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.
After Putin conducted a pause following the unification with Crimea, he relocated the forces from the Ukrainian border and asked the Federal Council to withdraw the mandate of the use of force on the territory of Ukraine, thereby making clear that Russia did not plan to invade. Many analysts interpreted it as a result of the pressure of existing sanctions and the threat of new ones, which prompted Putin to limit himself to Crimea, and pass the initiative to the West in finding solutions to the crisis and surrendering positions in the East and the South of the country. Many analysts argued that Russia miscalculated its decision on Ukraine, was scared of sanctions and, as columnist of the New York Times Thomas Friedman put it, “Putin blinked”. Many in the West were under the impression that Russia was ready to yield the East and the South in the hope of avoiding new sanctions and convincing the West to lift the existing ones, close its eyes to the unification with Crimea, invite Russia back to the G8 and move on as if nothing had happened.
As the situation developed in Ukraine, analysts and politicians both in Russia and the West who thought that Russia, under the pressure of Western sanctions, was changing its strategy toward Ukraine and would abandon the South-East, having satisfied its appetite, were proven wrong. One may assume that it was concluded in Moscow that Russia could realize its strategic goals without a direct deployment of its forces on Ukrainian territory and that, in general, the Kiev authorities, even with the support of the West and the U.S., were not strong enough to realize their own scenario, i.e. to annihilate pro-Russian forces, consolidate their power and create an anti-Russian state, aspiring to get Crimea back and integrate more closely into Western political, military and economic structures. The new Russian tactics probably derived from the assumption that the authorities in Kiev would hardly be able to stabilize the situation: they would not achieve a military victory in Lugansk and Donetsk, which would remain huge obstacles for them and would threaten to move toward Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov, Odessa and spread across the entire South and East parts of the country; that the West would be unable to pull the country out of its grave economic crisis and collapse. In addition, Russia has the real power to crush the Ukrainian economy by closing its market to Ukrainian goods. Further, Europe cannot impose tangible sanctions against Russia, as, at least for now, any significant sanctions would have a negative impact on Europe itself should Russia decide to stop gas supplies to Europe in retaliation.
Thus, we can state that neither Russia nor the U.S. have given up on their strategic goals; what has changed is the tactics of achieving them. Russia has not given up its strategy on Ukraine, as far as its out-of-bloc status, federalization and friendly state between Russia and Europe. In turn, the U.S. has not given up its own strategy either, regarding the consolidation of state power on an anti-Russian basis and making the country a major forefront for Washington’s pressure on Moscow. In this situation, even Thomas Friedman had to correct himself, saying that Putin didn’t "blink" but rather just that he “winked” thus recognized that Russia didn’t get afraid of sanctions and is instead calculating possible consequences of sanctions imposed on behalf of Europe as well Washington and is in fact ready to continue the fight for Ukraine, since the future of this country is of existential importance to Russia.