How Russia Sees the Ukraine Crisis

Can a compromise be found?

Though Ukraine’s not-quite cease-fire is far preferable to the summer’s heavier fighting, it is far from clear that it will lead to a sustainable settlement between Kiev and eastern Ukrainian separatists, Moscow and Kiev, or the United States and Russia.  A recent presentation at the Center for the National Interest by Andranik Migranyan, a well-informed analyst and writer who runs the Kremlin-connected Institute for Democracy and cooperation in New York, provides useful insight into Moscow’s view of what would be required to get there—and illustrates the wide gap between prevailing Western and Russian outlooks and expectations.  His assessment—based on a recent trip to Russia during which he discussed the crisis with a number of senior officials—offers little basis for optimism.  (See his 15-minute presentation, plus about an hour of discussion, on the Center’s YouTube page here.)

Migranyan’s perspective on Ukraine and on U.S.-Russia relations, like most mainstream Russian perspectives and indeed Russian official statements, is unpleasant for many Americans and Europeans to hear.  (In Migranyan’s case, his views were apparently so unpleasant for one European diplomat present during his remarks that the diplomat decided to complain loudly and walk out.)  Unfortunately, the fact that something is unpleasant—or worse—does not make it unimportant.

Ukraine is a case in point.  Russia has annexed Crimea and has encouraged and supported armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine, both of which go well beyond unpleasant.  Thankfully, the fighting in Ukraine has subsided for the time being, though it could return to pre-cease fire levels very quickly if Moscow and the separatists choose that path.

Why did all of this happen?  Migranyan explained the origins of the Ukraine crisis in terms radically different from those commonly accepted in the United States and much of Europe.  For example, he insisted, the crisis was not “Russia’s initiative,” arguing instead that Moscow was forced to respond to U.S. conduct.  Specifically, he asserted that Russia would not have had the idea to “grab Crimea” and would have felt safe and secure, had the George W. Bush administration not pursued NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, which “started this process.”  In fact, Migranyan noted, Crimea’s ethnically Russian majority—and its elected leaders and parliament—have called repeatedly for annexation by Russia since Russia and Ukraine became independent countries.  He correctly added that Moscow previously ignored these requests many times, in his view because Russia’s leaders saw Ukraine as a “friendly, non-bloc country,” and argued that Russia chose to take over Crimea earlier this year only after Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster.

Ukraine was more stable in the past, Migranyan said, because earlier presidents like Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma understood that their country was divided and fragile and, as a result, pursued cautious policies that maintained relations with both Russia and the West.  He explained Ukraine’s current turmoil by adding that the “radicals in Kiev” have abandoned this approach and will “destroy” Ukraine if they continue.  Migranyan singled out Ukraine’s Prime Minister, Arkady Yatseniuk, as a representative of the faction seeking to end Ukraine’s neutrality by joining NATO.

Migranyan described Russia’s objectives in Ukraine as ensuring the rights of Russian-speakers to use the Russian language, establishing a federal Ukraine with devolution of power to the country’s regions, and ensuring Ukraine’s continued “non-bloc” status.  When pressed to define what federalization would mean in practice, he referred to direct election of regional governors, independent regional budgets, and the ability for Ukraine’s regions to pursue trade and economic ties with Russia and other countries.  He added that those who argue that federalization would lead to Ukraine’s “collapse” actually prove Russian President Vladimir Putin’s controversial statement that Ukraine is not a “real” country, which Migranyan interpreted to mean that it is not a unified nation.

The problem, Migranyan said, is that Russia’s leaders and people do not understand America’s interests and objectives in Ukraine.  The Russian people do not see why Washington is making “such noise” about Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which they see as “fair.”  Nor do they understand why guaranteeing rights for Russian-speakers in Ukraine is an issue when many European governments provide such rights to much smaller groups inside their countries.  Russians view the Russia-Ukraine dispute as a “family affair” that should not be of particular concern in either the United States or the European Union, explained.  As a result, Migranyan continued, they believe that the situation in Ukraine may be an excuse for Western sanctions but is not the real reason for the sanctions, which must be “something bigger”—a desire to limit Russia’s geopolitical role.  This understanding of the sanctions drives both suspicion of the United States and support for Putin, which Migranyan put at 87% according to Russian polls.  (He also referred to polls showing 62% of Russians believe that their country “is on the right track.”)