What Is at Stake in Ukraine

July 30, 2014 Topic: SecurityForeign Policy Region: UkraineRussia

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.

Thus, Russia has secured its power to exert substantial influence on national politics in Ukraine without deploying its own military forces or waging a full-blown war with Ukraine. The U.S. faced even greater difficulties on the way of reaching its strategic goals given the collapse of the Ukrainian economy and the state institutions, as well as the severe internecine battles within the elite. In this context, it has became obvious that closer to fall and winter a social conflict might erupt in addition to the national and regional conflicts: Western aid to Ukraine has been based on a number of very severe economic measures such as reducing social spending, increasing public utility costs and tariffs on gas and other energy sources on the domestic market for individual consumers. All these factors combined could completely destroy the powers in Kiev and accelerate the disintegration processes of the country: given the chaos and uncontrollability, other regions, not only in the East and South, would look for salvation, giving up any real hope that Kiev would help them survive.

The crash of the Malaysian airplane occurred against this backdrop. The developments around this incident can prove decisive not only for the outcome of the crisis in Ukraine, but also for the relations between the West and Russia, and what is most important, the relations between Russia and the U.S.

Without waiting for the investigation of the causes of the airplane crash, Washington and many politicians and analysts in the West immediately blamed Russia, pursuing the aim of political and moral-psychological pressure on the country, thus sealing a closer cooperation between the U.S. and the EU. The whole power of the Western political propaganda machine was deployed to depict Russia as a country supporting international terrorism, and by association paint the self-defense forces in Lugansk and Donetsk as terrorist organizations, thereby mobilizing international criticism of Russia’s actions in Southern and Eastern Ukraine. Those actions aimed at taking away the initiative and maneuvering power from Russia and Putin in order to voice demands that Moscow close its borders with Ukraine, stop its support of the Lugansk and Donetsk republics and militias, so that Kiev authorities could take control of those territories and consolidate their power on an anti-Russian basis. Washington threatened that should Russia fail to do so, it would be fully isolated made a pariah in international relations. Severe sanctions would be imposed on Russia aimed at completely shattering its economy and forcing it to capitulate on Ukraine. Many politicians and analysts in the U.S. demanded not only the neutralization of Russia, but also an increased politico-military support for the Kiev authorities so that they could sooner finish off the pro-Russian separatists in the East and South of Ukraine.

Russia found itself in a grave situation. Many analysts in Russia and in the West consider that Russia has little choice but to comply with Western demands and reach a solution on the Ukraine crisis by keeping Crimea and yielding the rest of the country, in the hope that, one day, things would resolve and come full circle. Even if the country incurs losses, they would be insignificant, and Crimea would be considered a substantial compensation.

In my opinion this approach is very superficial. Even if Russia agreed to those conditions and stopped its support for the militias in the South and East of Ukraine, Washington would not merely stop there and leave Russia alone. Another demand to give Crimea back and a threat of more sanctions will follow, until the complete capitulation of Moscow. If, after the unification of Crimea with Russia, the West was ready to look the other way in the event of even a direct military invasion of Southern and Eastern Ukraine so as not to allow the invasion of the whole country, it was because Russia was regarded as acting from a position of strength. It is clear that should Russia bow to the threat of sanctions and agree to compromise, it would be seen as acting from a position of weakness and that new concessions could be secured by increasing pressure. As a result, Russia would not realize its strategy, paving the way for the U.S. to realize its own, as we explained before.

And one more thing: the fight for Ukraine is not to decide Ukraine’s fate - it is to decide the future of Russia and the United States as well, and therefore, the future of the world. If Washington regarded Russia as a strategic partner and an ally in creating the new world order, it would obviously be prepared to accommodate the Russian strategy on Ukraine and thereby preserve the prospects of a constructive cooperation with Russia in many other spheres, without pushing Russia into a closer partnership with China.

The fight for Ukraine reveals the global strategy of the U.S. in the formation of a new world order, where all the leading countries have their proper places. The out-of-bloc status of Ukraine is not a part of that strategy. Otherwise Washington would have accepted the perfectly rational conditions of Russia to resolve the Ukrainian crisis. This would have been possible if Washington regarded Russia as a partner. However, Washington has come up with a different role for Russia in the world. This is why Washington considers the fight for Ukraine to be the fight for the future places of Russia and Europe in the new world order. This is why those, who say that the militia in the South and East are fighting not only for themselves, but also for Russia, are right. Washington uses the Ukraine crisis as a tool to deteriorate Russia-EU relations and ignite the feeling of vulnerability among its European partners. By creating the image of Russia as that of an enemy, the U.S. would convince Europe, that without American military support, Europe would be an easy prey for the aggressive and unpredictable Russia, preoccupied with establishing another Soviet Empire, and ready to invade the Baltic states, Poland and further west.

The phantom pains of Poland and the Baltic states, where politicians have a pathological fear of Moscow, further nourish the U.S. strategy toward Europe and Russia. This strategic line aims at an increased politico-military dependence of Europe on the U.S., which could be used as a tool to put pressure on Europe and accelerate the process of creating a new free trade zone between the U.S. and the EU on more favorable conditions for the U.S. A free trade zone would bring Europe closer to the U.S. not only militarily in the framework of NATO, but also economically. And this economic potential would be of great importance for the U.S. in the realization of its more serious global ambitions in the foreseeable future. In this case, Washington does not need an out-of-bloc Ukraine as a buffer zone between Russia and Europe, since it presumably has developed a different strategic line for Russia, too. Most probably this strategic line does not see Russia as a sovereign and self-sufficient country, which can make decision of its own, in favor of Europe or China. This is why Russia must be defeated and brought back to the state of dependence on the U.S. as it was in 1990s. Washington also clearly understands that Russia must not be given the opportunity for a closer cooperation with China in the foreseeable perspective. Russian vast territories, military, scientific and technological potential and natural resources in case of Russia’s closer political and military alliance with China could seriously change the balance of power between U.S. and China. That is why Ukraine is needed as part of Western politico-military structures for a tighter encirclement of Russia so as to try and bring about regime change in Russia itself and subjugate the Russian leadership to the U.S. Integration of the European economy in a single Euro-Atlantic free trade zone would contribute to the institutionalization of an economic alliance, the united economic power of which would far surpass the Chinese economy. Yet, for the purposes of restraining the growing ambitions of China, the U.S. must have control of Russian resources, for which regime change in Russia is need. A sovereign Russia with such a powerful leader is a serious obstacle on the way of realization of the geopolitical and geostrategic goals of the U.S.

In this regard, Zbigniew Brzezinski recently wrote in his book “Strategic Vision”, that closer cooperation between Europe and U.S. was essential, and that Russia must be incorporated in the U.S. and European interests so that the envisioned Euro-Atlantic alliance could successfully meet future challenges. Quite obviously, the incorporation of Russia in the alliance presupposes a subordinate role for Russia, as no one intends to give it an independent position in the framework of this new world order, where the U.S. seeks to preserve its politico-military dominance using European economic potential and Russian resources. Professor Brzezinski did not give me a clear answer to my question asked during a seminar in Washington regarding the role of Russia in this context. That is why the fight for Ukraine does not determine the future of the Lugansk or Donetsk republics, nor even of Ukraine. In fact, in front of our eyes unfolds a new stage of the fight for resources, setting the stage for the future battle of giants – the U.S. and China.

Based on this reasoning, we can draw a very important conclusion.

If such a vision of American strategy is true, at the end of the day it makes no difference who rules Russia and what Russia’s viewpoint on the Ukraine crisis is. If U.S. strategy seeks to limit Russia’s sovereignty and subordinate it to Washington’s diktat, use Russia’s resources in the future collision with China and not allow any closer cooperation between Russia and China, then this strategy will continue no matter what compromises Russia is ready to make on the current stage of the Ukraine crisis. Obviously, Washington will not stop there. Sanctions will become more serious without any justification. It is always possible to find reasons to punish Russia, if one wishes to do so. That is why I think that even though the session of the Russian Security Council, held last week in Moscow disappointed many, as no sensational announcements were made, for me personally, the title of the session “Securing Russia’s Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity” was important and noteworthy. It means that Russian government understands the purpose of the U.S. strategy to limit the country's sovereignty as it was in 1990s, and to achieve this goal not through direct confrontation with Russia, but by way of some sort of color revolution. That is why I think that this session of the Security Council was a message to Washington, to indicate that their strategy is clear to Russia and that there will not be an easy victory. Russia is ready to defend its sovereignty and will not allow regime change. And this in its turn means that the stakes will become higher in the Ukraine crisis and its outcome of which will determine not only the future of the East and the South of Ukraine, but of Russia, U.S, Europe, China and the whole world.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate the main point of this article.

Obviously, Washington may be ready to make compromises only under the threat of losing the whole or at least the significant part of Ukraine rather than due to Russian concerns resulting from the fear of even more severe sanctions. If Russia demonstrates any weakness or accommodation, the threat of new sanctions will not fade, but on the contrary, the scale of demands will increase.

Quite surprisingly, even among Russian liberals there are prudent people, who consider that the sanctions will not scare Russia or break its determination to continue its consistent policy on Ukraine. On the contrary, the sanctions will be regarded as an American attempt to crush Russia and will rally the people around the leader even more. As one of Russia’s prominent liberals who hasn’t lost touch with Russian soil, what is itself an exceptional case among Russian liberal circles, George Bovt writes in The Moscow Times (July 23, 2014), “The more the pressure the international community applies [on Russia – A.M.], the stronger the anti-Western sentiments will become and the higher Putin’s ratings will climb.” In this regard, he calls for the West to be sober: “There’s only one alternative: The West must urgently find a compromise on Ukraine question, recognizing that Russia’s and its interests cannot be pushed to the sidelines and that desire to deliver a humiliating defeat to Moscow can only intensify the conflict.” To call things by their names, Bovt admits in his article that the West will not defeat Russia with sanctions, and that such a policy can have serious consequences both for the West and even more so for the liberals and pro-Western circles in Russia.


Andranik Migranyan is the director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York, which works closely with the Russian Presidential administration.

Image: Kremlin website