A little over a year since Moscow seized Crimea and instigated the “Russian spring” in a bid to detach the entire east and south of Ukraine, the Kremlin would seem to be the master of the situation. By all accounts Russian rule remains wildly popular in Crimea itself, with the notable exception of the Crimean Tatars, who are not numerous enough to make much of a difference. Russia has carved off a sizable chunk of the Donbass, the most industrialized region of Ukraine, and Kyiv stands no chance of ever expelling the Russians from Ukraine militarily. The West is more or less united, but at a very low common denominator. In the face of massive evidence from Russian sources (let alone from Ukrainian or Western ones) of Russia’s direct military involvement, the West cannot even bring itself to provide Ukraine with defensive weapons. Ukrainian soldiers, equipped with their U.S.-provided body armor and night-vision goggles, can be effortlessly blown to bits from a distance by Russian artillery. Military equipment that could save Ukrainian lives is being withheld due to Western handwringing over irritating Russia. The West’s punishment of Moscow for failing to implement the Minsk I ceasefire was to reward Russia with even greater concessions in Minsk II. The Russian economy, while still facing an unpleasant recession, seems at least to have stabilized; in any event, its near-term prospects look pretty good compared to Ukraine’s. Putin continues to enjoy astronomical approval ratings, while support for his Ukrainian counterpart has flagged.
Nevertheless, Russia failed to deliver the knockout blow last spring, allowing Kyiv to recover and establish firm control throughout most of the country, even its Russophone portions. Moscow retains the military upper hand as the two countries settle into a protracted stalemate in the Donbass, but the Kremlin’s strategy must take into account a number of factors that bode ill for Russia in the longer run.
Ukraine has stumbled upon a most improbable ally—Saudi Arabia. In a stark example of the law of unintended consequences, the Russian economy has sustained heavy collateral damage from the Saudi campaign against North American shale-oil production (and secondarily, against Iran). The war of attrition in the Donbass is in large measure hostage to the economic war of attrition in the Bakken formation. This situation, unanticipated by Russia (or anyone else, to be fair) when it invaded Ukraine, appears likely to depress energy prices for years to come, sapping the strength of Russia’s economy and hence the country’s ability to wage war. A major cataclysm in the Middle East could turn energy prices around, of course, but it is instructive that oil prices have plummeted even in the face of Islamist depredations in Iraq and chronic chaos in Libya—and the loosening of sanctions on Iran would bring even more oil and gas onto the market.
If the Saudi factor was unforeseeable, the Western response to the invasion of Ukraine appears to represent an actual miscalculation by Moscow. The Kremlin no doubt expected something akin to the reaction over Georgia in 2008—some harsh Western rhetoric, a few pro forma sanctions, and, six months later, a proffered reset button and the resumption of business as usual. Instead, Western governments have imposed fairly extensive sanctions and have thus far stuck to them. Sanctions against individuals are largely symbolic, but restrictions on lending are a genuine hardship to Russian companies, especially in the current economic downturn.
The Kremlin has naturally responded with a variety of tactics to undermine Western unity and determination. Above all, Moscow has tried to demonize the United States and present Europe as a co-victim of sanctions imposed by Washington. The Maidan, in the Kremlin’s creative retelling, was not about Ukrainian disgust with corruption or a yearning for European standards, but was just cynical American manipulation in order to strike a blow against Russia. The Russian narrative about the U.S. puppet master, of course, glosses over the enormous role played by Europeans in nurturing Ukrainian institutions and civil society over the years, and the influence on Ukrainians of the sheer example set by the transformation of Ukraine’s erstwhile socialist neighbors. If Poles, Balts and Romanians can enjoy a modicum of prosperity and good governance by joining Europe, then why shouldn’t Ukrainians move in the same direction?
Moscow’s line about the American hand in Yanukovych’s overthrow is a mixture of self-delusion and willful obfuscation and hardly even merits a rebuttal. However, considering the credence given to this narrative by Westerners of certain ideological persuasions, and the zeal with which they propagate it, it is perhaps worth taking a moment to debunk it.
It is simply fantastic to imagine that five billion dollars in U.S. democratization and good governance assistance, parceled out over a period of more than two decades in the form of workshops, seminars and small grants, could culminate in something like the Maidan. The color-revolution conspiracy analysis is utterly superficial: five billion dollars supposedly produced a revolution, yet there is not even the slightest effort to demonstrate actual causality. How did programs on judicial reform, fundraising for NGOs, and observing elections manage to instigate the Maidan? We are never told. The programs funded by this money are a matter of public record, and had to be broadly authorized by the host government. Anyone who wants to investigate should be able to show how particular programs were designed to fan the flames of sedition, or how specific individuals were groomed by these programs to lead the overthrow of the Yanukovych government. No one has ever shown any credible causal link between actual U.S.-funded programs in Ukraine on the one hand, and political unrest in Ukraine on the other—confirming the impression that no such link exists.
Beyond the sheer lack of any proof, color-revolution conspiracy theorizing about the genesis of the Maidan is an insult to the dignity of Ukrainians who suffered hardships and risked their lives in the hope of a better future. It also betrays a thorough ignorance of Ukrainian realities. Anyone familiar with Ukraine’s atrocious corruption and bad governance would wonder not that political upheavals occur, but that they do not occur more often and more violently.
Besides vilifying Washington as the bogeyman, Moscow is understandably hard at work mobilizing any and all European governments and groups that can be used to undermine sanctions. Putin has found a worthy acolyte in Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the man who would be Magyarbashi, and can count on a degree of sympathy from a variety of European leaders ranging from Slovakia’s Robert Fico to the new Syriza government in Greece. However, Putin has struck out completely with the individual who matters more than any other: Angela Merkel. If there were any question about the impact of individuals on the course of history, one need only ponder how different the European reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be if Gerhard Schröder were sitting in the German chancellor’s office rather than on the board of Gazprom.
Besides working sympathetic European leaders, Moscow has also cultivated a motley array of right- and left-wing extremists, people often of diametrically opposed political orientations united only by their hatred of Washington and Brussels. However, even where such groups attract a stable portion of their national electorates and can reasonably aspire to enter governing coalitions, they tend to have only a marginal influence on policy, particularly foreign policy. Electoral surprises can happen, of course, but Moscow is unlikely to see much return on its investment in these European groups.
Moscow’s other weapon in testing Western resolve has been intimidation—large military exercises, provocative flights, bellicose statements about defending Crimea, and perhaps even the odd submarine foray into neighboring waters. The “don’t mess with Russia” messaging has apparently included hints of willingness to use any means, up to and including nuclear ones, to assert Russia’s interests in Ukraine, leading more timorous Western observers to fret that any military assistance to Kyiv could lead to Armageddon. However, there is no evidence to indicate that the Kremlin has been seized by suicidal irrationality, and suggestions to the contrary are simply fear-mongering. Yes, the Kremlin is prepared to go to great lengths (and already has) in order to achieve its ends in Ukraine, but it understands quite clearly that mutually assured destruction would not be a winning strategy.
Far from preparing for bold but potentially catastrophic strokes like nuclear war, the Kremlin appears to be hunkering down for a long-term test of wills. Surely, given enough time, hydrocarbon markets will rebound, the West will tire of sanctions and east-west tensions, Western solidarity and resolve will crumble, and the Ukrainians will resume their classic historical role as their own worst enemy. Russia could then push deeper into Ukraine under more favorable conditions.
However, it is anyone’s guess whether time will actually work in Russia’s favor. Moscow is essentially powerless to affect Saudi energy policy, so the Kremlin simply has to tough it out until such time as market conditions produce another hydrocarbon price boom. A return to $100/barrel oil seems unlikely over the next several years, and is not guaranteed even in the medium term. Former finance minister Aleksey Kudrin recently warned that Russia is facing five years of stagnation—meaning that Russia isn’t exactly entering this phase of the conflict in a position of economic strength.
Securing relief from Western sanctions depends, at a minimum, on some semblance of a ceasefire in the Donbass. Ironically, however, the cessation of hostilities prevents Moscow from pressing its overwhelming military advantage, giving Ukrainians breathing space to consolidate their national identity and statehood, enact far-reaching reforms, and embark on a course toward association with, or even eventual membership in, the European Union. The recent dismissal of Ihor Kolomoiskiy as governor of Dnipropetrovsk was astonishing as a manifestation of Kyiv’s willingness and ability to curb the power of Ukraine’s oligarchs. It is even more astonishing insofar as Kolomoiskiy (if not necessarily other oligarchs) has apparently accepted limits on his power as a necessary part of the “new normal” in post-Yanukovych Ukraine. If that is in fact the case, and Kyiv manages to bring the oligarchs more broadly to heel, then Russia’s medium-term prospect of turning Ukraine into a failed state will suffer a major setback. Ukraine’s economy is not out of the woods and will still present opportunities to exploit. However, in the battle to retain the loyalty of its citizens, Ukraine’s economy doesn’t need to outpace Russia’s, it merely needs to offer better prospects and living conditions than Crimea and the Donbass—a much lower bar.
A resumption of large-scale Russian military activity, on the other hand, not only ensures the continuance of the current sanctions but bodes the introduction of new ones. Moreover, survivors emerging from the rubble of Mariupol or Kharkiv are unlikely to greet Russian forces as liberators. Recent reports that pensions in the Donbass are now being paid in rubles underscore the financial burden that Russia is assuming in the parts of Ukraine it controls. The extension of Russian occupation to further devastated regions of Ukraine would only increase that burden.
Russia thus finds itself in something of a Catch-22 situation. The fragile Minsk II ceasefire has eased pressures on the Russian economy – but it has done the same for Kyiv. It will be hard for Moscow to destabilize Ukraine further without renewing its military assault, yet the resumption of fighting would reverse any progress in undermining Western sanctions. With no more quick and easy Crimea-style operations on the horizon, the Kremlin finds itself stuck in a psychologically unsatisfactory holding pattern—waiting for oil and gas prices to recover, for the West to fragment, and for Ukraine to implode. Without a serious stroke of good fortune on at least two of those fronts, Moscow faces the prospect of endless subsidization of an isolated Crimea and a shattered Donbass under conditions of Russian economic stagnation, while the rest of Ukraine, even if economically hobbled, slips ineluctably away from Moscow’s gravitational pull. The realization might gradually take hold that Russia’s strategy in Ukraine, notwithstanding some moments of tactical brilliance, has ultimately failed.
Then it will be time for serious negotiations – not east-west talks about spheres of influence, conducted over the heads of the affected nations, but negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv. And the principal element of those talks will be the terms of Russia’s withdrawal.