July 10, 2020

Nothing New Under the Sun? Continuity and Change in Russian Policy Towards Ukraine

The aims of this report are to explain Ukraine’s consolidation, resilience and determination to make its own decisions despite great asymmetries of power and Russia’s exploitation of its vulnerabilities and divisions; to describe why President Volodymyr Zelensky represents an opportunity as well as a challenge to Russia; and to set out necessary and realistic goals for the West.

The report gives an extensive overview to those who want to learn more about the complex position of Ukraine and understand Russia’s determination to have jurisdiction over its affairs. It also provides answers to anyone surprised by the current conflict’s intractability and concerned about its dangers.

History matters, as does identity politics. The axiom, ‘Ukraine will never be able to stand by itself’ has been the basis of Russian policy for three hundred years. But for Russia’s Imperial rulers and present-day leaders, the axiom not only describes policy, but fact: the inherent unsustainability of any ‘state project’ on that land. Long before Vladimir Putin launched his so-called ‘hybrid war’ against Ukraine in 2014, this much disputed ‘fact’ had been imposed at enormous cost and with doubtful success.

From the moment that the Russian Federation recognised Ukraine’s independence de jure, it sought to limit it de facto. Since 1991, Russia has consistently underestimated the strength of Ukrainian national sentiment, the resourcefulness of its elites and the robustness of its civil society. Both the Orange Revolution and the EuroMaidan came as a surprise to Russia.

Some conclusions and recommendations:

  1. Russia will remain an existential threat to Ukraine for the foreseeable future.
  2. A difficult relationship with Russia is inevitable for the West. The challenges are to make attempts to resolve Ukraine’s defiance by force hazardous and make the costs of stalemate increasingly difficult for Russia to sustain.
  3. Neither the West nor Ukraine can overcome the impasse by offensive military means.
  4. Ukraine needs reassurance about the steadfastness of Western support.
  5. The West should not overlook Russia’s talent for diversiya, shifting the terrain and character of ‘struggle’.
  6. In dialogue and negotiation, as much as in conflict and war, the West needs to know the adversary.
  7. The time to discuss Russia’s ‘legitimate interests’ in Europe is when Russia is prepared to reconsider those interests.

Download and read the report: Nothing New Under the Sun? Continuity and Change in Russian Policy Towards Ukraine (PDF)