Ukraine: What Russia Wants

February 20, 2014 Topic: Great PowersSecurity Region: RussiaUkraine

Ukraine: What Russia Wants

What Moscow's going for—and how they're going to get it.

It is still unclear what will emerge from the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. What is clear is that Russia—unlike the European Union and the United States—has quickly understood the potential for far-reaching geopolitical consequences. So what does Moscow want?

Ukraine’s political process has always been heavily influenced by its relations with Russia. Yet in the current turmoil, Russia have been far less visible than the EU and the US, which have each sent senior officials to mediate between the opposition and the government—so far without result. But the lack of a formal diplomatic initiative by Russia does not mean that Moscow has chosen a ‘wait and see’ approach. On the contrary, in spite of all the attention on the Sochi Games, the Ukrainian crisis is the top concern on Russia’s foreign-policy agenda. Russia simply prefers to act behind the curtain. Moscow is using various instruments it has in Ukraine, instruments that the West lacks.

Russia’s major goal in the Ukrainian crisis is to prevent the opposition from taking real power in the country. Russia can accept any Ukrainian government as long as it does not offer a genuine change to the existing dysfunctional system, modernization according to European standards, and consequently a pro-Western foreign policy. Thus Moscow continues to support Viktor Yanukovych, even though it does not see him as the ideal Ukrainian president, because Yanukovych guarantees the continuity of the present political-economic order. An authoritarian, corrupt, opaque, politically unstable Ukraine, unable to undertake the structural reforms it so desperately needs, is the best guarantee that the country will at least remain outside the EU orbit—if not within the Russian sphere of influence.

Further, the outcome of the current crisis will influence Russia’s position in post-Soviet Eastern Europe. It seems apparent to the Kremlin—while not yet being fully clear to Western decision makers—that the new Ukrainian ‘revolution’ has enormous geopolitical potential. That potential is great enough that Moscow doesn’t just view the situation in Ukraine as a foreign-policy priority, but also a part of its domestic agenda. A Ukraine with strong democratic institutions and an adopted European model would undermine the security of Russia’s own political regime.

Moscow has long seen Ukraine as a zero-sum game, one with extensive and long-lasting impact. It’s no different today. Therefore, the EU and the United States should be ready for Russia to take far-reaching measures. Russia is preparing to use a wide variety of its powerful political, economic, energy, soft power and other instruments. The EU and the US are unable to keep pace, as both are acting according to very different rules and lack similar instruments of leverage.

Ukraine is, for example, famously vulnerable to Russian economic blackmail. This worsened the growing crisis in the Ukrainian economy. Since the third quarter of 2012, its GDP has fallen continually, and the country has only been able to pay for Russian gas with difficulty, even at the discounted rate the country temporarily received in mid-December. Ukraine’s economic weakness is obviously being exploited by Russia, which is moving to take political advantage of Ukraine’s growing financial difficulties. Russia’s recent big purchases of Ukrainian bonds must be seen through the same lens.

In recent weeks it has also become noticeable that Russia is exploiting separatist sentiments in Crimea, which has a large Russian community. However, Russia will play the card of separatism cautiously, and only with the aim of putting pressure on the Ukrainian government, since Moscow does not want to break up Ukraine, but to have the whole country under its domination.

By using its various tools as well as its connections inside Ukraine’s ruling elite, Russia has been trying to push Viktor Yanukovych to take the decision to use force against the demonstrators in Kyiv. This was the clear message in a recent interview with Sergey Glazyev, Putin’s leading advisor on Ukraine. “The authorities are not fulfilling their duty to defend the state, negotiating with putschists as if they are law-abiding citizens....As for starting to use force, in a situation where the authorities face an attempted coup d'etat, they simply have no other course of action. Otherwise, the country will be plunged into chaos.” Yanukovych took Glazyev’s advice on February 18, resulting in tens of deaths. Yet he could still push harder. Hopefully, he is aware that the fully-fledged pacification of the Maidan, Kyiv’s central square, occupied by the opposition, would be too risky because of the unpredictable domestic consequences, including a further escalation of the protest and a break-up of consensus within the ruling elite, which has never been a monolith.

If a political solution to the increasingly violent crisis is found, Moscow’s minimum goal is the return of Ukraine to the parliamentary–presidential system from the current presidential system; the maximum is for Ukraine to become a federal state. Both ideas would have serious drawbacks for Ukraine. Both would provide Russia with additional leverage.

Constitutional reform is being discussed as an element of political compromise, in the same way as during the ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004. The opposition supports this constitutional transformation, as it would limit the excessive presidential prerogatives; the government does not say no, but is trying to play for time and postpone any potential reform. The problem is that the parliamentary system is not a remedy for a Ukrainian crisis, but rather a recipe for permanent political dispute in the future.

The experience of the parliamentary republic of 2006-2010 should be seen as a warning. In this period Ukraine abandoned its strong presidential system and adopted a mixed presidential-parliamentary system, resulting in de facto paralysis of the state institutions. Due to the constitution’s ambiguous, mutually contradictory legal mechanisms, which did not clearly divide the power between the president and the prime minister, Ukraine fell into a dysfunctional model which made effective governance practically impossible. The possible future constitutional reform should not mean a simple return to the 2006-2010 system of power, but should rather be a well-prepared reform with properly considered consequences for the effectiveness of its governance model.

Another very important challenge is the proposal to make Ukraine a federal state. This has been proposed by a group of deputies from the presidential Party of Regions and the Communist party. Federalisation would give some pro-Russian regions in Ukraine a de facto veto on the country’s integration with the EU.

It is hard to predict what will emerge from the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. But the situation needs more engagement from the EU and the US, which should exploit some of the leverages they clearly have on the Ukrainian ruling elite, including its financial intelligence. But most important for the West is that it understands that the Ukrainian crisis—regardless of how it ends—will have a major impact on the overall situation in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, as well as on the domestic political process in Russia. This is bigger than one country.

Wojciech Konończuk is a senior scholar at Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) and a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, DC.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Amakuha. CC BY-SA 3.0.