In Russia, by contrast, the blows caused by Western pressure and indigenous corruption could help prompt a collapse of the Russian economy, while the political crisis created by the inability to produce a stable succession process for Vladimir Putin, combined with the “demonstration effect” of successful political reform in Ukraine, would result in a Russian version of the Orange Revolution. Moscow would lose the ability to interfere in Ukrainian affairs and could even be forced to disgorge Crimea. The path would be clear for Ukraine to receive its Membership Action Plan for NATO and to begin the process for full accession to the European Union.
The second, the “Russian realization” scenario, paints a completely different picture. In this hypothetical, Russia’s bypass options have been completed and Ukraine is completely marginalized. Ukrainian citizens continue to migrate to Russia to staff the industrial complexes that replaced Russia’s traditional suppliers from Ukraine. As with the Orange Movement after 2004, the “Servant of the People” coalition in the Rada fractures and polarization in Ukrainian society increases—particularly as Zelensky starts negotiations with Russia, as the old regional tensions in Ukrainian politics resurfaces, and as the economic reform measures which the West demands are abandoned in favor of pursuing short-term populist remedies. Even now, in the present day, long-time Ukrainian political observer Andreas Umland worries that,
Zelensky’s parliamentary majority is primarily made up of newcomers with no previous experience in public office. … These parliamentary novices will be operating in an under-institutionalized and highly “monetized” political environment. They will make and implement decisions in a country where the rule of law is yet to be established. They will also encounter many political and personal challenges—among them seductive offers from Ukraine’s oligarchs—that they may not be prepared for.
This is why the IMF felt it necessary to warn Ukraine that delays in pushing through critical reforms “might increase the vulnerability of Ukraine’s economy and become an obstacle to further cooperation with the IMF.”
POLITICAL CHANGE in both the United States and Europe may not also break Ukraine’s way. Merkel is set to retire within two years. Within Europe, the continued ascendancy of populist movements and overall Ukraine fatigue increases the probability of an erosion of European sanctions, a de facto recognition of Crimea’s annexation and a growing acceptance that the Vistula marks the eastern boundary of the European world. Poland’s own continual drift into authoritarianism, meanwhile, makes other European governments, especially Germany, far less willing to subordinate their own interests with improved relations with Russia to Poland’s preferences for Ukraine. Britain’s messy Brexit process has also removed another key proponent of pressuring Russia, while post-Merkel and post-Macron governments in Germany and France are far more likely to have normalized their relations with Russia.
While Biden is the early frontrunner in the race to obtain the Democratic nomination in 2020 (and leads Trump in a hypothetical matchup), a Biden defeat, whether in the Democratic primaries or in the general election, greatly reduces the chance of restoring the old Euro-Atlantic consensus on pressuring Russia over Ukraine—either under a second Trump term (with continued tensions with Europe) or under a more progressive-leaning Democratic administration that de-prioritizes Eastern Europe as a region of importance to America.
Finally, even with political tensions surrounding the 2024 succession in Russia, the failure of the Zelensky movement means that there is no Ukrainian model to inspire like-minded Russians to push for change. Additionally, if the Russian economy recovers, then some of the impetus behind the current 2019 wave of protests—the anger at economic stagnation and corruption—will have been removed.
Of course, between the Ukrainian-optimistic and Russian-realization scenarios, there is an entire spectrum of possible events. However, U.S. policymakers might wish to consider what the Zelensky administration and Western powers might do to ensure that the future resembles more the first rather than the second option, while also pondering which steps Russia might take to forestall the first and ensure the second.
The problem, of course, is that the pessimistic Russian realization option is the default track. In the absence of a concerted and united Western effort to freeze or even reverse the Russian bypass options, for instance, Moscow, at best, will have the option to completely stop using Ukraine as a transit country for its energy within two years. Even the mitigation strategy proposed by Merkel’s negotiators—that Russia commits to continue to use Ukraine as one of its transit options—would still result in a major loss of income for Ukraine that the EU and the United States cannot easily or quickly replace. Russia could continue to divert its energy flows to the bypass options but substitute Kazakh and Turkmen natural gas—though this would come at the cost of undercutting another Western strategic priority—to fully utilize the Southern Energy Corridor as the premier alternate Eurasian energy route that bypasses Russian control.
At the same time, unless the West takes direct and drastic action to provoke a collapse in the Russian economy, Moscow retains enough wherewithal to sustain its operations in Ukraine—doing just enough to “deny” Ukraine its ability to move closer towards NATO and EU membership. The provision of U.S. military assistance notwithstanding, the Ukraine conflict is not post-Soviet Russia’s version of Afghanistan—a long, drawn-out debilitating conflict that ultimately eroded Moscow’s power. And while Russia can live with a frozen conflict in Ukraine, Zelensky’s diplomatic path for an exit is fraught with peril. Given the heterogeneous nature of his political coalition and electoral support, the single greatest issue that could fracture his base of support is the Russia question, given that one wing of the “Servant of the People” is open to possible compromises, while the other is resolutely against anything that might be construed as a surrender of Ukraine’s position, particularly if it forecloses Ukraine’s European choices.
Russia has a clear strategy it is pursuing with regards to Ukraine, guided by the imperative that the direction Ukraine moves in has existential implications for Russian interests as interpreted by the current team in the Kremlin. Russia is thus willing to take risks and accept costs to prevent Ukraine’s full integration with the West or to lessen the threat posed to its interests by a united, cohesive Euro-Atlantic world. In contrast, the West has a set of ideal outcomes but has been far less willing to incur costs to see its preferred scenario come to pass. Moreover, at least for the major European powers and even a more distant United States, the failure of Ukraine policy is disappointing but not such a consequential blow to their interests. This arises out of the failure of determining “why Ukraine matters” and the ancillary issue of what risks are worth taking vis-à-vis Russia to change Ukraine’s geostrategic orientation. Critically, there is no single overarching Euro-Atlantic answer, but rather separate Polish, Romanian, German, French and Italian responses, and even a considerable divide between the perspective of the Washington-based foreign policy community and Middle America. Lacking a coherent response, the West has muddled through, while hoping that Russia itself would lose interest or the capacity to intervene in Ukrainian affairs.
In the past, the corruption and dysfunction of previous governments in Kiev was used as the excuse for a failure to achieve the stated goal of a Ukraine that, in the words of Congressman Henry Hyde fifteen years ago, would “be fully integrated into, and protected by, the West and its institutions.” The challenge posed by Zelensky’s election is that, at this point, the West may have the partner it has ostensibly been looking for. Will the third time around for Ukraine finally lead to a different result?
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the Captain Jerome E. Levy chair of economic geography and national security at the U.S. Naval War College. He is also a Black Sea Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The views expressed here are his own.