The Kremlin also began to alter its assessment of the utility of cooperation with the West. In 2011, Moscow had abstained from a key United Nations Security Council resolution that the Kremlin believed would authorize the creation of humanitarian safe zones inside revolution-wracked Libya and create conditions for a political settlement. Instead, the resolution was used by the NATO countries to provide cover for what Moscow termed blatant regime change designed to eliminate Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi. Moscow believed a similar bait and switch had taken place in 2014: hours after an agreement had been brokered by the EU Troika in Kiev providing for early elections, Yanukovych was instead overthrown and forced to flee into exile in Russia. From 2014 onward, therefore, Moscow intensified its efforts to prop up perceived pro-Russian leaders from deposition at the hands of the United States—starting with Bashar al-Assad in Syria and continuing with Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, relying less on massive amounts of Russian support and more on U.S. unwillingness to back its rhetoric with the requisite levels of blood and treasure.
At the same time, if the West was going to increase its hostile actions towards Russia, then, by that logic, it made strategic sense for Russia to use unconventional means, especially via political interference, to weaken EU cohesion and strengthen trends in the United States towards nonintervention in foreign affairs. It does not seem accidental that increased Russian efforts to influence Western political processes picked up after 2014.
THE RECORD is mixed: while Russia has been able to sustain its position in Ukraine and engage in limited interventions around the world without any of these efforts metastasizing into the equivalent of the disastrous Soviet-Afghan War, it has not been able to convert any of these efforts into secured long-term gains. Russian political operations have created problems in Western democracies, which are now grappling with the collapse of centrist coalitions in the face of new forms of left- and right-wing populism and have exacerbated pre-existing dissatisfactions with the structure of the Western alliances (Euro-skepticism, Brexit and America First). At the same time, these operations created problems for normalizing Russia’s relations with the West, particularly with the United States, where the reaction to Russian meddling in the 2016 elections solidified a bipartisan majority in the U.S. Congress for strengthening sanctions on Russia. Unease at Russian actions also helped to spur NATO allies to take seriously their commitments to spend more on defense.
Yet there is also the first signs of “Ukraine fatigue” in Western capitals. After the initial burst of enthusiasm in the wake of the Maidan revolution for helping Ukraine, the perception grew that the new government of Petro Poroshenko was not doing enough to push reform—especially after the cadre of Baltic advisors, who hoped to bring the experience of how their countries had instituted the painful reforms needed to become eligible for further integration with the EU and NATO, gradually left the Ukrainian government. This weakened the willingness of European states to give up their lucrative connections with Russia. Today, the EU’s position is stuck in a Mexican standoff whereby no country is prepared to remove any of the existing sanctions, but every effort to strengthen economic pressure on Russia is also stoutheartedly resisted by enough EU states so as to forestall any such effort. Moreover, Europe’s political landscape has changed since 2014. For the most part, European populists tend to prioritize the “euro bottom line” in relations with Russia over abstract notions of the “international liberal order.”
The Trump administration has continued to enforce the Obama-era sanctions and even began to supply weapons to the Ukrainian military—a move once seen as a red line by strategists in the Kremlin. President Donald Trump himself criticizes European governments, especially Germany, for their energy and economic interconnections with Russia and condemns the new Russian pipelines. At the same time though, Trump’s personal interest in seeing whether some sort of grand bargain “deal” with Putin might be in the cards, along with the departure from his administration of many of the officials who were actually pushing for keeping pressure on Russia, raises the question of whether U.S. policy might change in the future. Finally, new U.S. disputes with allies like Germany and Turkey create opportunities for Russia to weaken what remains of the old Obama-Merkel consensus.
And for non-European U.S. allies, Ukraine is not the most important issue in the U.S.-Russia relationship. For Saudi Arabia and Israel, enticing Russia to play a more constructive role in the region vis-à-vis Syria and Iran trumps the Crimea question. For Japan and Korea, maintaining Russia as part of the Northeast Asian regional balance of power limits the extent of the economic pressure they are willing to countenance in support of the Euro-Atlantic position on Ukraine. Finally, the resumption of U.S. sanctions on Iran and the threat of Middle Eastern instability makes energy consumers like India far less willing to curtail their relations with Moscow over Ukraine.
The risk for Ukraine, therefore, is that much of the world learns to live with de facto Russian control of Crimea—much in the same way that, despite numerous United Nations resolutions affirming the territorial integrity of Cyprus, Northern Cyprus has been maintained by Turkey as a separate entity since 1974. The Europeans are formally committed to the Minsk Protocol for settling the Donbass problem as a precondition for the lifting of the most critical of the existing EU sanctions, but that consensus is not set in stone. And while U.S. sanctions on Russia over Ukraine and election interference are more durable, the challenge for Washington is the extent it is willing to penalize third countries that decide to restore their pre-2014 relations with Moscow.
In 2019, the first signs of a possible disturbing trend—the restoration of Russian voting rights in the Council of Europe (despite Russia not having met the stated requirements for regaining its position) and the reversal by the Trump administration on its position regarding Ukrainian sailors detained by Russia after the November 2018 Kerch Strait incident—highlighted the possibility that, over time, Ukraine’s conflict with Russia could become normalized. From there, it could then be compartmentalized as a factor in relations between Russia and the West. Putin himself indicated as much during a July 2019 visit to Rome, where he voiced his hope “for the complete return to normal relations between Russia and Europe as a whole.”
DOES ZELENSKY’S surprise victory in the 2019 presidential poll—and the willingness of Ukrainian voters to throw out many of their established political figures from the Verkhovna Rada in the subsequent parliamentary elections, instead choosing to roll the dice with new, untested figures and fresh faces—change any of these dynamics? Has Ukraine been given a third chance, after 2004 and 2014, to change its destiny?
In late July 2019, The Washington Post editorialized:
The United States, which under the Trump administration has been supportive of Ukrainian sovereignty, should do whatever it can to help. But it will be up to Mr. Zelensky and the new political elite he has created to show that Ukraine can succeed.
Yet both of these propositions are untested. Whether Zelensky’s actions will match his rhetoric is still an open question. Yet it is also not clear that the United States and the EU will “do whatever it can to help.”
Let’s consider two scenarios of how events might unfold over the course of Zelensky’s presidential term. Both are equally plausible based on recent developments.
The first, which I term the “Ukrainian optimistic” scenario, is based on an assumption that Zelensky can hold together his electoral coalition. International Monetary Fund (IMF) alternate executive director Vladyslav Rashkovan argued at the end of July that Zelensky’s ability to rally such a large degree of public support and confidence, as reflected in the presidential and Rada election results, presented him with a mandate for bold and decisive action to tackle corruption and the oligarchical system, giving Ukraine a “unique chance” to break away from the cycle of post-Soviet stagnation. Over the next several years, Zelensky’s political movement would be able to break the back of the old Ukrainian oligarchy, and a new group of politicians could emulate the hard steps taken by the Baltic States in the 1990s and early 2000s to get Ukraine to meet the conditionality for both EU and NATO membership. Effective anti-corruption measures would also clear the way for the economy to grow at an impressive rate. Indeed, Rashkovan believes that, with the right leadership and stimulus, Ukraine, by the middle of the next decade, could pull away from its post-Soviet neighbors in terms of development and close the gaps with its Central European peers.
This scenario also assumes that, if Zelensky can demonstrate tangible progress on reform, he can gain a new round of U.S. and European political and economic support. A new Euro-Atlantic consensus on sanctions, pushed in part by the election of former Vice President Joe Biden to the American presidency in 2020 (the only presidential candidate with a real interest and significant knowledge of Ukraine), would cause Turkey and Germany to reverse their positions on Russian pipelines, leaving Gazprom with white elephants on the seabed floor of the Black and Baltic seas. Russia would be forced to once more use Ukraine as its main delivery provider to Europe—enhanced by new Western investment in modernizing and reforming its energy transit infrastructure. On a related note, the NATO-Turkey tensions in this scenario have been resolved, with Ankara again serving as the southern anchor of a new strategy to contain Russia.