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What kind of Ukraine does Russia want?

The characteristics of the Russian state point to what it hopes to achieve with regards to Ukraine.

December 20, 2019 - Valerii Pekar - Blogs and podcastsHot Topics

Ukrainian, German, French and Russian leaders at the 2019 Normandy format summit. Photo: Presidential Adminstration of the Russian Federation (cc)

Ukraine: The European frontier – a blog curated by Valerii Pekar.

In the wake of Normandy talks, it would be worthwhile to clearly examine what Russia’s strategic goal for Ukraine is, since the essence and format of the negotiations are determined by that. First, let’s determine Russia’s strategic interests in Ukraine, then outline the different scenarios and evaluate their attractiveness to Russia.

What are the main characteristics of the Russian state? First and foremost, it is an empire, albeit a bit shabby and diminished in 1991, but in all senses a successor to all previous imperial formats of statehood, from the tsarist monarchy to the Soviet Union. Secondly, it is an authoritarian state where the tradition of democracy, human rights and accountability had never taken root. It is important that both characteristics are inherent to Russia: it was born as a state with these characteristics, then grew and existed due to them.

According to many scholars, Russia is the last empire in the world. Almost all such empires ceased to exist. We can say that empires are dinosaurs of the 21st century, and this metaphor illustrates not only survival of empires in a volatile, uncertain and complex world, but also their relation to the surrounding. Reptiles do not have friends, they view all moving objects as potential food. Therefore, the surrounding territories and their populations are considered an empire solely as a resource.

What Ukrainian resources are important to Russia?

1. Human resource: The Slavic population, which is sharply declining in Russia compared to the non-Slavic one. But of interest is only the Slavic population, which can be privatised and converted to the imperial paradigm.

2. Economic resource: an industrial and agricultural potential that can be invested on favourable terms, and a significant market that can be controlled.

3. Geopolitical resource: The ability to project power and engage in its own geopolitical projects, or at least create obstacles for others.

4. Domestic political resource: An evidence for the local use that western values and political system don’t work.

5. Semantic resource: all Russian meanings (early statehood, literacy, Orthodoxy, Slavic idea, cultural identity, “Third Rome” mission, role in European affairs, and even the name of the country) are borrowed from ancient Rus’, from Kyiv hills, and modern Russia was invented (and largely embodied) by Kyiv intellectuals of the 17th and 18th centuries. That is why Russia permanently tries to privatise history, heroes, meanings and words: without them Russia is only a late descendant of the Horde.

Let us consider different scenarios of Ukraine’s development in terms of Russian interests. The scenarios are ranked in descending order of attractiveness for Russia. Attractiveness is determined by the ability to exploit the above-mentioned resources on favourable terms.

1. Belarusian scenario

Formally an independent state, but in fact absolutely dependent and externally governed in political, economic and security dimensions. The part of common economic and cultural space, and in the future also political space. It is a key partner in trade, investment, energy and security projects. A political tool for restoring formal Soviet federalism, allowing it to grow further at the expense of weak neighbours. Politically speaking, this is a vassal state. The maximum opportunity to legitimately exploit all types of Ukrainian resources, which means the maximum attractiveness of this scenario for Russia.

2. Multi-vector scenario

This would be similar to Ukraine at the time of Leonid Kuchma’s second term: a formally independent state, but largely dependent on the above-mentioned dimensions. Russia’s influence is not absolute, as far as it must be coordinated and limited at the request of local authorities and oligarchs. There are some barriers to Russian influence in economics and politics. The multi-vector foreign policy in practice holds back alternative geopolitical projects (EU, NATO). There are some mechanisms for legitimising the Russian presence (military bases, investment projects, etc.). Politically speaking, this is a protectorate state. There is limited ability to legitimately exploit all types of Ukrainian resources, which means a lesser but still rather high attractiveness.

3. Failed state

Formally an independent state, but with extremely weak institutions, inefficient and incapable. The country of permanent internal confrontation, instability, civil unrest, political crises, early elections, overthrown governments, armed coups, etc.. The real political power is held not by constitutional political institutions, but by oligarchs, security generals, and regional barons with their private armies. This scenario limits the ability to exploit all types of Ukrainian resources, but also does not allow other centres of power to do so, and creates some legitimation for expanding Russian influence “for the sake of the security of a common European home” and so on.

4. Frozen conflict

An independent Ukraine, within which there is an enclave that is not controlled by the Ukrainian authorities and is a source of constant confrontation and tension (like Moldova’s Transnistria, but also some similar features are found in Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and in the formats of Russian influence on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict). This makes it impossible for Ukraine to pursue a completely independent foreign policy. Russian military formations are constantly present (either in the legitimate status of peacekeepers or in the current status of “volunteers” and “humanitarian aid”). In this scenario, Russia cannot exploit Ukrainian resources outside the enclave, but it can create problems for other centres of power (scaring off investors, delaying foreign policy initiatives, etc.).

5. Buffer zone

Independent Ukraine, which renounces its Euro-Atlantic ambitions in exchange for multilateral security guarantees (something like an updated Budapest memorandum). Possible volumes of Russia’s influence in the economy and culture are determined in Kyiv: trade is being restored to some extent, energy co-operation is established and there is a free transport connection. Russia is somehow involved in multilateral Donbas reconstruction projects, renouncing the unilateral legitimation of its “older brother” status, but also denying the other party the same status. In this scenario, Russia has virtually no capacity to exploit Ukrainian resources on favourable terms, but limits these opportunities for others.

6. Euro-Atlantic Ukraine

Independent Ukraine moving towards integration with the European Union and NATO. Strengthening and enhancing the capacity and efficiency of Ukrainian institutions. Very limited economic co-operation with Russia only in certain areas. Integration of Ukraine into the European economic, legal, security and cultural space based on European principles of “polyphony”, free movement of ideas, people and capital. Russia has a minimal impact, and this is the least desirable scenario for Russia.

These six scenarios are ranked in descending order of their attractiveness for Russia from the point of view of its strategic interests, from the best for Russia to the worst for Russia. They are independent of the Russian leadership and are determined by the geopolitical interests of the Russian state, which are inherent in it throughout history (as far as there are only two types of Russian rulers — “conquerors” like Ivan the Terrible, Stalin or Putin and “destructors” like Gorbachev).

But there is a seventh scenario. The preconditions for it are the great geopolitical ambitions of the current Russian leader, which go far beyond the strategic objectives of exploiting all kinds of Ukrainian resources. Putin is not at war with Ukraine, he is at war with the West, with western values, openly mocking liberalism, democracy, Euro-Atlantic unity and trying to assert their inability and prove to the world the benefits of another value system. Therefore, its target is not only Ukraine, but Europe. The best case scenario for him is one that creates problems for Europe, European solidarity and European values. Therefore, we give this option the highest rating of zero.

0. The Ruin. Territory of chaos

Strong internal conflicts around artificially emphasised geographical differences break Ukraine into several state entities that have different geopolitical distances depending on the ability and advantage to exploit all kinds of their resources by Russia. Some parts are openly annexed by Russia and integrated into it (today it is Crimea, and one day it may be Donbas). The other parts form the buffer state from scenario number one (candidates are Kharkiv and Odesa, and Kharkiv already played this role a hundred years ago). The third part forms the failed state in scenario number three (probably central and western regions). The fourth parts that are least susceptible to resource exploitation by Russia are falling apart and integrating with their western neighbours, sometimes creating disputes between them (Zakarpattia is most obvious, but in the conditions of country collapse there will be more pieces). Millions of refugees flood Europe. This scenario achieves all kinds of strategic goals of the current Russian leaders aimed not only at restoring imperial power but also at destroying alternative geopolitical projects and value systems.

In all scenarios, instruments of Russian influence include not only armed forces, economic, diplomatic and information warfare, but also Ukrainian oligarchs, Ukrainian corruption, Russian cultural influence, the weakness of Ukrainian institutions and Ukrainian identity.

So, we have seven scenarios, ranked in descending order of attractiveness for Russia in terms of objective opportunities to exploit Ukrainian resources: human, economic, geopolitical, domestic, semantic. It is easy to see that the attractiveness of the scenarios for Ukraine forms the same rating, only in reverse order.

Based on this rating, we can describe what Ukraine’s victory would mean, but this is another topic.

Let’s look closely at what scenarios Russia will promote in the Normandy negotiations, and what scenarios will protect Ukrainian political leadership and civil society.

P.S. The Normandy Summit finished without tangible results, and this fact was welcomed by Ukrainian civil society, which didn’t expect concessions from President Putin and was afraid that President Zelenskyy could make unilateral concessions under pressure of European leaders. Crowded meetings were held a day before in many Ukrainian cities, and several thousand people stayed overnight near the presidential office in Kyiv as a reminder about possible harsh reactions in that case. “No result is the best result,” many local observers said after the summit. Putin couldn’t neither press Zelenskyy on security issues nor tie these issues with gas negotiations (where Ukraine won the international arbitration tribunal). Zelenskyy passed his ordeal to meet personally with his strong opponent and stood up. Ukraine confirmed its ultimate demand to withdraw Russian armed forces from occupied territories as the indispensable condition for reintegration. Russia rejected this claim. The war continues…

Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, a lecturer at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council. He curates a blog on New Eastern Europe titled Ukraine: The European frontier.

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