Although the Minsk II ceasefire in Ukraine was violated immediately and with total impunity by the Russian assault on Debaltseve, the relative quiet following the capture of that town has given rise to hope for a more enduring cessation of hostilities. Perhaps the sides have finally fought each other to a standstill, and the “hot” phase of the war can now morph into a frozen conflict. The people of the Donbass could begin the arduous process of rebuilding their shattered region, and the rest of Ukraine could get serious about economic reform and recovery. Above all, the West could wind down sanctions, pull out the reset button gathering dust in Hillary Clinton’s old State Department desk drawer, and resume the largely sterile pursuit of cooperation with Russia.
The durability of the current pause in the fighting depends on the war aims of the two sides. In the case of the Ukrainians these aims are fairly straightforward—they basically want to avoid losing additional territory. Ultimately Kyiv hopes to restore its sovereignty over the Donbass and Crimea, but the Ukrainian authorities understand that this goal is a long-term—perhaps very long-term—prospect. Incapable of ever driving the Russian army out of their country by military means, Ukrainians must bank on cleaning up the rampant corruption that has bedeviled their state since independence in 1991 and creating an attractive alternative to the sort of kleptocracy taking hold in the regions under Russian occupation. Hence the crucial necessity of root-and-branch reform of Ukrainian institutions; a Ukrainian policeman who extorts bribes is nearly as harmful to the national interest as one who joins the separatists.
Discerning Russia’s war aims is considerably more difficult, since they clearly have nothing to do with the purposes voiced by the Kremlin and its apologists.
The ostensible reason for the appearance of the little green men in Crimea was to prevent the massacre of Russians at the hands of Ukrainian fascist gangs. However, not a single Russian in Crimea—or anywhere else in Ukraine, for that matter—had been killed or ethnically cleansed at that point, nor have ethnic Russians suffered any systematic persecution in the intervening year in the portions of Ukraine controlled by the “fascist junta” in Kyiv.
This rationale for invading Ukraine is all the more risible in the context of Moscow’s oft-stated contempt for humanitarian intervention as advocated, and occasionally even practiced, by the West. In Bosnia or Syria, conflicts ran for years and the death toll reached the hundreds of thousands, but Moscow demanded a purely diplomatic solution and rejected the idea of any outside intervention to end the bloodshed. Russia has also insisted ad nauseum on the primacy of the UN Security Council and the inadmissibility of invading a sovereign state without an authorizing UNSC resolution. In Ukraine, however, the Kremlin contrived a humanitarian intervention where there was absolutely no basis for one, and did so without first pursuing diplomacy or even bothering to seek a UNSC resolution, let alone secure one.
Moscow made a great deal of noise about supporting legitimate authorities in Ukraine against an illegal coup, but it was only rhetoric. If restoring legitimacy in Ukraine had really been Moscow’s goal, then it could have used its little green men to create a loyalist enclave for Yanukovych in the “blue” portions of Ukraine, instead of annexing Crimea and dreaming up the noxious Novorossiya (“New Russia”) project. The Kremlin used Yanukovych for its propaganda purposes, then quietly bundled him off to a comfortable villa in the suburbs of Moscow. Russia has made no attempt to place him in power even in his home region of the Donbass, where the Kremlin seeks not restoration, but separatism.
Similarly, Moscow’s narrative about a “fascist junta” in Kyiv cannot bear any serious scrutiny. The men who came to power in Ukraine after Yanukovych fled—Poroshenko, Yatsenyuk, Turchynov, Avakov, Klitschko, Klimkin—are all sober, moderate, long-time public figures with whom the Kremlin had always managed to work in the past. It is true that armed Ukrainian nationalist groups had played an outsized role on the Maidan, but they were quickly marginalized after February 2014 and ultimately annihilated at the polls. If fascism is defined as violent, intolerant nationalism, then there are certainly fascists in Ukraine. But there are no fewer in Russia, including many of the “patriots” who flocked—or were dispatched—to the Donbass to fan the flames of irredentism.
As the humanitarian-intervention-against-the-fascists line grew increasingly threadbare, the Kremlin trotted out a new justification for its actions: Crimea’s return to the bosom of Russia was the righting of a great historic injustice. In Putin’s purple prose, Crimea was the Holy of Holies, the Temple Mount, a sacred place of unique historical and cultural significance to all Russians.
In actual fact, Crimea belonged to Russia for exactly 171 years—from its annexation in 1783 until Khrushchev gifted it to Ukraine in 1954. The ethnic predominance of Russians on the peninsula is of recent vintage; Crimean Tatars were still a plurality of the population as late as the 1897 Russian census, and ethnic Russians only became a majority after World War II and the deportation of all the Tatars. Crimea played a modest role in 19th and 20th century Russian and Soviet history (the heroic defense of Sevastopol in World War II stands out), but the place is hardly a spiritual lodestar of Russianness like the medieval cities and monasteries of northern and central Russia. Pushkin notwithstanding, Bakhchisaray is a cultural and historical shrine for the Tatars, not the Russians.
The final justifications for Russia’s intervention—arguments not offered until that intervention was already well underway—were a) to keep NATO out, and b) to avenge the post-1991 indignities heaped on Russia by the West. Both claims are bereft of any logic. Ukrainian support for NATO membership was around 15% before the little green men arrived. Now, thanks to Moscow, Ukrainian backing for NATO membership is at a historic high. Ironically, Moscow’s real trump card for keeping Ukraine out of NATO is not invasion, but chronic “Ukraine fatigue” on the part of the alliance and its members—the ones who are supposedly scheming to drag Ukraine into NATO. As for the motive of revenge, it has never been clear why Russia’s sense of humiliation at the hands of the West could even explain, let alone justify, atrocious Russian conduct toward the fraternal Ukrainians, who are completely blameless in this regard. If Russia is angry at the West, why should it beat up on Ukraine?
What, then, remains of the stated reasons for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? It was not a humanitarian intervention because there was no humanitarian crisis. Moscow did not lift a finger to restore Yanukovych’s rule. Fascists did not come to power in Kyiv. Crimea is a charming place, but peripheral to Russian history and culture. There was no danger of Ukraine joining NATO. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever for Russia to get back at the West by laying waste to Ukraine.
In their search for a compromise solution, well-meaning people have proposed measures that take at face value the expressed motives for Russia’s intervention. Surely, they say, we can end the war by accommodating Russia a bit with, say, a neutral Ukraine, a federal or confederal state structure, and wide-ranging linguistic rights for Russian-speakers.
The problem is that Moscow’s stated war aims, as we have seen, are spurious. None of them hold any water. Trying to satisfy them is a waste of time and will not induce Russia to back off.
The Kremlin presumably has its reasons for invading Ukraine, and if it has not publicly articulated any credible war aims, then we are left to speculate what those aims might actually be. I do not presume to know precisely what they are, but there are several factors that I think point in the likely direction.
Over the past decade Moscow has nurtured the concept of the “Russian World,” a purportedly organic historical-cultural grouping of nations centered around—you guessed it—Russia and comprising a unique Eurasian civilization. The various integration efforts in the post-Soviet space, culminating in the Eurasian Union, are intended to restore the natural unity of this Russian World, tragically—but only temporarily—sundered by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Ukrainians occupy a special place in this Russocentric ideology as a kindred people, a demographic reservoir of Slavdom, and, ultimately, prime material for assimilation. The problem is that every Ukrainian government since independence—up to and including the Yanukovych regime—has given short shrift to the idea of Eurasianism and its concomitant requirement of deep and exclusive integration with former Soviet partners. Instead, Ukrainians have been content quietly to build their own national state, or alternatively, to plunder their country free of competition from bigger, tougher Russian oligarchs.
Vladimir Putin has described Ukraine as an artificial state, a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together from disparate parts, including “traditionally Russian” lands like Novorossiya. As with Crimea, Putin’s narrative on Novorossiya is historically dubious at best. But his comment underscores a fundamental fixation of many Russians, who simply choke on the idea of accepting the Ukrainians as a separate people, and Ukraine as a separate state. Constant complaints from Moscow about Kyiv’s language policies are due not to discrimination against, or suppression of, the Russian language in Ukraine, but because millions of ethnic Ukrainians are now speaking, reading, and being educated in the language of their forebears, threatening to undo decades of Soviet-era Russification. In Ukraine, the Russian World is being eroded one Ukrainian-speaker at a time. Something had to be done.
Things were brought to a head by Ukraine’s impending signature of an Association Agreement with the EU. Even as a largely symbolic event, it represented a possible point of no return in Ukraine’s slow but seemingly inexorable drift away from Eurasia. For years Moscow had maintained that it opposed NATO enlargement as a threat to Russia, but had nothing against the EU. Suddenly Moscow began warning of the colossal economic cost to Ukraine of EU association, and protested implausibly that the EU planned to use Ukraine to funnel cheap European goods onto the Russian market. How they came up with this analysis is a bit of a mystery; certainly the Russians who used to throng London, the Cote d’Azur and the Swiss Alps could have no illusions about “cheap European goods.” In any event, Moscow thought it had dodged the bullet when, in exchange for a $15 billion loan and a concessionary discount in gas prices, it induced Yanukovych to postpone signing the Association Agreement. Then the protests on the Maidan and Yanukovych’s ebbing authority once again reshuffled the deck.
If future researchers ever gain access to the Kremlin archives from this period, I expect they will find long-standing, detailed contingency plans for the military seizure of Crimea – plans that were implemented with tactical brilliance at very short notice in March 2014. What historians will not find, I believe, is any master plan for the subjugation of Ukraine. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a marriage of calculation and planning on the one hand, and expedience and improvisation on the other. The power vacuum in Ukraine following Yanukovych’s toppling presented both the danger of an accelerated Ukrainian flight from Eurasia, and an opportunity not to be missed. The finest analysis I read of the situation in March 2014 posed the question, “Why is Putin doing this?” The elegant answer was, “because he can.”
The rationale for Russia’s invasion is not to revive the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union per se. Indeed, it is not so much an effort to create anything as to eliminate something. The Kremlin’s unstated war aim, essentially, is Ukraine as a failed state—no longer a stubborn holdout against Eurasian integration, nor a dangerous example of popular (and—what is worse—successful) protest against tyranny in a Russian-speaking country. Carthago delenda est. Questions about which portions of Ukraine are annexed by Russia, which regions become Russian-controlled satrapies, and whether or not an eviscerated rump Ukraine is allowed to remain, are purely secondary. The physical well-being of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine is a tertiary consideration at best.
This state of affairs has unfortunate consequences for efforts at peacemaking, because it is hard to discern here even the rudiments of a mutually acceptable compromise. The Kremlin will not be satisfied with the regions it currently occupies, nor even much more territory, if the bulk of Ukraine manages to reform, slip the shackles of Eurasianism, and integrate with Europe. Ukraine’s success as a national state, even a truncated one, would constitute an existential threat to Moscow’s control over any occupied Ukrainian lands, and could ultimately sink the whole Eurasian project.
Thus, even if the “separatists” succeed in capturing the Donbass in its entirety, other armed groups will surely pop up elsewhere claiming to be local patriots liberating their regions from the “fascist junta” in Kyiv. And as was so often the case in the Donbass, these “tractor drivers” will not speak Russian with the local accent, will not know their way around their supposed native regions, will be already meticulously trained and organized, and will be equipped with the best weapons and kit available in the Russian army.
A few words are in order for Western humanitarians and budding peacemakers. It is well to be concerned with saving lives, but it is patronizing and frankly absurd to tell Ukrainians not to bother improving their military capabilities because it will only get them killed. It is condescending to imply to Ukrainians that their country is not worth fighting for, and if Ukrainians are prepared to defend their country, it is not our place to surrender preemptively on their behalf. Moreover, if we Americans, for example, want to secure good relations with Russia by returning Alaska, that’s our right. Attempting to curry favor with Moscow by trading away the territory of another country, on the other hand, is not.
The war in Ukraine is not amenable to a quick fix short of complete capitulation by Kyiv, and the Ukrainian struggle to salvage their country is likely to be long and messy. Success depends on convincing the Kremlin that its goal of wrecking Ukrainian statehood is ultimately unattainable, and that the relentless pursuit of that goal threatens Russia itself with collapse.
In fact, the Ukrainians have already won, in the spring of 2014, what might prove to be the decisive contest of the war, when the country’s Russian-speakers rejected en masse Moscow’s Novorossiya scheme. Essentially without firing a shot, at a time when the Ukrainian state authorities and army lay prostrate, Ukrainians rebuffed Moscow’s attempt to replicate its Crimea gambit across the whole of southern and eastern Ukraine. Now that Ukraine is actually defended, it will be infinitely more difficult for Russia to win the hearts and minds of Ukraine’s Russian-speakers, who will give a surly welcome to any Russian forces that demolish their cities under the pretext of liberating them.
This situation gives the lie to the idea that Ukrainian resistance – and Western military assistance – are futile because Moscow can always ratchet up the fighting until it achieves its aims. If Russia enjoys such clear “escalation dominance” in Ukraine, then why hasn’t the Kremlin used it to the full? Why haven’t the Russians already punched a corridor through to Crimea? Does anyone seriously believe that Russia has already achieved all its objectives? Perhaps the Kremlin has been compelled to exercise restraint in the face of tenacious Western dithering? Or is it just possible that Russia is already bumping up against the limits of what it can pull off in Ukraine?
Several Russian experts have observed that, while Russia might have the strength to crush the Ukrainian army, it does not have the forces to occupy the country, or even broad swaths of it, especially in the likely event of fierce partisan resistance. Moreover, recent public-opinion polling in Russia found that 60% of respondents opposed Russian military engagement in Ukraine; at the same time, only a quarter of respondents believed that Russia is currently involved in the war. What might happen to Putin’s approval rating if the Kremlin could no longer maintain the fiction – even domestically – that Russia is not a party to the conflict? As for sanctions, the West still retains the “nuclear” option of excluding Russia from SWIFT. As with real nuclear warheads, it would be better to brandish this threat as a deterrent than to deploy it as a weapon. But as Moscow weighs the pros and cons of storming Mariupol or advancing toward Kharkiv, it would be salutary for Russia’s rulers to contemplate the dampening effect of a catastrophic banking crisis on their prospective victory celebrations.
While hiving off additional regions of Ukraine surely remains a longer-term goal, the Kremlin might therefore focus in the near term on other ways to debilitate its target—economic pressure (including strategically timed gas cut-offs), industrial sabotage and acts of political terrorism such as we have seen in various Ukrainian cities, enough saber-rattling to keep the Ukrainian military on edge and off guard, and a full-court press in its information war. Thus, a relatively stable front line is likely to signal not an end to the conflict, but only a different phase. It will be important to make Moscow pay a price not only for its military occupation of Ukrainian territory, but for the other aspects of its hybrid war against Ukrainian statehood.
Why does the Kremlin do what it does in Ukraine? Because it can. What will induce the Kremlin to stop? When it can no longer get away with doing what it has done so far.