No place for middle ground in Ukraine
Why a deal with Russia over Ukraine would be a really bad choice and how this crisis spells a deeper change in Eurasia.
2017 has seen little progress on the Ukrainian crisis. The conflict that erupted in 2014 following a regime change in Kyiv and the Russian aggression in Ukraine is frozen, but not solved. Economic sanctions against Russia are not even close to being lifted, which unnerves some of the big traders in the Western community. A lot of interest groups would like to see the sanctions lifted, and the most plausible way, to many, is by striking a deal with Russia that would provide a face-saving exit from the crisis to both parties.
Most proposals for the deal include affirming Russian annexation of Crimea and a promise that Ukraine would become a neutral state (i.e. never join NATO). In exchange, Russia would back off from Donbas and stop interfering with its neighbour. At first, it seems like a fair exchange. In reality, however, such proposals are either naïve or deceitful and, if implemented, they would only bring harm to the international system and future conflicts to the post-Soviet sphere.
It is the perception of such a deal where lies a fundamental difference between Russia and the West – a difference that makes compromise a treacherous option. Proponents of a Yalta-style solution for Ukraine describe the deal as a means of bringing peace to the war-torn region, resuming profitable trade and leaving the West with one less problem to worry about. For Russia, a deal is not a conclusion, but only another chapter of the struggle for Ukraine. Russia sees any form of compromise as a way of relieving its economy of sanctions, restoring its international position, and, most importantly, stopping Ukraine’s integration with the West. All of this in order to continue rebuilding its sphere of influence. And certainly, Russia cannot be relied on in keeping any of the deal’s provisions.
This has its roots in domestic politics of Russia. The model of governance established in Russia during the Yeltsin times and solidified under Putin is a kleptocracy in which the ruler bases his power on a handful elite of oligarchs and secret service moguls. Some say that oligarchy is best measured with economic inequality. According to Credit Suisse, Russia is the most unequal society among major countries. The Global Wealth Report 2016 revealed that the richest 1 per cent of Russians control a staggering 75.4 per cent of the country’s wealth. A small elite of billionaires supports the ruler, in exchange for the possibility of amassing enormous wealth. President Putin knows he needs their support to survive. Therefore, it is the puzzle of power within the financial and political elite that decides who sits on top, not elections.
Every regime needs some form of legitimacy to survive. In the Western model, legitimacy is derived from democratic choice and the leaders can be held to account during the next election. In Russia, democratic elections are at best questionable and political opposition is persecuted. Freedom House classifies Russia as a “consolidated authoritarian regime.” What, then, keeps Russian society so supportive of its rulers? Putin’s rise to power on December 31st 1999 coincided with a bounceback from an economic crisis that Russia experienced in 1998. Several economic reforms, devalued ruble and a steady rise in oil prices, which sales provide a jaw-dropping half of the federal budget, enabled the Russian economy to enjoy a growth averaging above seven per cent until the global financial crisis of 2008. And while the crisis undoubtedly left its scar, the general state of the economy was better than in the years preceding Putin. The poverty rate, for instance, fell from 35 per cent in 2000 to just ten per cent in 2010. Until 2014, Russia’s economy was doing quite fine. All of this might well be thanks to good economic tides, rather than to Putin’s merit, but for an ordinary Russian an improvement in their life quality was a reason to praise their leader. There is a good reason to believe that Russian society, tired of the economic turmoil of Soviet and Yeltsin times, was grateful to its leader for delivering stable growth to the extent that it could stomach doubtful democratic standards and an ostentatious elite.
But in 2014, as a result of a collapse of the oil price and Western economic sanctions on Russia the economy entered a crisis. Growth slowed to just 0.7 per cent and in 2015 in fell by 3.7 per cent. In a capital flight caused by uneasy international situation outflows amounted to 152 billion dollars – nearly three times more than the year earlier. Russian ruble depreciated dramatically. Since 2014, real wages shrank by 12.3 per cent. The number of people below the poverty line rose by 3.1 million to 13.4 per cent of the population. Moreover, retaliatory sanctions on food exports to Russia imposed by the Russian government on US and the EU caused shortages of many popular products like French cheese, meats and wine. These conditions clearly prove that life quality worsened for an ordinary Russian. It should be reflected on the opinion polls. Yet, the most important indicator of support for the regime, approval ratings of president Putin, did exactly the opposite of what could be expected. Since the start of the Ukrainian crisis and economic trouble in Russia approval rate for Putin skyrocketed from 65 per cent in January 2014 to 85 per cent in January 2015.
It is clear that the rise of popular support was caused by a surge in nationalist and imperialist tendencies in the country. Even Bismarck knew that expansionist foreign policy can make you get away with a lot at home. The ruling elite started relying on chauvinism as an easy and effective way of maintaining popular support. Strong-arming neighbours, fear-mongering in the state media and occasionally bombing ISIS is a much easier way to please the society than trying to reform the economy. One of the inconveniences of such an approach is that fresh imperialist sensations have to be delivered regularly to maintain social support. This is one of the reasons why Russia cannot let Ukraine go. With ISIS defeated and Ukraine crisis stabilised president Putin will find it much harder to keep his approval ratings high. Even if he does not break the deal instantly, the next collapse on the oil market may force him to start trouble in Ukraine again in order to save his approval ratings in the wake of an economic crisis.
There is one more reason why Russia will not settle for a negotiated compromise. Russians still think of their country in imperial, great-power terms. Not so long ago, well in the living memory, Russia was one of the two major global powers. It has a long tradition of imperialism and maintains a cult of force and strong leadership. Ukraine constitutes a core of the so-called Russkiy Mir and it is a pillar of the Russian empire. Its acquisition from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth three hundred years ago commenced the Russian imperial era and its loss will likely end it, or at least, mark the beginning of the end. This is why most Russians cannot stomach the emancipation of Ukraine. Of course, Russia can exist without Ukraine, but that would imply changing fundamentally the way Russians see their place and role in the world. So far, we have seen a rise, not a decline, in imperialistic thinking. It is always hard to adjust mentality to unfavourable changes in realities. The Poles, for instance, have also kept some of their great-power pride and strong emotional ties to Eastern Europe, and it has been more than 200 years since the fall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A redefinition of the way Russians see their country might prove to be an impassable mental barrier – for the government and much of the electorate alike.
So far, a combination of elite interests and national mentality prove that Russia cannot be relied on in keeping terms of any compromise. And it has already proven its disregard for international law when it violated territorial guarantees for Ukraine signed by Russia itself along with the US and the UK during the 1994 OSCE Summit in exchange for the removal of Ukraine’s post-Soviet nuclear arsenal. On the other hand, Russia has never dared to intervene in the Baltic States covered by the Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. This proves that the Russian regime respects the law only if it is backed by military force, not trust.
If trusting Russia with a deal is not an option at the moment, what ought to be done? Drafting detailed scenarios is as credible as reading tea leaves, but it is possible to outline certain preferable policies. First of all, the West has to vocally maintain its position on independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and imply that any deal violating these principles is out of the question. This would send a strong message to Russia, and bearing in mind that strength is the only language Russia, and generally, most other authoritarian regimes respect, such a declaration would make any Russian advancement less likely and make the situation more stable. Next is strategic patience. Although it may sound like a poor excuse for doing nothing on one hand, and a waste of money on sanctions on the other, we must take note that time works in the West’s favour. As Ukrainian regime solidifies and reforms, if sometimes half-heartedly, its country, the position of Ukraine in the Euro-Atlantic world becomes more secure. In time, provided that the West continues its multidimensional support, Ukraine will become stable and strong enough to be incorporated into the Western institutions. This transition should, one day, be sealed with Ukrainian accession to NATO. Article 5 is the only line Russia will never cross. Just as Zbigniew Brzezinski said in his last interview, the Russian government is perfectly aware of its country’s military and political inferiority towards the US and would never seriously risk a confrontation.
Strategic patience also applies to eastern Ukraine and Crimea. For the moment, the issue of Donbas is largely unsolvable, since returning it to Ukraine on Russian terms would plant a Kremlin Trojan inside Ukraine, while returning it on Ukrainian terms is unacceptable to Russia. Meanwhile, a stalemate on a small contested territory does not prevent integration of the rest of Ukraine with the West. Provided, of course, that separatists do not receive considerable support and they will not if the West firmly and openly declares its loyalty to Ukraine.
And there is the Crimean question. A majority-Russian, largely anti-Ukrainian population makes a full return of the peninsula to Ukraine doubtful, while Russia cannot keep it, since that would undermine the principle of territorial integrity which makes our world that much more stable and safe place to live in, not to mention human, political and historical rights of a large non-Russian population like Ukrainians and Tatars. Due to Crimea’s extraordinary mix of nationalities and the need to secure cultural and political rights of every each of them, a special-status solution for the peninsula together with demilitarisation might be the only fair and sustainable. Its population is bound to realize in time, that a steady flow of tourists from Ukraine, Turkey and the rest of Europe is worth settling for peace. This is not possible right now, obviously, since both sides are not mentally and politically ready. Only time can change the attitudes to Crimea, which is a further argument for strategic patience combined with political and economic pressure against violating human rights on the peninsula.
There is yet another reason why Russia cannot keep any of its Ukrainian acquisitions nor expect to bargain any provisions restraining Ukrainian political and civilizational choice. When a country commits an aggression and then offers to roll back its tanks in exchange for some concessions it is not a compromise—it is an extortion. Giving in to extortion would send a terrible message around the globe emboldening all other autocratic strongmen out there. If the US wants to destroy the world order of its own creation, then sending a message that its rules are relative and subject to force would be the best way to start. Appeasement was never a good way of containing an aggressive, revisionist power. Striking a deal would not be a Second Yalta, which has a questionable legacy of its own, it would be a Second Munich. The West should learn from its old mistakes.
The larger question is how to manage Russia itself, whose pathological elite, imperialist mentality, fading power and a fragile political balance of power relying on an economy susceptible to slightest shakes in the oil market make it an unpredictable and potentially dangerous actor. Russia will most likely lose Ukraine. And it might not be Russia’s most serious concern in the upcoming years, as a powerful China rises next to the Russian Far East. However, for a country of Russia’s size and geographical position, there is always an important role to play. Making Russians realise that time has come to abandon imperialism and embrace the West as its safest bet for an ally will be one of the most important geopolitical issues of the 21st century, next to managing China’s rise. Giving in to Russian forceful methods pushes us further away from that goal. And sacrificing European long-term geostrategic safety for domestic political gain associated with Russian trade is just not worth it. If some of the smaller actors cannot or do not want to understand it, the leading players should.
The author would like to thank Adam J. Sulkowski (Babson College) for his helpful review.
Wiktor Babinski is a student taking a gap year before undergraduate education. He recently worked for the Centre for International Relations in Warsaw.