Ukraine muddled through 2015, meeting neither the exalted expectations of the country’s boosters nor the malevolent hopes of its detractors. Its major accomplishment for the year sounds rather minimalist, but is important nonetheless: the country survived. Since the retreat from Debaltseve in early 2015, Ukrainian forces have managed to stabilize the front in the Donbas, and the military situation looks much better for Kyiv at the start of 2016 than it had a year ago. The rest of southern and eastern Ukraine has been spared the destruction and depopulation that have befallen Donetsk and Luhansk. Mariupol, Kharkiv and Kherson may have been battered figuratively by Ukraine’s severe economic downturn, but not physically by Russian artillery. Even on the economic front, macroeconomic stabilization augurs a return to growth, albeit weak, in 2016, following years of contraction. The steep, protracted drop in energy prices has been a boon to Ukraine even as it has hobbled the country’s Russian adversary.
Russia’s Syrian campaign has not only given Ukraine a respite from military pressure, but has also confounded predictions of a Russian-Western understanding on Syria at Kyiv’s expense. A wide range of observers postulated, with varying degrees of enthusiasm or unease, that the desire to form a common front to combat ISIS would induce the West to weaken or drop sanctions against Russia—and perhaps even quietly consign Ukraine to the sphere of privileged interests of its mighty neighbor. Curiously, no one seems to have suggested another equally plausible option: that the need to secure Western cooperation against ISIS would cause Russia—arguably more vulnerable than the West to Islamic terrorism—to abandon its failed Novorossiya venture and leave its Donbas proxies to twist in the wind.
In any event, none of this has come to pass. The reason is probably not even so much a question of Western scruples regarding Ukraine (although they would ultimately have played a role) as the fact that there is simply no lasting deal to be had on Syria right now between Russia and the West. Russia’s overriding goal is the preservation of the Assad regime against all challengers, with the rout of ISIS a logical consequence, but decidedly a secondary consideration, of this goal. The West, on the other hand, is intent on Assad’s removal as well as the defeat of ISIS, and it is difficult to say, on any given day or for any particular Western capital, which of these two goals takes precedence.
So, on the three-dimensional chessboard of the Syrian civil war, Russia and the West are likely to continue striking largely uncoordinated blows against ISIS while working completely at cross-purposes with regard to Assad. Recent gains by Syrian government forces and a looming siege of the rebel-held parts of Aleppo, both heavily supported by Russian air power, belie facile predictions about Russia and the West finding common ground on Syria. A notional Russian-Western alliance against ISIS is undercut by the reality of Russian military actions that largely bypass ISIS and instead appear to deliberately create further spikes in the number of Syrian refugees desperate to reach Europe. It is difficult to imagine any logical way for Ukraine even to factor into this equation. (However, any Ukrainian relief over the vanishing likelihood of a Syria-related sellout must be tempered by a recognition that a victorious Russian campaign in Syria would probably embolden the Kremlin to revisit unfinished business closer to home.)
Analysts have speculated whether the recent short-notice Russian military drill, held in the country’s southwestern areas at the start of February was aimed at Ukraine or Turkey. In fact, the two are hardly mutually exclusive. For Moscow, the beauty of snap military readiness exercises is that they provide the chance to rehearse mobilization for numerous contingencies. It is truly a target-rich environment, encompassing not only Ukraine and Turkey, but also Georgia, an operation in support of Armenia or Transnistria, or even a deployment to Russia’s own restive North Caucasus. So many enemies, so little time…
In a rather different vein, pundits have seized on another data point as a possible portent of a resolution at least to the war in the Donbas: the appointment of Putin insider Boris Gryzlov to replace a Foreign Ministry functionary as the Russian representative to the Contact Group on Ukraine. Putin, the theory goes, picked Gryzlov as a signal that he means business and wants to get down to serious negotiations. Another straw in the wind has been the series of assassinations of Donbas separatist commanders supposedly viewed by Moscow as too independent or uncompromising. Once again, the idea seems to be that the Kremlin is laying the groundwork for concessions.
Of course, while it cannot be ruled out that Gryzlov was chosen to wind up Russia’s Donbas debacle and salvage the best possible terms for Moscow, neither can it be assumed. It could be a case of reculer pour mieux sauter. Gryzlov could be going in precisely to play hardball and send the signal that his boss is tired of being Mr. Nice Guy. Likewise, Moscow’s assertion of stricter control over its Donbas proxies is not necessarily the precursor to a sell-out of the rebels. One need only recall the invective that Russian chauvinists hurled in 2014 at Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s gray eminence on Ukraine policy, for his supposed readiness to abandon Novorossiya and the rebels to the tender mercies of the “fascist junta” in Kyiv. At bottom, it was a ferocious and highly public battle between those Russians who wanted to swallow Ukraine whole and those who wanted to consume it one bite at a time—a distinction largely without a difference, except that the latter approach was less likely to cause indigestion.
All the same, the violent demise of key Donbas commanders does drive home an important lesson. If any commentators should suggest that Moscow does not and cannot control the rebellion in the Donbas, one need only direct them to the widows of Aleksandr Bednov, Pavel Dremov, Aleksey Mozgovoy or Dmitry Utkin for an authoritative rebuttal.
If the military reprieve has been the good-news story of 2015 for Ukraine, perhaps the most ominous development has been the return of Ukraine Fatigue, an enervating and ultimately debilitating condition characterized by mental and emotional symptoms ranging from anger, annoyance, outrage and disgust to cynicism, ironic amusement, despair and feelings of utter helplessness. A devastating outbreak of Ukraine Fatigue in 2007-10 crippled Western interest in, and support for, the very notion of a post-Communist transformation of the country. The pathological history of the condition suggests that virtually the entire Ukrainian political class are carriers of Ukraine Fatigue, showing no symptoms themselves of the dread malady, but contaminating practically every Westerner with whom they come in contact. Clinically, the condition can be intensely irritating but is never fatal for the sufferer—although it could ultimately prove deadly for Ukraine itself.
Ukraine Fatigue matters because Western support for Kyiv over the past few difficult years has stood firmly on two legs. The first has been the realpolitik concern to preserve/restore the post-Cold War security of central and eastern Europe. The second, however, has been more aspirational and imaginative: the desire to see a Europe “whole and free” comprised of democratic, free-market states that would be worthy candidates—whether they choose to join or not—of European and Euro-Atlantic institutions. However, if the euphoria of the Maidan was infectious for so many Western observers, so too is the frustration with Ukraine’s persistent corruption and poor governance. If Ukraine continues to disappoint in this respect, it is questionable how long Western support for Ukraine could remain standing on only one leg.
It would be ironic, and deeply discouraging to Ukraine’s well-wishers, to see Kyiv essentially snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Having foiled Russia’s attempt to detach all of southern and eastern Ukraine in 2014, and having stabilized the military and economic situations in 2015, Ukraine’s leadership risks throwing everything away in 2016 through its inability or unwillingness to follow through with domestic reform. February could well prove to be a tipping point, with the resignation of Ukraine’s Lithuanian-expatriate Economy Minister, Aivaras Abromavičius, the warning from IMF chief Christine Lagarde about suspension of disbursements to Ukraine, and the long-sought resignation of the tainted Prosecutor General, Viktor Shokin. While unpopular PM Yatsenyuk—with passive oligarchic support—has survived a no-confidence vote, domestic and foreign pressure might still force a government reshuffle or even new elections, followed by a serious reform program. If not, it is not hard to imagine Ukraine Fatigue turning into Ukraine Panic—that all the efforts and sacrifices have been for naught—or even Ukraine Revulsion—that it was all a pointless endeavor from the start, with no better outcome possible. One can even envisage domestic Ukrainian exasperation leading to a revolution that is Jacobin rather than Velvet, with a 21st-century equivalent of a guillotine on the Maidan.
Russia, for its part, did not instigate a war in Ukraine in order to create a devastated basket case of a client state that must be propped up indefinitely. Frozen conflicts are meant to be thawed out and served up piping hot at an opportune moment. In Ukraine, Moscow has been waiting for the right confluence of three factors: a recovery of hydrocarbon prices, Western distraction or loss of interest, and Ukrainian internal instability. The Kremlin seems unlikely to get a break on hydrocarbon prices. However, if enough people in Ukraine and the West conclude that the Revolution of Dignity has turned out to be just as sordid and futile as the Orange Revolution, Moscow could well be tempted to embark on a second iteration of its Novorossiya gambit. Indeed, it is hard to believe the Kremlin would send in Gryzlov to cut a deal precisely when events could be taking a decisive turn in Moscow’s favor.
The finest, most innovative Western medical technology is powerless to cure Ukraine Fatigue. A comprehensive treatment plan can only be devised in Kyiv, and there is not a moment to lose.