The War in Ukraine amid Divided Western Attention
Will the West forget Ukraine? Two years after the Minsk II agreements, violence has hardly ceased and Russia’s land grab on the Crimean Peninsula is solidly entrenched. While Western capitals repeatedly call for full implementation of the ceasefire, military de-escalation remains unlikely and political concessions from Kyiv are widely unpopular. 2017 is a risky turning point for the war in Ukraine. The momentum for implementing the Minsk agreements has faded. A growing sense of “Ukraine fatigue” is spreading among Western capitals and public opinion. A series of elections in France and Germany, the two western pillars of the Normandy Format, introduce significant volatility. The foreseeable breakthrough of reactionary, illiberal or even pro-Russian political parties would not be helpful in managing and resolving the war.
The conflict in Ukraine is overshadowed by the war in Syria and the flow of refugees it brings to the shores of a petrified Europe. For European public opinion, the war in Ukraine is becoming yet another frozen conflict in the post-Soviet space. For west Europeans, the situation is difficult to comprehend and has only distant concrete effects. The view from America is detached. On top of President Trump’s confusing and contradictory statements, his predecessor had already made it clear that Ukraine could not realistically constitute a priority for Washington. Adding to the uncertainty is the declining unity of the Western response to Russian provocations. Divisions have surfaced over sanctions policy. The UK’s exit from the EU will deprive the case for sanctions of a strong proponent, and the energy dependence of several EU member states on Russia continues to act as a dampener.
The latest Munich Security Conference took place amid a general feeling of “massive uncertainty” about the international security environment. A few hours after the first telephone conversation between presidents Trump and Putin in late January, major outbreaks of violence occurred in eastern Ukraine, largely induced by Russia-backed separatists. This is yet another sign of the volatility of the current security situation in Europe, with Russia gauging its margin for manoeuvre at a time when the terms of American commitment to transatlantic defence are unclear. The European strategic landscape is undergoing important changes and the diplomatic arena is unfavourable to a lasting solution in Ukraine. As this report shows, in the face of upcoming changes in the West, Russia has little incentive to change the course of its policy in Ukraine. The next two years will be decisive. The Russian presidential election in the first quarter of 2018 will likely trigger a surge in anti-Western posturing from the Kremlin, while the West should seek to maintain constructive channels for discussion with Russia, both towards the Kremlin and beyond.
The security environment turned upside down
The conflict in Ukraine has profoundly disrupted the European security complex and has been a litmus test for Western diplomatic determination. The Minsk II agreements were brokered in a last-resort attempt to curb the escalation of violence in Ukraine, and succeeded in taming the conflict. Their full implementation is heavily compromised, and 2017 looks particularly unfavourable to a peaceful settlement. Europe is, once again, considered not to have been able to manage and resolve a military conflict on its doorstep.
The response to such a disruption has proved mild and did not influence major developments on the ground. Firstly, the response of multilateral organisations has been limited. The OSCE and the Council of Europe, the two major intergovernmental organisations in Europe, are not designed to be the embodiment of an unwavering defence of the European security order. These organisations are strictly horizontal and intergovernmental, while also burdened with a complicated membership as they both include Russia. The OSCE has been the main official forum for negotiations among stakeholders and remains heavily involved with the Trilateral Contact Group and through its Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. NATO and the European Union, on the other hand, were not meant as mere discussion forums and—with a rather more cohesive membership—were able to offer a firm response to the escalation of conflict. NATO has repeatedly described the annexation of Crimea as “illegal and illegitimate”, while the EU was bound to coin it as illegal but has stressed on numerous occasions the deterioration of the human rights situation on the peninsula.
The conflict in Ukraine has, however, shown that powerful states remain the determining actors in managing European security crises. But the Minsk II agreements have so far remained fragile. The application of a sustained ceasefire in eastern Ukraine remains unlikely, putting a strain on the diplomatic resolve of Western members of the Normandy Format. Federal elections in Germany will prove risky, as Chancellor Merkel has been the core element of the Minsk Process. She is running for a fourth term, and the wave of change from America to Europe will play to her disadvantage. Equally, a lot will depend on the new leadership in France. In a country that has a rather positive image of Russia, the main opposition figure is a proven Russophile and the populist Front National is an admirer of Putin’s authoritarian rule. With the Brexit process, not only will Ukraine lose valuable attention on the European agenda but it will also be deprived of the UK as a strong political supporter within the EU and a powerful proponent of sanctions against Russia.
In these circumstances, a sustainable political settlement is not in sight and the Minsk Process will remain bound to its internal contradictions. Russia negotiates the terms of the ceasefire while undermining it at the same time. This attitude provides Ukraine with a powerful argument not to implement its own commitments. This deadlock is leading to growing impatience in Paris and Berlin. Russia consistently denies involvement in eastern Ukraine, despite accusations from the EU, the US and the UK; international organisations offer nothing else than a platform for actors to repeat their positions. This is why focusing on the need for Minsk implementation is counterproductive: the agreements are widely unpopular in Ukraine, while external pressure further discredits both the Ukrainian leadership and the West and risks pushing hawkish forces closer to power.
Uncertainties emanating from the West leave Russia with a wide margin for manoeuvre in attempting to neutralise Ukraine and obtaining special status for the Donbass. The growing tension in Europe over migration, anxiety over terrorism and the new US administration’s near-exclusive priority on ISIS is unfavourable to sustained attention towards the war in Ukraine. Illiberal, reactionary and nationalist political forces are objectively close to grabbing power in Western Europe in 2017. This combination of factors is changing the European strategic landscape and could create a dangerous power vacuum.
Disorientation in Western public opinion
The Euromaidan in 2013 attracted a strong and instinctive wave of support from European public opinion. Four years later, the picture looks rather different. Media attention has been largely drawn away from the conflict, while a growing “Ukraine fatigue” is reducing Ukraine’s credibility and weakening the case for sanctions against Russia.
The winds of Western public support have shifted at Ukraine’s expense. Media attention has been diverted from the situation because the conflict has been going on too long for public support to last in a hyper-mediatised world. The length of the conflict spreads a sense of “Ukraine fatigue” and a greater share of public attention is devoted to the slow pace of reform and the problem of corruption. This fatigue is not new, as it appeared when the hopes of the 2004 Orange Revolution were disappointed. In Germany, where a strong relationship with Russia is traditionally valued, public opinion has wavered concerning both Russia and Ukraine. German media have tended to focus less on the war in eastern Ukraine than on the domestic reform agenda and its shortcomings. The mood is similar in France, with diminishing support for sanctions against Russia due to their perceived inefficiency in altering the course of the conflict. In the US, although Russia is viewed negatively by a large majority of respondents, the latest trends point towards a more positive image of the country, especially among younger Americans. Compared to the previous year, in 2016 favourable opinions of Russia rose while negative views decreased.
There also are exogenous reasons for these shifting winds in Western public opinion. The migration crisis and the war in Syria have continuously been in the headlines over the past two years. Terrorist attacks in France and Germany have understandably replaced the conflict in Ukraine as a major subject of concern. In the Netherlands, which has been painfully involved in developments concerning Ukraine, public opinion tends to have a negative image of the country. The tone of the campaign against the EU Association Agreement on the occasion of the April 2016 Dutch referendum was anti-immigrant, anti-EU and anti-elite. Western public opinion equally shows reduced resilience and determination in a confrontational environment. A 2015 opinion poll covering ten NATO countries found surprising results that can instruct the future development of public opinion over the resolution of the war in Ukraine. Overall, fewer than half of respondents in the UK, France and Germany would favour the Alliance using force to defend one of its members under attack from Russia.
Overall, the western European public appears to be disoriented. The volatile international environment exhibits a series of contradictory threats: religious extremism with an angry and unstable Middle East, Russian provocation in Eastern Europe, and right-wing extremism in the West. Much of the faded attention towards the conflict in Ukraine stems from these contradictions, and electoral campaigns focusing on terrorism and religious extremism play directly into the Kremlin’s hands.
Understanding the Kremlin
The Kremlin has thickened the fog of war. Military interventions in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria boost Putin’s approval ratings at home while increasing anxiety in the West. But one can hardly see a critical pattern in the Kremlin’s military interventionism. Putin’s thinking is rather fluctuating. “I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe … so it is hard for me to visualise NATO as an enemy”, declared the then acting president to the BBC in 2000.1 However, in subsequent years the Beslan terrorist attack, the Yukos controversy, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the reforms in Georgia, together with a dysfunctional Russian economy, prompted the Kremlin to adopt a nationalistic and aggressive posture.
2012 marked a further shift in Russia’s foreign-policy attitude. The power swap between Medvedev and Putin, combined with rigged elections and the consequences of the economic crisis, prompted a vibrant Russian middle class to demand greater political liberalism and accountability. In response, the Kremlin ostensibly started blaming the United States for using “hybrid warfare” tactics against Russia in the form of demonstrations, and adopted an aggressive position on the external stage. Military operations in Ukraine and Syria boosted support for the regime and tamed popular demands. The determinants of Russia’s military interventionism therefore do not originate in consistent strategic thinking. Moscow seeks to have the post-Soviet space recognised as its exclusive sphere of influence in order to secure the Kremlin’s stability. However, the country cannot afford a sustained confrontation with the West. The Russian economy is fragile and very susceptible to external shocks.
In Ukraine, the Kremlin’s objective is to retain influence over the country’s political future by making it impossible for Kyiv to regain territorial integrity while preserving its independence. It might be logical and cheaper for the Kremlin to give the Donbass back to Kyiv. There is a growing “Donbass fatigue” in Russian opinion, and the costs of sustaining the region are prohibitive. Russia could thus let Ukraine struggle with the economically depressed and war-torn region while enjoying a softening of the sanctions regime. At the same time, it is vital to the Russian economy to have secure means of gas deliveries to Europe. This is why the most desirable scenario for the Kremlin could be the decentralisation of the Ukrainian state with fading Western support for Kyiv. In Moscow’s calculation, the Donbass would burden Ukraine, lastingly impeding any aspirations to EU and NATO membership.
This is why the challenge for Ukraine is the ability to endure the return to its territorial integrity. Russian withdrawal from the Donbass would be a poisoned chalice. The reintegration of millions of pro-Russian voters would inevitably weaken the government’s position and the financial costs of repairing the region would compromise the country’s economic stability. The growing controversy in Ukraine about adopting a neutral foreign-policy posture should be seen in this context. Viktor Pinchuk called for Ukraine to make “painful compromises”, accepting the loss of Crimea and the Donbass in order to save the country’s independence. Proponents of this approach advocate peace with Russia by renouncing Ukraine’s NATO and EU hopes. But these “painful” concessions, combined with a process of federalisation, might play into the Kremlin’s hands, allowing it to retain long-term influence over the future of the country. A neutral stance with loose control and unsuccessful integration of the Donbass would endanger Ukraine’s political independence.
The West should beware offering Russia a critical window of opportunity in burdening Ukraine’s future. Transatlantic unity and cohesion have loosened. This situation leaves significant room for manoeuvre for the Kremlin to try and shape a new political settlement that would make Ukraine chronically unstable. With President Trump’s unpredictability, there is also a real danger of a consensus between Moscow and Washington that would leave Kyiv subject to external influence. But the West should not be blinded by Russia’s attitude. In fact, the Kremlin’s aspirations should be considered in a broader context. Power in Russia is vertical as it depends on one individual. Intermediary institutions and credible countering powers are underdeveloped. One must also bear in mind that China and emerging centres of power and the unstable Middle East are strategically more pressing challenges to the West than a declining Russia.
What, then, should we expect in 2017 and 2018 in the relationship between the West and Russia? The Russian presidential election will be a challenging moment. The measured reaction of the Russian authorities to President Trump’s election indicates that the Kremlin may not be willing to hurry into a rapprochement with the US as this would deprive its propaganda machine of a large part of its justification for domestic difficulties. Russia will continue to seek and exploit opportunities and weaknesses in order to foster conditions for the West to recognise an exclusive Russian sphere of influence.
The risk of validating Russia’s bet over Ukraine
The transatlantic community has been shaken by existential doubts, and support for Ukraine has consequently faded. However, the Baltic States have consistently held that the West needs to stand firm behind the sanctions policy and support Ukraine comprehensively. The Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2017 will likely draw more attention to Ukraine on the EU agenda. Notwithstanding President Trump in the White House, Ukraine can also count on Canada to be a steadfast ally against Russia; the newly appointed Canadian foreign minister is a prominent critic of Moscow. Poland has historically been a strong ally of Ukraine and has provided unwavering support and diplomatic activism for the country. But the victory of the Law and Justice Party in Polish elections in October 2015 caused the controversy over the Volyn tragedy to resurface, which put a serious dampener on bilateral relations.
The uncertainty over the West’s attitude carries a great risk of validating the Kremlin’s bet on the low resilience of the transatlantic security architecture and its determination to stand up for Ukraine. Russia’s overall calculation over Ukraine is simple. The Kremlin felt threatened by the Euromaidan unrest in Kyiv; it developed a defensive rhetoric, grabbing Crimea and destabilising eastern Ukraine. Impeaching Kyiv to regain sovereignty over important parts of the territory is destined to halt the country’s path to economic and political transformation. An unstable and damaged Donbass is making the costs of normalisation prohibitive for Ukraine and the decentralisation clauses in the Minsk agreements are intended to retain lasting influence over the country’s future.
In the current state of affairs, Ukraine would be left with two mutually exclusive options: independence or territorial integrity. Overcoming this binary choice requires Kyiv to demonstrate imagination and courage. The economically depressed and politically backward Donbass does not appeal to Kyiv, as its reintegration would trigger considerable expense and engender political instability. However, Ukraine has consistently demanded the return of the Donbass into its sphere of sovereignty and could not avoid reclaiming the region in the event of Russian withdrawal. But in the absence of massive support from the transatlantic community, the reintegration of the Donbass would be a dangerous move. The Kremlin’s objective is to create the conditions in which it would be impossible for Ukraine to be a strong and independent state, embattled with its problematic border areas.
At the time of writing, one can only speculate about the attitude of the new European and American leaderships towards Russian intentions. As shown above, the case for sanctions and transatlantic determination are both on a downward slope. Russian efforts to create the conditions for a de facto recognition by the West of its own sphere of influence are determined by domestic Russian politics. This is why, notwithstanding political developments in the West, quarantining Russia would be a counterproductive mistake. The smartest solution from the West’s perspective would be to address Russia consistently, and systematically search for areas of cooperation while remaining steadfast on fundamental differences. The major challenge is to create compelling conditions which would render the Kremlin’s anti-Western stance counterproductive. Putin’s current power vertical does not synthetise the diversity and complexity of Russian society, nor does it suppress the long-term interdependence of Russia and its Western neighbours. This is why the West should be wary of losing sight of Russia beyond the Kremlin.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.