Mezhdunarodnogo diskussionnogo kluba «Valday»’ [Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club], 24 October 2014, .
12 Permanent Mission of France to the United Nations in New York (2014), ‘15 March 2014 – Security Council – Ukraine – Statement by Mr. Gérard Araud, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations’, http://www.franceonu.org/15-March-2014-Security-Council.
13 Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
14 After Ukraine’s parliament in July 2015 voted to send draft amendments to the constitution regarding decentralization to the Constitutional Court, which incorporated ‘special status’ provisions, US Under-Secretary of State Victoria Nuland stated that Ukraine was ‘doing its job’ and assured Kyiv that ‘there would be no excuses on the other side for renewed violence’. US Embassy in Ukraine (2015), ‘Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland Press Availability in Kyiv, Ukraine’, 16 July 2015, https://ua.usembassy.gov/assistant-secretary-victoria-nuland-press-availability-kyiv-ukraine/.
19 U.S. Department of State (2017), ‘Remarks To NATO-Ukraine Commission’.
21 For discussion of the complexities surrounding these issues, see Connolly, R. and Hanson, P. (2016), Import Substitution and Economic Sovereignty in Russia, Research Paper, London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, ; and Monaghan, A. (2014), Defibrillating the Vertikal: Putin and Russian Grand Strategy, Research Paper, London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, .
24 A ‘systemic transformation facility’ was established in October 1994 and the IMF’s first three-year Extended Fund Facility was approved in September 1998. IMF (2017), ‘Ukraine and the IMF’, updated 20 July 2017, https://www.imf.org/external/country/UKR/index.htm?pn=0 (accessed 26 Jul. 2017).
25 Given the multiplicity of actors and programmes engaged, overall sums are very difficult to arrive at. At the launch of the European Commission Support Group for Ukraine, President Barroso cited a figure of €11 billion. European Commission (2014), ‘Support Group for Ukraine’, press release, 9 April 2014, . See also IMF (2017), ‘Ukraine and the IMF’; The White House, Office of the Press Secretary (2016), ‘FACT SHEET: U.S. Assistance to Ukraine since February 2014’, 15 June 2016, .
29 For example, Lenta (2015), ‘Naryshkin rasskazal o perspektivakh Ukrainiy v voyne s Rossiey’ [Naryshkin talks about Ukraine’s prospects in war with Russia], 23 July 2015, Lenta.ru/news/2015/07/23/narishkin_war.
30 For a discussion of state mobilization in the Russian security context, see Monaghan, A. (2016), Russian State Mobilization: Moving the Country on to a War Footing, Research Paper, London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/russian-state-mobilization-moving-country-war-footing.
31 The full Brzezinski quote is: ‘[W]ithout Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire’, Wall Street Journal (2013), ‘The Battle for Ukraine’, 27 November 2013, (paywall). Brzezinski, Z. (1994), ‘The Premature Partnership’, Foreign Affairs, March/April 1994, .
32 As late as the first Soviet census of 1926, 65.8 per cent of the inhabitants of the eight oblasts approximating Novorossiya defined their ethnicity as Ukrainian and only 16.4 per cent as Russian. Despite the influx of Russians during the Stalin-era five-year plans, according to the 2001 Ukrainian census Russians made up just under a quarter of inhabitants and ethnic Ukrainians just over two-thirds. Clem, S. R. (2014), ‘What Exactly is Putin’s New Russia?’, Washington Post, 4 September 2014,.
33 Argumentiy Nedeli (2015), ‘Tsivilizatsiya Rossiya’ [Russian Civilization], 2 April 2015, http://argumenti.ru/toptheme/n481/394395. Leonid Reshetnikov is the former director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies.
34 Recordings of conversations with Sergey Glazyev: Office of Ukraine’s Prosecutor General (2016), Dokazy prychetnosti vlady RF do posyahannya na terytorial’nu tsilisnist’ Ukrayiny [Evidence of the involvement of the Russian authorities in encroachment on the territorial integrity of Ukraine], (accessed 26 Jul. 2017).
43 Solovey, I. (2017), ‘Malorossiya as an example of ideological war against Ukraine’s integrity’, LB.ua, 21 July 2017,
48 Whereas the draft version guaranteed the right of national minorities ‘to learn their native language at state and municipal educational facilities’, the adopted version confines this right to ‘pre-school and primary education’. At present, 365,000 pupils attend Russian-language schools, 19,000 Romanian and Moldovan schools, and 16,000 Hungarian schools. Note that only 15 per cent of Ukraine’s residents now declare Russian as their native language. See Dąborowski, T., Piechal, T. and Sadecki, A. (2017), ‘Ukraine: a blow against the national minorities’ school system’, Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), Warsaw, 27 September 2017, https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/analyses/2017-09-27/ukraine-a-blow….