Russia and the United States continue to be at odds over the Ukraine situation. That’s rooted in contrasts of interests and values. The contrasts are deep enough that the crisis will not be resolved without involving a third party. Here’s how:
The Paradox of Russian Interests: Russia has many, vague and abstract things which it wants in the confrontation in Ukraine, but comparatively few things to trade in a compromise. Vladimir Putin wants security for Russian peoples, acknowledgment of Russia’s cultural and historical ties to Ukraine, respect for the Russian language, the exclusion of fascist and extreme anti-Russian parties from political office, withdrawal of intrusive European institutions, an end to American political and economic intervention in post-Soviet states, etc. These are quite abstract goals that cannot easily be satisfied or compromised in objective terms. It is very hard to understand what respect for a language, a culture or a historical relationship actually means. Additionally, it is not clear that even physical possession of the Crimea or the Donbass would achieve the cultural comity and historical influence that President Putin seeks to protect. Even in Moscow, annexing Ukrainian territory must seem a disproportionate price to pay to achieve a philosophical comfort zone or even a distant Eurasian Union to which Crimea contributes nothing.
Conversely, Russia has very few things to “trade” in a settlement for what it wants. Actually, Russia has two things to trade (1) The withdrawal of its military and special-operations personnel to their bases in Russia and (2) Official recognition of the Ukrainian government. Once these cards are played, Russia has nothing else with which to negotiate. By contrast, Russian options are virtually limitless in escalation and can threaten far more Ukrainian and European interests than the other way around. Therefore, as long as the defense of ethnic Russians in Ukraine and Russia’s honor more generally enjoys broad public support, Russia will have a bias towards escalation. It will also avoid negotiations both because Russia’s wants are so hard for the Ukrainian government to satisfy and because Russia is dangerously underweighted with bargaining chips. In short, Russia is waiting for a deal to be presented which satisfies everything before it can agree to anything, even to negotiations to develop such a comprehensive settlement.
The Problem of American Principles: The American stake in the Ukrainian crisis is the defense of principle. In the Kyivan crisis, the US is defending the principle that free people have the right to overthrow repressive governments (which is opposed by the Russian decision on the nonrecognition of an illegitimate government). In the Crimean crisis, which has supplanted the Kyiv revolution as the primary concern of the international community, the United States is defending the principle of the territorial integrity of Ukraine (which is opposed by the presence of Russian military and irregular forces in Crimea.) Simply put, President Obama is defending principles in a country where the United States does not have vital national interests.
There is an inherent contradiction in a policy driven by principles and lacking in national interests. Principles are absolute by definition and are resistant to compromise at the conceptual level. “Partial territorial integrity” and “occasional rights and freedoms” are difficult to grasp and politically impossible to embrace. Whether the White House recognizes it or not, their definition of resolving the Ukrainian crisis is absolute, maximalist and nonnegotiable. One cannot imagine President Obama explaining to the American people that he split the difference on the territorial integrity of Ukraine or the freedom of its people. On the other hand, while the United States has these Platonic strategic objectives, lacking in national interests to defend, escalation is ruled out. Military measures are off the table because military escalation would negate America’s long-term goal of de-militarizing the post-Soviet world.
Similarly, extreme economic sanctions would weaken the recovery of European allies, threaten Europe’s energy security, and risk disrupting the international trading system on which life depends. Although the principles which are being contested in Kyiv would suggest indefinite escalation until American objectives are totally met, geography and circumstance dictate that the United States can only move one way—down—on the escalation ladder. And this is the problem which Washington confronts in the Ukrainian crisis. Without vital national interests at stake, Obama cannot take the dangerous measures that his principles demand and that would be required to “win” Ukraine or Crimea, and at the same time he cannot accept an invidious compromise to resolve the crisis. Much like Russia, the United States has very little to give in a negotiation. About the only thing that the United States could offer would be to withdraw economic sanctions and visa ban lists in return for the withdrawal of Russian military forces. But even here, President Obama would be loath to issue visas and return financial assets to former pro-Russian Ukrainian officials who the current government has accused of crimes. Like Russia, the United States needs someone else to propose a face-saving deal that the United States could accept without being accused of craven compromise in its negotiation.
The Unusual Illegitimacy of the Ukrainian Government: Unlike Russia and the United States, the Ukrainian government has wants in this crisis, both individually and nationally, which are clearly existential. Additionally, the failure of Ukraine’s political class over the last twenty years and the revolution which overthrew the government and excited the attentions of Russia, the European Union, and the United States bear responsibility for the crisis in which all parties are trapped. As such, one would expect that the new government would be the most desperate to achieve a resolution and most flexible on proposing compromises. This is not the case.
Despite Russian allegations that the revolutionary leaders lack legitimacy, the government has taken no steps to improve its legitimacy. The stasis of the Ukrainian government has been reinforced by Russia, which condemned the government without suggesting a path to legitimacy, and by the United States, which praised the expression of popular will without asking the government to improve its credentials with a set of reforms. Expressed another way, as Ukraine became a confrontation between Russia and the United States, interest was neglected in improving the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government and its degree of freedom in negotiating an amicable solution. This is a danger for caretaker governments whose mandate and term in office are limited to begin with. In the case of this particular government, the circumstances that brought the Yatseniuk government to power and the composition of its cabinet placed additional constraints on its freedom to negotiate.
Revolutionary governments tend to be unelected. In the case of Yatseniuk government, its political base was limited to Western Ukraine and its ministers were drawn largely from a single party, thereby alienating the other regions of Ukraine and other parties. At least in theory, the Yatseniuk government has a range of signals and compromises at its disposal—along the lines of the acting president’s veto of legislation scaling back official use of the Russian language—which the government could deploy to jumpstart negotiations. For instance, the government could dismiss polarizing figures from Svoboda and Right Sector to whom Russia objects. The government could invite members of the Regions Party and the former government into the cabinet as a signal to other parts of Ukraine. It could offer Crimea a package of additional autonomy and increased subsidies. It could limit the prosecution of former officials and call for an investigation of violence on both sides during the Maidan demonstrations. Or it could postpone the May presidential elections to allow time for all parties to participate and to ensure that the election process is completely free and fair.
At the level of theory anyway, these compromises or gestures could assuage Russian concerns and set the stage for discussions on withdrawal. But at the level of practice, any significant concession to Russian concerns or competing Ukrainian parties would be rejected by the fringes of the revolutionary government and by the Western-inclined Ukrainian “street,” thus limiting the government’s ability to gain the legitimacy it needs to participate successfully in a negotiated settlement. Until the Western powers can find a way to broaden the mandate of the current government, which will entail some form of changes in the government itself, it is hard to see how an unreformed government can be expected to make the compromises that a negotiated outcome will inevitably entail. It is also hard to see how external powers can negotiate a solution to the Ukrainian crisis without the Ukrainians at the center of the crisis at the table and in a position to propose and implement a deal. In light of the rigidity of the Russian and American positions discussed above, movement in the Ukrainian position, particularly in growing legitimacy and recognition, would seem to be the only development which could break the US-Russian logjam.