Russian aggression against Ukraine, ongoing since early March, has become the most radical security challenge in Europe over the past decades. Even the much bloodier events in former Yugoslavia were less likely to provoke a huge global conflict than Russia’s actions, first in the Crimean peninsula, and in recent days in Ukraine’s eastern regions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly considers himself not so much the leader of Russia as a nation-state, but rather as a protector of the whole “Russian World”—namely the entire space where Russian or Russian-speaking people, as well as Orthodox Christians, used to live. Putin articulated his view of the post-Soviet space as a zone of Russia’s exceptional influence when he said, “What was the Soviet Union? It was actually Russia, only called something else.” Putin regards the sovereignty of former Soviet republics as “conventional”, not indisputable, and therefore believes he could redraw their borders at any time circumstances favor it.
Events over the past 25 years show that the Russian elite, no matter how “Europeanized” it may appear or how rich and successful it may be, still supports imperial policies. Such policies enjoy overwhelming support among the majority of Russian citizens, and there is no reason to think it will disappear soon. In other words, today’s Russia has been and remains a major destabilizing force in the post-Soviet space. Sadly enough, I believe, we will see many conflicts in the region, with its direct participation.
If Russia’s aggressive, imperial essence is to change over the long term, its citizens must be convinced not only of the abstract advantages of the “European path”, democracy, and rule of law. They must also believe that they (and those whom they consider “brothers”) can live under such order more prosperously and safely than under their current, authoritarian regime. There is some proof of that many do believe this. Close to 3.5 million Russians possess residence permits for EU member states and are well integrated into European society. But acclimating to a different order as a minority or an immigrant is one thing; organizing Russian society around European principles is quite another. That is why the historical fate of Ukraine is crucial both for the European Union and for Russia.
Which side will win the contest for the minds of citizens of the former Soviet Union? Russia demonstrates its hard power, sending its soldiers, training and arming guerrillas, supplying the authorities of separatists with money, and finally attaching some parts of the neighboring country to its provinces. But the impact of this hard power may be shortlived. People become accustomed to higher salaries and pensions rather quickly; moreover, rising prices will soon wipe out the effect of revenue growth. The bureaucratized Russian system of governance may alienate the majority of the population of newly annexed territories. In addition, the economic situation in Russia these days is fragile, and the economy will definitely dip into recession this year. So the population of southern and eastern Ukraine, which has experienced a clear rise in their living standards, may soon become deeply disappointed.
These days Europe is doing very little either to help Ukraine economically or to counter Russian aggression. If this is West’s deliberate choice, any further speculations are pointless. But if the European Union and the United States want to challenge presumptuous Kremlin leaders, a proper strategy may be the more modest one.
Today one can say for sure that Crimea and eastern Ukraine (Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk) are already lost by the new Kiev government. Accordingly, prior to elections scheduled for May 25, the Kiev authorities should declare these areas occupied territories, dropping attempts to defend them from Russia and seeing them being annexed by Moscow (de jure and de facto). The would-be elections in the rest of Ukraine will in this case approve its choice for involvement in the EU and NATO, and result in Ukraine’s official claim for full membership in NATO and the European Union. Those who previously supported pro-Russian orientation will probably continue to do so. The Ukrainian army will take control of the eastern frontiers, since there are not so many advocates of re-unification with Russia to be found in Poltava, Sumy, and more western regions. The new Ukraine will then chart a clear course toward Europe, not recognizing, of course, the formal loss of its eastern and southern territories, (Underlying this, a special Ministry for the Occupied Territories may be created inside the Ukrainian government.)
If all this happens, the European Union must express a willingness to integrate Ukraine, by immediately designating it a candidate country and announcing the exact date of the complete Ukraine’s accession to the union. This decision will stabilize the political situation in the country and will provide the basis for reforms in all spheres, clearly defining geopolitical vector of Ukraine. As a result, the new frontier in Europe will take shape—one between the expanding EU and the post-Soviet space as a huge zone of Russia’s indisputable influence.
I believe this is a point of fundamental importance: The West today should show Russia that it recognizes the post-Soviet space as Moscow’s political domain, thus allowing Russia to fully express its growing aggressiveness—to its own detriment. Putin is realistic enough not to attack NATO countries, but bold enough to extend Russia’s dominance in post-Soviet Eurasia. This boldness will inevitably lead to a kind of “imperial overstretch” and will foster a growing antipathy towards Russia in the post-Soviet space and in other parts of the world.
If the EU does this, three important factors will hasten the onset of Russia’s problems. First, Russia will take on a huge additional economic burden because of the occupation of new territories. Within the first two months after the takeover of Crimea, Moscow announced the allocation of $8.4 billion for its needs. Development assistance for eastern Ukraine—a highly subsidized region with outdated Soviet industry—will cost at least $12–15 billion per year. Taking into consideration Russia’s faltering economic growth, this would seem too great a burden for the country.
Second, by evacuating its troops from the eastern regions and recognizing the annexation of this part of the country by Russia, Kiev would finally become a victim of an aggression that will give the West the opportunity to enforce full-scale sanctions against Russia that may cause much more serious damage for its economy than the reorientation of budget flows to the Crimea and Donetsk.
Third, it may well be assumed that the next Russian aggression will be directed on northern Kazakhstan, where the local Russians have much more reason to be dissatisfied with how they are treated by Kazakh authorities than were their compatriots in the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine. But the growing Russian influence in Central Asia is certain to raise the temperature with China, which Moscow is now cultivating as its ally. Even if the Kremlin would not try to claim some Kazakh territories, countries in the region will seek protection under China’s wing, so in any case the growing tensions between Moscow and Beijing are practically guaranteed. All these circumstances will add to a deep and protracted economic crisis in Russia, which will also definitely affect its new possessions from Ukraine.
Thus it is crucial for the West to ensure a rapid economic development of Ukraine that paves its path to Europe. To reiterate: Putin has no desire to attack the EU and NATO; he just wants to be a Eurasian czar, completely dominating the post-Soviet space. So the biggest mistake in the current situation would be to increase military spending and aggravate the situation on Russia’s western borders. On the contrary, all the funds that could be earmarked for military purposes should be channeled into the development of Ukraine as a democratic European state.
Ukraine must be rapidly turned into a country that is more economically successful than Russia. Only this outcome can cripple Putin in the long run. This should be achieved both by economic assistance to Ukraine and by economic sanctions against Russia. The United States and the EU have all they need to realize this strategy. Their combined military spending is more than $1 trillion a year, but recent developments show that this money isn’t able to provide security even in Europe. They should try a different approach.
Giving Ukraine both an invitation to join the EU and a well-defined date of entry is not just a symbolic gesture. It is a necessary first step for Europe to facilitate the reconstruction of Ukraine, not only through intergovernmental loans and assistance but also through private investment. Between 1996, when the forthcoming accession of Poland to the EU was announced, and 2004, when the entry was finally completed, the country received more than $51 billion in private foreign investment. If it is clearly stated that Ukraine will soon become a member of the European Union, it will likewise arise as a strong “magnet” for investment, therefore significantly reducing the need for external interstate financing.
Moreover, the paradox lies in the fact that the largest investor in Ukraine would be private Russian capital. Today the investment climate in Russia is deteriorating and billions of dollars flee the country each year. Businesspeople close up shop and channel their funds toward alternative bases in Europe. However, even in the absence of sanctions they cannot maintain their entrepreneurial activities there; the adverse business climate forces them to act as rentiers. Most successful Russians, however, seek to continue their business activities, and if Ukraine has clear guarantees for its entry into the EU, it will be an ideal place for the relocation of Russian businesses. What could be more attractive than to own a company operating in the usual institutional environment that is gradually transformed into a European one, with its owner turning into a good citizen of the Western world in ten years? I’m sure that at least half of funds needed to build a successful European Ukraine will be easily found—inside Russia.
Thus my proposal is based on one basic idea: The West should allow Russia to pursue all the dangerous adventures it wants, and at the same time should assist by all possible means the nations seeking to distance themselves from Russia. The West should not prevent Russia from straining itself, and also do its best to transform “brotherly” Ukraine into successful and rich European country. The West should not aim to prevent Russia from seizing the eastern parts of Ukraine. It should seek to foster a situation in which the inhabitants of these regions in ten or so years actively oppose Russia’s rule. Ukrainian authorities should declare that all the inhabitants of occupied territories retain Ukrainian citizenship and that this citizenship will be returned to them upon request, without any reservations or statute of limitations. And if this process takes off, Europe will have won this standoff, while Russia will have no future as an “integrating” force.
Today the Western world faces two problems, and both are purely mental rather than economic or political. On the one hand it fears the return of the Cold War; it is unaware of Russia’s internal weaknesses and the vulnerability of its leadership, fails to see how easily it can win such a war. On the other hand, it underestimates its own capabilities and so is not ready to build a long-term strategy, reducing its actions to evasive “technical” steps that substantially devalue its soft power. However, as Russia’s current actions indicate, a calm period that started after the end of the Cold War has passed. A new epoch, that of restructuring of the global order, begins. And we all should reflect on the strategy that in twenty to thirty years will produce a more civilized international community.