What Does Russia Want in Ukraine?

SAKWA, Richard
Valdai Discussion Club | 30/06/2014

Russian-Ukrainian relations are in deep trouble, yet the election of the new president, Petro Poroshenko, offers the chance to ‘reset’ relations on a more pragmatic and business-like basis. For this to happen, we need to assess Russia’s motives and ambitions in the crisis. These undoubtedly changed and evolved in response to the dramatic events: the struggle over the Association Agreement with the European Union; the increasingly violent demonstrations from 21 November 2013 that in the end toppled the Viktor Yanukovych regime; the annexation of Crimea; and then the probing of Ukrainian vulnerabilities in the Donbas. Throughout Russia’s end goals were disputed.

By mid-May 2014 it looked as if the Ukrainian state was on the verge of collapse. At that point there was a clear retrenchment in the Russian position, usually attributed to the pressure of sanctions but more likely a sober response to changes on the ground. Russia did not support the independence referendums in Donetsk and Lugansk held on 11 May, withdrew its forces from the Ukrainian border, and then accepted the legitimacy of the presidential election on 25 May.

Although there probably was contingency planning, Russia appeared for the most part to be reacting to events, until the decision to strike in Crimea was taken. This was most likely an angry and ad hoc response to events in Kiev. At that time there was much speculation that Russia’s ambitions ran far wider, notably to re-establish parts of the pre-revolutionary Novorossiya territories arching across from the Donbas to Odessa, and then to link up with Transnistria, which would be definitively torn from Moldova. According to General Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR – a term that in any rationale universe would have long ago been consigned to the history books), this was Russia’s strategy, although he gave no evidence in support.

Fantasies of dismembering Ukraine and gaining either a friendly protectorate state on its borders or even the outright annexation of territories were certainly played out in the Russian media, but did not gain official support. If indeed Ukraine had collapsed, then Russia would undoubtedly have moved in, as would other states, to protect civilians and to re-establish order. There is a gulf between scenario planning and actually planning to achieve a defined goal – and after the annexation of Crimea, it is unlikely that more territorial acquisitions were planned. This does not negate the argument that Russia should perhaps have done more to calm the situation in the Donbas; but the early actions of the Maidan government were no less inflammatory, and indeed genuinely threatening to many of Ukraine’s pluralists. The killings in Odessa on 2 May stand as a stark warning of what could have happened elsewhere.

In the longer term, Russia’s strategic goals have been remarkably consistent, reaching back into the 1990s and certainly encompassing the Orange Revolution. First, the aim was to keep Ukraine out of Western security structures, above all NATO. The promises made at Bucharest in May 2008 were not rescinded but only placed on hold, despite the war in Georgia that summer. In the Medvedev years there was plenty of cooperation with Barack Obama within the framework of the ‘reset’ and the issue of NATO enlargement was barely mentioned, although it simmered away in the background as more immediate contentious issues, notably Missile Defence, occupied centre ground.

Second, there is no doubt that from at least 2008 Russia became more suspicious of EU enlargement. All the new EU members were also members of NATO, and at the same time, the Association Agreements themselves have a profound security dimension. On the purely economic front, the wider Europe agenda repudiated the model of mutually negotiated and compatible free trade areas, and instead sought to reorient partner countries firmly to the West. There were some good reasons to frame the associations in this way, since the aim was to achieve radical transformations in market and governance relations that would establish genuinely competitive market economies that were compatible with the EU’s own markets. This model had worked well in Central and Easter Europe, but the incentive structure there had been much stronger – namely the promise of EU membership. Accession was not on even the medium-term agenda for the Eastern Partnership countries, so a more gradual approach may have been wiser, building on existing links to the East while supporting the transformation of regulatory and governance structures. A free and prosperous Ukraine was certainly not something opposed by Moscow; but it simply did not understand why this had to be couched in anti-Russian terms.

Hence Moscow fought long and hard to convince the EU and Ukraine to change the model of European engagement, and then in the months before November 2013 it applied all the tools in its armoury to convince Yanukovych to step back from the brink. This brings us to a third point. Yanukovych is typically portrayed as ‘pro-Russian’ in the Western media, but in fact he was neither pro-Russian nor pro-Western, but largely concerned with his personal aggrandisement. He did receive support from Moscow, but personal relations with Putin were very poor. Putin had found it more congenial to do business with Yulia Tymoshenko when she was prime minister; but now he had to deal with Yanukovych as the democratically elected leader of Ukraine.

The argument that Putin and Yanukovych united in defence of kleptocratic regimes is a thin one, although greatly peddled by Russian liberals and the parts of the Western media. Equally, the argument that the example of a free and genuinely democratic Ukraine would destabilise the Russian regime leaves out of account the larger context and is a misrepresentation of how the system in Russia has evolved. Ukraine success in overcoming corruption, oligarch predominance and the decay of institutions would be supported as long as this is not accompanied by the geostrategic shift described earlier. Most Russian people and the elite would wish nothing more than a successful and prosperous, and indeed united, Ukraine, as long it respects pluralism internally and Russia’s legitimate concerns externally.

Richard Sakwa is professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent at Canterbury, an Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, member of the Valdai Discussion Club.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club’s, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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