The war in Ukraine seems fated to be a drawn-out, lose-lose proposition. Paradoxically, notwithstanding the recent triumph of Russian arms in the Donbass—in fact, partly because of it—the Russians are shaping up to be the biggest losers of all.
Recall that the original justification for Russia’s intervention was to save ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians from slaughter at the hands of roving bands of Ukrainian fascists, reportedly on their way to Crimea when the polite green men arrived to save the day. How, then, have the Russians of Ukraine fared one year on?
The Russians of Crimea, the initial beneficiaries of Moscow’s humanitarian intervention, have seen the collapse of tourism and agriculture, soaring prices, physical isolation, and massive disruption as the peninsula switches from Ukrainian to Russia law, regulation and practice. All the same, the most acute problems are potentially only of a transitional nature. If Moscow comes through with the promised funding, and most of it isn’t stolen (two very heroic assumptions), Crimea could with time settle into, if not exactly prosperity, then at least a state of tolerable stagnation.
The Donbass, on the other hand, would be lucky to have Crimea’s problems. Desultory demonstrations and the seizure of a few municipal centers and armories were transformed into armed conflict once Igor Strelkov and his gang of Russians gunned down the Ukrainian security forces who tried to stop their incursion. However, Moscow failed to repeat its Crimean cakewalk in the Donbass, which became a theater of fierce positional fighting punctuated by heavy artillery bombardment in densely populated areas.
As a result, the overwhelmingly Russian-speaking Donbass has suffered the brunt of the war’s destruction, casualties and displacement. The local economy, which was seriously depressed even before the war, is now devastated. To make matters worse, Moscow has decided to finance its occupation of the Donbass on the cheap. Blanching at the astronomical price tag just to maintain the Donbass, let alone reconstruct it, Russia has indignantly insisted that Kyiv continue paying salaries and pensions, as well as foot the gas bill. Kyiv, of course, doesn’t even have the funds to cover its obligations in the territory it controls, and is not about to bankroll separatism. So, while Moscow self-righteously waits for Kyiv to pick up the check, the needs of the Donbass’ Russian-speaking population go unmet. If the Russians of Crimea can plausibly hope for a brighter tomorrow, the Russians and Russian-speakers of the Donbass can have no such illusion. Their future bodes unremitting misery under any plausible scenario.
Oddly enough, the best-off Russians in Ukraine are arguably the ones who still live under Ukrainian rule. The “fascist junta” in Kyiv, supposedly hell-bent on massacring the Russian population of Crimea and the Donbass, has deviously left the millions of Russians under its own control unscathed. These Russians might live in a dirt-poor, dysfunctional country, but at least their homes haven’t been leveled. The greatest danger to their wellbeing, in fact, is the prospect of being liberated in the manner of the Donbass, with all the consequent destruction and loss of life. Ironically, the establishment of a land corridor to Crimea, which would ease many of the economic problems of the peninsula, would come at the expense of millions of Russian-speakers from Mariupol to Kherson, whose cities and countryside would be turned into a war zone. The more of “Novorossiya” that the Kremlin seizes, the greater will be the suffering of Ukraine’s Russians.
At the height of the “Russian spring” in 2014, a senior Russian official was publicly bewailing the indignities that Kyiv has heaped on Russian-speakers in Ukraine. He gave two specific examples: 1) a Russian in Crimea who complained that his father’s death certificate listed the father’s patronymic in Ukrainian (“Mykolayevych” instead of the Russian form, “Nikolayevich”); and 2) the fact that some Ukrainian officials, traveling to the Donbass from Kyiv, used to insist on holding meetings with local officials in Ukrainian instead of Russian.
What is striking about these examples is their sheer pettiness. Imagine: a Ukrainian bureaucrat insisting on speaking Ukrainian in a meeting of Ukrainian officials held in Ukraine! What an outrage! Evidently it’s worth thousands of dead and a million-plus refugees in order to spare Russian-speakers the ignominy of having to see or hear Ukrainian.
I have read a bizarre assertion to the effect that Ukrainian nationalists are intent on eradicating the Russian language in their country and creating a monolinguistic state, while Russian-speakers are working for an inclusive, bilingual Ukraine. The actual situation is almost the exact opposite. Virtually all Ukrainians can speak Russian, even in such nationalist strongholds as Kyiv and Halychyna. The increase in the number of Ukrainian-speakers since independence has come not at the expense of fluency in Russian, but in addition to Russian. It’s the Russians in Ukraine who are the monoglots. They largely retain the Soviet-era notion of “internationalism” by which Ukrainians in Ukraine were all expected to learn Russian, but Russians in Ukraine rarely bothered to learn even the rudiments of Ukrainian. In reality, the only way for Ukraine to become bilingual and inclusive would be for ethnic Russians to set aside their contempt and learn to speak some Ukrainian.
What, then, is one to make of Moscow’s self-proclaimed goal of saving the Russians of Ukraine from destruction? Is the Kremlin oblivious to the fact that the fight against “Ukrainian fascism” is being waged above all at the expense of Russian-speakers? That the Donbass might not recover even in a lifetime, and that the extension of the war to other Ukrainian regions portends, above all, still more Russian-speakers killed and homeless? Does this spectacle not dispose the Kremlin to sue for peace? Or perhaps the wellbeing of Ukraine’s Russians and Russian-speakers was never the purpose for unleashing the war in the first place?
Russian collateral damage from the fighting in the Donbass extends far beyond the boundaries of Ukraine. Moscow’s high-priority Eurasian integration efforts, which were generating little enthusiasm even in the best of times, have been dealt two body blows by the war.
First, Moscow’s actions in Ukraine have cast a pall over the Russian minorities scattered throughout the “near abroad.” In the eyes of the titular nationalities of Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors, ethnic Russians in their countries are now a potential fifth column, or at the very least a pretext for Kremlin intervention. Ironically, at the same time, the war in Ukraine will probably make ethnic Russians think twice about casting in their lot with Moscow. When Russians in Kharkiv, Latgale or northern Kazakhstan ponder life in the greater Russian World, they should keep the cautionary example of the Donbass ever in mind.
In yet another irony, it is Belarus and Kazakhstan—hitherto Russia’s closest integration partners—who are most alarmed (and justly so) about the prospect of unbidden green guests in their countries. Their anxiety was manifested in Nazarbayev’s sharp, neuralgic riposte to Putin’s impugning of Kazakh statehood, and in Lukashenko’s angry assertion that Belarus would never be part of any Russian World. Moscow has already thoroughly alienated the Georgians and Ukrainians, who (except for the Western Ukrainians) used to be two of the most pro-Russian peoples in the Soviet Union, while nations like the Uzbeks and Turkmen have already irretrievably distanced themselves from Moscow. With a little more effort on its part, Moscow could find itself with no reliable partners left in the post-Soviet space except Armenia and possibly Kyrgyzstan.
Second, Russia’s downturn has pummeled its post-Soviet neighbors, and the economic appeal of integrating with Russia has been devalued in lockstep with the ruble, the manat, and the tenge. Employment opportunities for guest workers in Russia have been drying up, and Russian gas subsidies may follow as Moscow faces budget deficits and dwindling cash reserves, diminishing two of the principle benefits of integration for Russia’s neighbors.
And what of the people of Russia itself? The quick, easy seizure of Crimea was certainly intoxicating, but the hangover is likely to be long and unpleasant. The biggest problems, of course, have nothing to do with Ukraine—low energy prices and the structural shortcomings of the Russian economy would have triggered a recession in 2014 in any event. However, the addition of sanctions, increased capital flight, and the direct costs of the war have created the proverbial perfect storm.
Russia’s hydrocarbon revenues over the past 15 years run to trillions of dollars—enough funds to create an oligarchy of fabulously wealthy billionaires and still leave some money to improve the lives of ordinary Russians. Indeed, the hydrocarbon boom and good macroeconomic management have created, prior to 2014, the highest standard of living that Russians have ever enjoyed. Problems persisted, of course, but in terms of consumption and economic opportunities Russians never had it so good.
This unprecedented Russian prosperity is now being squandered by the Kremlin’s policy. How much of those petro-trillions will still be left for the average Russian after three, four, or five years of unremitting war, sanctions, capital flight, economic contraction, and soaring inflation? And how much worse will it get if you add in the potential for continuing low energy prices, growing unemployment, a corporate debt crisis, and a collapse of the banking system?
Moscow’s longer-term position in Ukraine is unenviable. Thoughtful Russian observers have used the chess term Zugzwang, in which the current situation is disadvantageous, but a move in any direction will only make matters worse. Russian withdrawal is unthinkable for a host of domestic and geopolitical reasons, but there will be no more easy triumphs, and military advances deeper into Ukraine will resemble the Donbass rather than Crimea. Russia can continue to wreak a great deal of havoc in Ukraine, but can accomplish very little good for anyone—not even for Russians.