What Is at Stake in Ukraine

A horrible civil war—with global ramifications.

Since the outset of the Ukraine crisis, the estimates on who is winning and losing this battle have changed a number of times both in the West and in Russia. After Yanukovich fled the country in February, it seemed that the West and pro-Western powers were winning, and that, in fact, the formation of an anti-Russian Ukrainian state, integrated in the European economic and Western politico-military structures, was possible. When the sovereignty and then the independence of Crimea were announced, followed by its unification with Russia without shedding a drop of blood or using force, analysts argued that the scale was tipping in favor of Russia, that Ukraine was an existential problem for Russia and that Russia would fight for it till the end.

Since March the West has been making predictions about Putin's next steps--on how far his ambitions and claims will go, on whether there will be an incursion into the Eastern and Southern parts of Ukraine with their majority of Russian and Russian-speaking population, especially after the anti-Kiev demonstrations in Kharkov, Odessa, Donetsk, Lugansk, Mariupol, and a number of other cities in the region. Or would Moscow lay a claim to the entire Ukrainian territory? Many Western analysts even argued that Putin would not stop there, but would launch an occupation of the Baltic states and NATO would not risk attempting to thwart him.

In fact, Moscow's aims and problems were clearly stated long ago.

Russia's strategic line, defined by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before the unification with Crimea, was a comprehensible formula, backed by the more prudent political analysts and strategists both in the U.S. and in the West: Russia supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine, the federalization of the country, its out-of-bloc status, and the adoption of Russian as a second state language. In this context, Ukraine would be a buffer zone between Russia and the West. It is crucial for Russia to have a friendly country in this region of high sensitivity in politico-military and ethno-cultural terms. If this order of things had been accepted by Washington and Kiev, Crimea would still be an integral part of Ukraine, and the country would not be engulfed in large-scale civil war. Yet neither Washington nor Kiev were ready for compromises. Instead, they played a zero-sum game with Russia.

I believe Russia held all the cards in the period following the unification of Crimea. Most Western politicians and analysts were ready to close their eyes to, if not yet acknowledge, the unification with Crimea and limit themselves to only symbolic sanctions if Russia stopped and did not invade Eastern and Southern Ukraine.

Russia expected its American partners to make their Ukrainian protégés accept its conditions. Unfortunately, these expectations were not met. Washington adopted another strategic line: it pushed for a consolidation of powers in Kiev in order to check Russia's influence in Ukraine and to defeat Russia. As a result, a civil war broke out in Ukraine. Although pro-Russian forces failed to establish their dominance in Odessa and Kharkov, they succeeded in Lugansk and Donetsk, where they proclaimed independent republics supported by referendums in those new formations. The pro-Russian forces regarded themselves as the core of the future Novorossiya, aspiring to unite their republics with the other regions of historical Novorossiya: Odessa, Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Kherson, Nikolayev, Zaporozhie in a way leading directly to Transnistria.

Thus, the threat of a new state in the center of Europe, recognized by no one, became real, which threatened to finalize the split of Ukraine.

Understandably, in this situation, even if Russia did not get the whole Ukraine, it would have serious influence over the significant part of it: the military-industrial potential of the East and the South, created by the USSR as an inalienable part of the Military-Industrial Complex of Russia, together with almost half of the country’s population numbering Russians and Russian-speakers, who linguistically, ethnically and culturally identify with Russia. As a result, Russia would have changed its own geopolitical and geostrategic positions in Europe and in the world. In this scenario, Russia would not maintain its control over the whole Ukrainian territory, yet it would not lose anything; on the contrary—it would gain a lot.

In another scenario, if Russia preserved Crimea and the rest of Ukraine fell under the control of anti-Russian nationalists in Kiev, under the command of Washington, the outcome of the fight for Ukraine would obviously be a serious defeat for Russia. It can easily be assumed that most Russians would be forced out of the country in a short period of time, (even today, according to Russian immigration agencies, two million people have already crossed the Russian border), while the remaining Russians would be forcefully “ukrainianized.” No one has any illusions about the national-linguistic policy of the incumbent powers in Ukraine, should they prevail in the South and East of the country.

The unification of Crimea with Russia was a huge achievement; yet the loss of the rest of Ukraine would mean allowing a new frenzied anti-Russian country to be created on the borders of Russia - in line with Poland and the Baltic states - with very grave consequences for Russia. Clearly, nothing would stand in Ukraine’s way of becoming a NATO member, given the anti-Russian ideology of the current elites. By consolidating power in Kiev with the help of the West and especially the U.S., such a state would become a serious instrument for Washington for exerting pressure on Moscow.