Where Will Ukraine Go from Here?

October 13, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Europe Tags: UkraineRussiaEconomyEnergyGermany

Where Will Ukraine Go from Here?

Russia's longstanding effort to bypass Ukraine as its conduit to Western markets will soon be completed, while changes in both European and American political priorities and strategic assessments may diminish the importance of Ukraine.


 In a closely-fought and contentious presidential campaign to replace Yushchenko as president, Viktor Yanukovych—who stood for the oligarch status quo with Russia—narrowly beat out his rival Tymoshenko to take the presidency in the 2010 elections. Yanukovych immediately took steps to reassure Moscow—extending the lease for Russia’s naval bases in Crimea, shepherding legislation giving status to the Russian language and, most importantly, formally giving notice that Ukraine no longer sought membership in NATO.

Yanukovych thus removed Ukraine as the principal irritant in relations between the West and Russia. The Obama administration and the Europeans could argue that they had remained committed to their principles of sovereign choice, because Ukraine had ostensibly freely chosen not to join NATO. Yanukovych’s presidency also cleared the way for the reset to take off, resulting in Moscow’s willingness to sign a new arms control treaty, tighten restrictions on Iran and work for resolving other problems in the relationship, all while the Obama administration touted the possibility of expanding economic ties and American investment into Russia.


Yet there were still undercurrents. Russia’s clear turn towards more authoritarian rule was now matched by Yanukovych’s own willingness to adopt more dictatorial methods in Ukraine, raising the possibility of democratic recession throughout Eastern Europe. And, in one of her last official statements as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton indicated her opposition to Putin’s plans for a Eurasian Economic Union, deeming it a threat to U.S. national interests. That, combined with Clinton’s statements decrying election fraud in Russia’s 2011–12 Duma and presidential elections, left the impression in Moscow that the reset might be more ephemeral in nature.

The Kremlin was also misinformed about the EU eastern partnership process. Moscow assumed that it would be possible for Yanukovych to sign some sort of agreement with the EU that would satisfy some of his domestic constituencies while still preserving the possibility of closer Ukrainian integration with Russia. When it became clear that the EU Association Agreement for Ukraine would be incompatible with Russian preferences—and particularly in foreclosing some of the nontransparent processes by which Ukraine and Russia did business—Moscow, in 2013, forced the issue: Yanukovych would have to choose between Moscow and Brussels. Yanukovych obliged the Kremlin by withdrawing his signature from the EU agreement—a decision that provoked an immediate protest from key segments of the Ukrainian elite as well as a significant portion of the population.

The history of the Maidan uprising is well known and need not be recounted here, except for one point. As with the Rose and Orange Revolutions a decade earlier, this manifestation quickly acquired a geopolitical patina that categorized the struggle as one between “pro-Western” and “pro-Russian” elements to determine Ukraine’s “civilizational choice.” But the United States and the European powers assumed that, just as in 2004, Moscow would accept the results of the revolution. However, Moscow had spent ten years developing plans and honing capabilities to deal with precisely this scenario. The Russians went into action once the power-sharing deal that would have kept Yanukovych in place was overturned by the revolutionary enthusiasm of the leaders and the crowds in Maidan pushed for a complete break with the old regime—and Moscow’s equities.

The Kremlin dusted off its plans to detach Crimea from the rest of Ukraine via a rapid fait accompli that left the provisional Ukrainian government—as well as the United States and the Europeans—no time to react. Moreover, in keeping with Vladimir Putin’s not-so-veiled threat to George W. Bush at the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008, Moscow showed that if it could not persuade Kiev and the West to halt plans for Ukrainian integration into the Euro-Atlantic world, the Kremlin would rely on making Ukraine an unpalatable candidate by instigating separatist uprisings that would lead to unresolvable conflicts. Based on their read of NATO and EU attitudes—the sense that the effort to bring a divided Cyprus into the EU had been a failure and unease about considering NATO membership for Georgia in light of the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia—a Ukraine that would not be a neutral bridge between Russia and the West would have to be broken.

At the same time, Russia accelerated its timetable for its bypass strategy so as to no longer be dependent on Ukraine’s economy or the country’s geography. Plans that had been put on hiatus during the Yanukovych presidency were reactivated, starting with a second Nord Stream pipeline, and, after the European Union’s regulatory apparatus overruled Russia’s attempt to bypass the country via the Black Sea (the South Stream pipeline), the Russians shifted to a line that would enter Turkey first.

The pipelines—as well as the Kerch Strait bridge connecting mainland Russia with Crimea—have drawn the most attention, but another facet of the Russian strategy has longer-term implications. Moscow has spent the last five years attempting to recreate on Russian soil the Ukrainian enterprises and industrial concerns that it had previously purchased goods and services from—including by recruiting the necessary human capital from the Donbass and other parts of eastern Ukraine. The disconnection of the Russian defense complex from Ukrainian industry is nearing completion. Moreover, by fast-tracking the ability of Ukrainians to become Russian citizens, the Kremlin helps to contribute to Ukraine’s brain drain while bolstering its own base.

Even with the drag exerted by corruption and inefficient use of resources, Russia’s efforts have begun to change the geo-economic landscape. Within a few years, Russia will have completed its bypass of Ukraine and its disconnection from Ukrainian industry. This, in turn, will allow the Kremlin to permit the current stalemate to become the norm, since Russia will no longer have an interest in cultivating Ukrainian goodwill. Moreover, the Zelensky administration, which won a good deal of its popular support from its promise to improve living standards, will face the prospect of losing billions of dollars in revenues, which it will have to make up from other sources.

Today, Moscow has a primarily negative strategy with regards to Ukraine: make Ukraine unpalatable for EU/NATO membership; prevent a consolidation of the Ukrainian political system; and reroute Russia’s geo-economic connections. The goal is to recreate a failing state and throw responsibility for its financial upkeep onto the Europeans and the United States. Putin’s gamble is that the West will be disinclined to take upon itself the burden of renovating Ukraine.

THE WEST was caught by surprise by the speed and severity of Russia’s reaction to the Maidan revolution. Hampering that response further was the lack of a unified Euro-Atlantic perspective on the Ukraine crisis. It was clear that Russian actions had violated the norms of the post-Cold War European settlement, but the seizure of Crimea and Russian fomenting of armed revolt in eastern Ukraine did not trouble all Western capitals in the same measure. Quite the contrary. It soon became apparent that Ukraine was not an existential issue for the United States or even for Western Europe, which limited possible responses, since there were no major constituencies prepared to make sacrifices. The seizure of Crimea, on paper, might be as damaging to the international order as Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait. In contrast, while an international coalition quickly assembled to make sure that Kuwait’s forcible change in status would not prevail, Russian control of Crimea did not have much impact on the day-to-day interests of any major world power. Indeed, Russian missteps—the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over the conflict zone and Putin’s efforts to mislead German chancellor Angela Merkel among them—did far more to galvanize the push for stronger economic and financial sanctions on Russia than any appeal to defend the post-Cold War settlement in Europe.

Moreover, the core European states wanted to balance their own outrage over Ukraine with maintaining their economic and political agendas with Moscow. The Obama administration, meanwhile, found little appetite among the American public for a strong, sustained response to Russian activity that would bring any risk to the U.S. economy or risk a military clash with a nuclear-armed Russia. The Western alliance, relying in large part on the partnership forged between President Obama and Chancellor Merkel, settled on a set of punitive personal sanctions and broad-ranging sectoral sanctions targeting key sectors of the Russian economy, especially the energy industry—but eschewed complete expulsion of Russia from the Western-led international economic system or a complete embargo on Russian energy imports. Security assistance was also carefully limited and restricted. The hope was that Moscow would become overstretched and overtaxed by its interventions (both in Ukraine and in Syria) while sanctions would exacerbate the economic strain on Russia and force Putin to back down. The Obama administration, in particular, took the position that Russia was a power in decline that would not be able to mount any long-term sustained resistance to Western sanctions.

Sanctions have caused Russia pain and severely limited economic growth, contributing to political unrest inside Russia, but perhaps not to the extent Obama had envisioned. Russia demonstrated a degree of resiliency and willingness to use counter-sanctions that targeted the weaker links in the European Union. The sanctions regime also gave the Kremlin a useful narrative—that the West was trying to deprive Russia of its rightful place in the global order and was pursuing regime change.