Russia and the West
Taking Stock in Ukraine

Seven things to know about the crisis, Moscow’s and Kyiv’s actions, and the West’s response.

Published on: October 28, 2014
Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine.
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  • Sibir_RUS

    The signing of a free trade area between Ukraine and the EU was damaging to Ukraine. Therefore, Yanukovych decided to postpone the signing of the contract. The Treaty text was written on 1000 pages english(!) text and ordinary Ukrainians did not even have time to read it.
    Even today, after so much suffering and deaths of innocent citizens of Odessa and Donbas,
    official Kiev refuses to sign the financial part of this document. Many people died because of this dirty paper. The question is why? The new government in Kiev came to the same conclusions that Yanukovych – the agreement does not meet the interests of Ukraine and needs to be revised.

    • citicrab

      That’s so much bull. The implementation of parts of the Agreement has been postponed to end of 2015, partly to assuage Putin, but the Agreement itself has been ratified and signed into law. The results of the recently concluded elections have demonstrated an almost universal support for the European agenda. Keep the sanctions in place long enough, and Putin will take back his henchmen, give them an extra couple of years, and the Crimea issue will come into play. Just stay the course.

      • Sibir_RUS

        Before Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an agreement on free trade zone
        with the EU, Putin openly stated that Ukraine is a sovereign state and
        Russia will respect her choice.

      • Sibir_RUS

        Crimea returned to Russia in accordance with the will of the Crimeans. This question is closed.

  • Sibir_RUS

    Before Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an agreement on free trade zone with the EU, Putin openly stated that Ukraine is a sovereign state and Russia will respect her choice.

  • Andrew Allison

    This feature completely overlooks the very real possibility that it was the overthrow of Yanukovych which led to Russian intervention. As Pifer points out, Ukraine has been dreadfully misgoverned for 20 years, but would anybody seriously suggest that Ukraine and its people are better off now than they were under Yanukovych? In retrospect, the decision not to sign the association agreement might have been the right one.

    • Bayan

      i believe you like living your american life, you don’t go living in a 3d world country, all the dirty work has been done by your ancestors so you can sit comfortably over this website philosophizing what would be better for Ukrainians

      Ukrainians don’t like living in a 3d world country either that’s why they protested

      • Andrew Allison

        I didn’t offer an opinion as to what would be better for Ukrainians, simply suggested that they were better off under Yanukovych than they are now. Since you bring the subject up, however, Ukraine had the same opportunity Poland did to escape the third world in the 20 years leading up to the present unpleasantness. Instead, it became an oligarchy. Who elected the governments which oversaw that?

        • Bayan

          so by your logic, if you didn’t protest then, you have no right to protest now, do i understand correctly?

          there’s dynamic in the evolution of society, neither the American society was once as advanced as it is now

          yes we lag by a good 100 or more years, but don’t deny us the hope for progress

          Poles had been under Russia for just 60 years, and its elite was preserved, while Ukraine had been for 300 years, do the math

  • Mark Thomason

    All correct, but it overlooks a few things.

    First, when Yanukovych turned away from the EU offer and took the Russian offer, the Russians had made a better offer. It was more money with fewer strings attached, and ensured gas supply too. In contrast the EU had driven a very hard bargain, including both hits to his political base and damage to the trade with Russia on which Eastern Ukraine depended. Even if it was not the best interest of Ukraine in the long term, it was not an unreasonable decision in the shorter term.

    Second, it is not clear who fired on protesters, which was the key turning point. The more crazed of the right wing were perfectly capable of shooting their less crazed fellows as a provocation. Tracing the lines of fire has suggested that may be what happened. Then again, maybe the government faked that. It ought not to be taken for granted either way.

    Finally, Putin had one other motive. He genuinely feared the advance of NATO into the belly of Russia, and feared the defense cooperation clauses in the EU deal as a first step. We may feel that fear of NATO is unreasonable, but we must also accept that the Russians DO fear it. It was an important motive, whether we agree or not.

  • moderate Guy

    To point to Yanukovych, a Muscovite puppet, as an example that “Ukraine’s leaders” did not made the hard choices Poland’s leaders did is patently ridiculous.
    Poland’s post 1989 leaders had the best Polish interests at heart and were supported by nascent Polish industrialist class; people like Yanukovych, or Kravchuk (“president” representing ex-Soviet organized crime) or Kuchma (another Muscovite stooge) did not.
    Yes, Yushchenko was a breath of fresh (Ukrainian) air, but even he was constricted by the organized crime “oligarchs” and Muscovite stooges in Parliament and industry.
    Even in the period of relative weakness, before 2000, “Russia” could always be counted to created problems in Ukraine, which it always wanted back in the imperial fold.
    Ukraine needs a period of sanity being led by Ukrainian patriots, but it is unlikely to get them, despite best efforts of the current leadership.

    • Sibir_RUS

      A whole set of false stereotypes.

      • moderate Guy

        Oh, good. “Russian” “intellectuals” joined the discussion.

  • mf

    First, I think it is an excellent article, I agree with most or perhaps all of it. I would just add this:

    Eighth: Ukraine is the first domino to fall, Russia is next. The “West” needs to start developing a long term plan for the aftermath of this event, while preventing shorter term aggression by Russia. Political and economic problems in Ukraine are the same as they are in Russia. What is missing in Ukraine is oil and gas, propped up by western investment and rise of China that put the floor under the price of oil for the last 20 years. But, even the income from oil and gas has limits, as price of hydrocarbons has an upper limit beyond which all economic growth stops and the price drops. However, expenses of an aggressive, militarized dictatorship have no limits. The per capita oil production in Russia is similar to Venezuela, as is GDP. An excursion into reconquering the world by the Russian Empire is likely to end the same way as Venezuelan exercise in redistribution ended, probably faster as wars acquire their own momentum and then suck up resources uncontrollably.

    • Sibir_RUS

      Russia is not at war with Ukraine and is not one of the parties to the conflict in Ukraine.
      My country became the main initiator of the peace talks of the conflicting parties. We continue to deliver humanitarian aid to affected areas of Donbas.

      Russia at the peak of development in history, has very little state debt, massive reserves of gold and GDP at the level of Germany.

      • mf


        GDP of Russia is half of Germany, while having twice as many people. Also, Germany actually makes something. Russia, sells oil and gas. Very much like Venezuela, which is a good model for Russia, with an important difference that Chavez was at least giving to the poor. Damaging the economy in the process, nonetheless giving something to the poor. Russia, gives something (soon everything) to the military. For the glory of Comrade Putin and the reborn Fatherland. There is also a theft tax, with proceeds in foreign real estate, hidden bank accounts, yachts and such.

        As far as Russia not being at war with Ukraine, you are trolling or you are completely delusional.

        • Sibir_RUS

          My country is a leader in the export of fighter aircraft, main battle tanks and air defense systems.

          • Bayan

            do you have anything else, more decent, to be proud of?

          • Sibir_RUS

            In Sarov began the creation of the world’s most powerful laser
            The first phase of the world’s most powerful laser system, created in the Russian nuclear center – the city of Sarov, will be launched in 2017.
            It is expected that the total energy of the installation on the working wavelength (l = 1053 nm) will amount to 4.6 MJ. For target radiation will be used by the second harmonic of a neodymium laser (l = 527 nm) 2.8 MJ.
            The world’s leading physicists believe that laser nuclear fusion can be useful(!) for future energetics

        • Sibir_RUS
        • Sibir_RUS

          Awara Group Study on Real GDP Growth Net-of-Debt

          In this groundbreaking study by Awara Group reveals that the real, debt-adjusted, GDP growth of Western countries has been in negative territory for years. Only by massively loading up debt have they been able to hide the true picture and delay the onset of an inevitable collapse of their respective economies. The study shows that the real GDP of those countries hides hefty losses after netting the debt figures, which gives the Real-GDP-net-of-debt.
          The moral of the study is that it is that GDP growth figures as such reveal very little about the underlying dynamics of an economy if one does not simultaneously attempt to analyze what part of the growth is credited to simply artificially fueling the economy with new loans.
          The shocking figures depicting the virtual crippling of the Western economies from 2009 to 2013 are illustrated in Chart 1. It shows the real GDP growth net-of-debt after deducting the growth of public debt from the GDP figure. Net of debt we see the scale of destruction of the Spanish economy, which amounts to the staggering figure of minus 56.3%.

          • mf

            yes, well ,awara group. Leading tax and accounting consultancy in Russia. There is an authority we can all believe in.

            I wish you were right actually, because I do not wish Russian people ill. I grew up in the soviet block, did my very small part kicking that russian reality show out of my country, and then lived for thirty odd years in the dying world of negative gdp, which kind of informs my opinion. As we used to say during soviet days, if the west is dying, it is sure having a beautiful funeral, current problems notwithstanding.

            Which does not change the reality that ultimately you, if you are a Russian, will have to deal with. As far as I can tell, post soviet union, only one positive economic development took place in Russia: the nefarious western interests came into Russia with investment money and increased production of oil and gas. Simultaneously, the economic rise of China put a floor under the price of hydrocarbons. This is the source of current prosperity, such as this prosperity is. Unfortunately, for practical purposes, these western interests have been first expropriated through war on oligarchs, and now even the most optimistic ones are being sanctioned because Russia used the economic windfall to beef up armaments and kind of start a war on the rest of the world, particularly around her borders. So, the production of oil will not rise any time soon, and the price of oil has an upper bound for economic reasons. Russian income is fixed, but Russian expenses are unbound. Putin’s power now depends on the police, state and propaganda apparatus and the military, all takers no makers. There are no free lunches, even in Russia.

            Finally, look at your own posts to pause and reflect. What are you most proud of? Russia being still able to export post-soviet military junk to developing countries? Really, this is the proof of Russian economic power? Turn your head away from the television for ten minutes, and use it to think for yourself. Pay particular attention to what is happening in Donbas, because the same thing is coming your way. Chechen mercenaries, Cossack mercenaries, Russian enthusiasts of war communism. It is all on display there. The logic of militaristic authoritarianism, particularly thieving and economically inefficient one, is always the same. Donbas will come to you, whether you like it or not.

            This is not to say that we did not have a problem with militarism in the West. Bush Jr times were indeed dark and very concerning. US has much to atone for there. Nonetheless, Bush and his crew were retired by American democracy for six years now. I wish the same to you and all the Russian people, that you find it within yourself to retire Putin and all the jingoistic hangers-on around him, before it is too late and you have to live through a terrible tragedy all over again.

        • John Tyler

          Chavez screwed over everybody, esp., the poor. Like all communist scum, he lied about helping the “masses” to gain their support, and once he had their support he screwed them over.
          This is the typical communist, leftist MO.
          The only folks who have done well there are the Chavista – Maduro ruling elites who want for nothing, pretty much own everything, and have sizable sums in their Swiss bank accounts.
          If history is any guide, you can expect the communists to rule there for 50 to 75 years, irrespective of the level of impoverishment of the masses. This has been the experience in Cuba and the USSR.
          Note that in the USSR the nomenklatura did just fine, as have the Castro brothers in Cuba, etc.

  • Zavoyovnyk

    Ambassador Pifer has written several insightful articles on the crisis in Ukraine and this excellent article again exhibits great understanding of the crisis, its causes and Putin’s contribution to the crisis.

    However, focusing on misfeasance by Ukraine’s political leaders and Putin’s imperialist expansionist ambitions, neglects the West’s continuing mistakes starting from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Both the West and Soviet leaders were unprepared for the collapse and nobody had an idea as to how to best transition Russia, Ukraine and the other newly independent republics from a command economy to a free market economy and from a one party dictatorship into democratic political systems with rule of law and civil society.

    Pressuring these countries into adopting “shock therapy” was a big mistake. People who did not know how to run the existing system efficiently and provide good governance were suddenly given the opportunity to plunder national wealth. The resulting kleptocracy was governance by “crooks and thieves” in vitually all of the former Soviet republics, where personal fortunes and interests superceded the needs of the masses. Orderly and incremental transition would probably have avoided the creation of the corrupt kleptocracies which emerged and facilitated the emergence of democratic governments, rule of law and civil societies. The fault for the current crisis lies not only with the “crooks and thieves” but also with the naivete and wishful thinking of Western leaders.

    The West was also naive and engaged in wishful thinking by ignoring Russia’s underlying historic messianic imperialism which reared its ugly head very soon after 1991: in Georgia, Transdnistria and the Caucuses. Also ignored, was the way Putin came to power and what segment of the old order he represented, the KGB now FSB. The West turned a blind eye to the genocide perpetrated in Chechnya starting in 1999, and later to the rapid erosion of human rights in Russia by Putin and the new elite whose interests he protects. The invasion and partition of Georgia in 2008 was met with a “reset” which in effect was appeasement similar to Europe’s appeasement of Hitler in the 1930’s.

    The crisis in Ukraine which emerged in November 2013, again caught everyone in the West by surprise and completely unprepared to counteract Putin’s machinations. Putin was prepared! Starting with the Orange Revolution in 2004, Russia had been incrementally financing and increasing its fifth column in Ukraine, undermining Ukraine economically (remember the gas shut-offs of 2006 and 2009) and planning to keep corrupt “crooks and thieves” in power in Ukraine, because these are the people who look to Russia for support to stay in power. Honour among thieves!

    Being completely unprepared in both the EU and NATO, the West reacted very slowly to the crisis in Ukraine, and to this date, its response has been half-hearted and weak-kneed. Had a plan been developed quickly to contain Russia’s ambitions, Putin may have resisted his primal urges to invade, subjugate and oppress. Instead, he interpreted lack of resolve by the West as appeasement, and saw there was virtually no risk to continue his actions to destabilize Ukraine with the ultimate goal of reincorporating Ukraine into a revived and modified Russian empire, what the proposed Eurasian Economic Union aspires to become.

    Ambassador Pifer is absolutely correct that the West now has a broader Russia problem, and needs to develop a policy response. However, these problems can only be adequately addressed if the West realizes the unwitting role it has played in the emergence of the current crisis in Ukraine, and realizes that more resolute action is required than has been exhibited to date. Continuing appeasement will only exacerbate and prolong the crisis, resulting in a continuing threat to international order, peace and security.

  • Russia has been given no reason to change other than token sanctions which are being violated daily. Russia reflects strength only because Western leadership is weak and without a clear stated purpose.

    Why should Putin change when he will get what he wants without long term cost? Because as soon as he gets what he wants, the current incompetent US administration and European leaders will gladly accept Russia back in to the fold if they say the right words and promise they are done.

    Russia maybe the result, but the cause is weak Western foreign policy on display the past several years which is being exploited several nations not just Russia

  • Sibir_RUS

    Putin: Russia, Ukraine Should Preserve Traditions of Brotherly Friendship
    MOSCOW, October 28 (RIA Novosti) – Russian President Vladimir Putin has congratulated Ukrainians on the 70th anniversary of their country’s liberation from the Nazis on Tuesday, noting that Russia and Ukraine should carefully preserve the traditions of brotherly friendship. “Our fathers and grandfathers fought bravely and selflessly side by side, in the same ranks, for the freedom and independence of the Motherland, crushing the enemy and drawing the long-awaited victory closer. We should carefully preserve the wonderful traditions of brotherly friendship and mutual assistance that they have started,” Putin said in a statement released by the Kremlin press service. “It is crucial to raise the new generation on high
    patriotic values,” Putin noted. The Russian President also wished all Ukrainian veterans good health and wished peace and prosperity to the “brotherly people of Ukraine”.

  • Bayan

    it’s worth noting that the crisis began prior to Yanukovych refusal to sign the Agreement

    namely around August 2013 when Russia launched a trade war against Ukrainian goods exactly with the goal to force Yanukovych to forego the Agreement

  • Sidney sloth

    I enjoy Steven’s analysis and agree with much of what he has written. Two things, however, strike me as faults in the overall case.

    Firstly, Steven claims that Russia is expanding its borders with military force. This sounds dramatic, but it forgets the uncontested fact that Crimea held a referendum and voted to join Russia.

    Now, whether this process was agreeable to the US or not, it happened. Factually, it happened. Folks voted, nobody seriously disputes that the majority wanted to join Russia. So, if we are intellectually honest, our gripe is that Russia created the conditions to violate a neighbours sovereignty through a political process it heavily influenced.

    And that is perhaps wrong (or perhaps real politik), but it is not the use of force, and to claim that it is invites derision for hypocrisy. No serious person would ever suggest that any powerful state would refrain from influencing political procedures. In the context of Ukraine, now, it becomes slightly absurd to lament Russian involvement. Not only did the Nuland tapes confirm deep US influence in the Ukrainian political process, they laid bare the obvious geopolitics that underwrote the Maidan affair. In this context, it really won’t do to accuse Russia of using military force when it did not, in fact, do so. Lastly on this point, it is extremely difficult to keep walking down the road of dismissing the will of the Crimean people. What is the next step? To force them to rejoin Ukraine?

    The second issue I have with Steven’s piece is that it does not mention the small country some know as China. No mention of the SCO, no mention of the Silk Road policy that is front and centre of Chinese relations with Russia.

    The problem here is that one cannot analyse Russian actions without reference to their significantly developing relationship with China. Nor can one speak of economic consequences without reference to this relationship.

    First, the gas. China wants Russian gas very badly, for the rather banal reason that their northern cities are literally choking on coal smog. The single biggest popular issue in Beijing is air quality, and clean gas is widely promoted as the answer. Russia has that gas, and this is what lay behind the biggest deal in the history of humanity. Many in the west fail to understand the nature of this deal. Gas is a finite commodity. If Europe doesn’t buy it, China will buy it all, in time. If China wants it all, Europe may get none. Much of the economic reasoning from the west presumes that Europe can set a buyers price on Russian gas and force Russia to accept. That is a pretty strange way of discussing a deal for a finite resource in high demand. If we are objective, Europe actually risks its cheapest and cleanest energy supply, in total. Good for Polish coal mines, but very bad for German manufacturing.

    Moving to German manufacturing, it must be noted that Germany sees China as its economic future. The USA is a great market, but China is a growth market, and German exports to China have sustained the German for quite some time now. So, again, predicting what Germany and Europe will do regarding Russia must account for China. If China supports Russia, and there is no reason to imagine it will not, Germany will face sanctions it cannot afford in response to geopolitical action in eastern Europe.

    This dual problem of energy security and export market security is the reason many predicted that the Ukrainian crisis would break NATO. Those who know Germany know the current direction of events is untenable. Not only is the situation very bad for real German interests, it is hugely unpopular across all of normal European society. Again, the Nuland tapes should not be ignored. Nobody in Europe is under the slightest delusion that the USA means well for Europe. The fact that Nuland keeps her job, despite her comments regarding Europe, is an active disgrace for every European. It offends basic human dignity, and is an open slap in the face of every European leader.

    Lastly, Chinese policy is subject to popular desires, like all policy for all states, and right now the mood in China is that Putin is a great leader and a great man for having the intestinal fortitude to tell the USA the truth. No Chinese leader can afford to take sides against him, even if they don’t like him, because it would be devastating to their public standing in China. Furthermore, is the military situation in Europe escalates, one can seriously expect a mirror action to arise in south east asia. The SCO is not just a trade organization. Read its charter.

    Soon we will see Iran, Russia and China trading petrochemicals outside the USA dollar. So that will be the two largest producers and the biggest consumer.

    If that breaks the metro dollar, the cost of putting US fleets in far away oceans with increase in direct proportion to the decreasing value of the USA dollar. How far the dollar will drop if it loses reserve currency status is anybodies guess. Supply and demand is a reality, however, and if the petro dollar dies, expect to see up to 70% of dollars up for sale, no longer required to do business.

    Nobody could be happier with current events than China, and while we are talking about what happens in a corrupt and bankrupt little country that has been doing western style democracy for 25 years, China and Russia are restructuring the whole Eurasian continent around a new economic and military organisation that will soon include over half of humanity.

    So let us not speak of Ukraine without reference to China, so that we can be sure we are not simply echoing the old tunes of the cold war. They are a distraction in the current times.

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