6 October 2014
The Ukraine crisis has less to do with a Western threat to Russia than with the degradation of the Russian state. Freezing the status quo in Ukraine would not make for a lasting settlement.
Andrew Wood

Sir Andrew Wood

Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme


A statue of Lenin stands in an empty square on 11 September 2014 in Donetsk. Photo by Getty Images.
A statue of Lenin stands in an empty square on 11 September 2014 in Donetsk. Photo by Getty Images.


The survival in both Russia and the West of assumptions inherited from the bipolar era of the Cold War gets in the way of policy-making. The Russian narrative argues that because Moscow’s right to rule as a Great Power has been deceitfully frustrated over decades by the West, the Kremlin’s support of forceful action against an allegedly Western-manipulated Kyiv is justified, indeed necessary, in defence of Russian national interests.

This argument is accepted by a number of Western analysts. NATO is depicted as the principal culprit, abetted by the foolishness of the European Union, an interpretation exacerbated by a certain urge in Western countries to don the mantle of guilt, or at least to see the United States as clumsily provocative of Russia. It is imagined in consequence that a Ukraine somehow committed by the West to neutrality between the West and Russia, and governed by a federalized constitution with special rights for Russian speakers and Russian-speaking regions, would provide a substantive resolution of the country’s problems.

 Even if one subscribed to this analysis, which leaves Ukraine itself as a largely passive participant, there are all too many reasons to dispute the idea that a settlement based on this line of thinking could possibly work. Putin’s word is worthless. A statelet in Eastern Ukraine would be unstable, disorderly and expensive, as well as a menace to the rest of Ukraine, and to Russia too. Russian-promoted violence cannot enforce brotherhood, just contingent and uncertain subservience. The logical objective for Moscow of its present policies and their consequences is the complete subjection of the whole of Ukraine to the Kremlin’s will.

There are many in the West who would prefer it if the problem of Ukraine had never arisen, and who hope that a plausible fix can be found, if only for a period, so that other pressing problems can be addressed, including by working with Moscow. Hence the hope that the present officially proclaimed − but distinctly implausible − ceasefire can be maintained, and sanctions eased as progress is made towards something more durable. The polite gaze of the optimists who suppose that a measure of trust between Russia and Western countries can thereby be restored is delicately averted from what has happened to and within Crimea and the real nature of the structures in eastern Ukraine that would thereby in practice be tolerated, and therefore de facto accepted.

Putin and his henchmen presumably suppose that over time the United States and other Western countries will learn to live with this sort of outcome. They did after all quickly learn to live with the partition of Georgia in 2008-09. Even if the possession of Crimea and a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine proved uncertain gains that could call for later reinforcement, Russia would have bought time, and the West would have again shown itself open to manipulation. Putin’s call for a radical revision of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU is only the latest demonstration of Russia’s determination to bring Kyiv under control, and his continuing belief that the West will eventually come to accept it.

Moscow’s policies towards Ukraine are presented as a struggle between Russia and the West, but are more accurately to be seen as the present outcome of Russia’s failed transition from its Soviet past towards a greater chance of achieving lasting prosperity and a rule-based polity. Sanctions add to the deepening difficulties of the country’s economy, but it was Putin’s decision to close the door on economic and political change after his return to the Kremlin in May 2012 which lies at the root of Russia’s poor prospects. It was Putin’s decision to turn to repression and the tightening of the intellectual and political atmosphere that has still further concentrated both power and policy-making within a narrowing and hermetic circle around him. Even if he wanted to, he could not now turn back. Hatred of the West buttressed by shameless untruth is now an essential element of his rule. 

So too is the further brutalization of Russia’s structures. ‘Hybrid warfare’ has been described in the West as effective, but is also despicable. Beating up those who seek the truth about the deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine is the sort of degradation that grows. Putting a sticking plaster over Ukraine’s wounds will not address the problem of what has happened to Russia, especially but not only since May 2012, and what that portends for its future. 

Putin holds good tactical cards, but his medium and longer-term prospects are poor. Moscow has not turned out to be the partner that many in the West had hoped for. If that is not yet obvious to decision makers in the EU or the United States the risk is that they will be forced to learn it again. The ceasefire in Ukraine is a lull, not an opening for a secure future.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback