Elizabeth Pond Blog

Choosing Lesser Evils

Both Ukraine and Russia face unpleasant choices

For six weeks the imperfect truce between Ukraine’s government and pro-Russian separatists in the southeast of the country has produced a relative lull in the Ukraine crisis. Open confrontation will resume after Ukraine’s October 26 general election replaces the interim government set up after then president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country to exile in Russia last February. What happens next will depend on unpalatable choices that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko must then make.

The Russian president could follow up on his tough talk of last Thursday, when he once again asserted that the crisis threatens nuclear “strategic stability” and global “economic health.” He could increase pressure on Kiev, for example, by using Russian troops and mercenaries to seize Ukraine’s southern underbelly and build a land corridor to Russia’s newly annexed Crimea, then push on to Odessa or even Transdniestria. He could carry violence to Kiev itself, as suggested by the SBU Ukrainian intelligence agency’s announced discovery of explosives caches in the hands of suspected “terrorists” who were plotting an attack on election day.

Alternatively, Putin could settle for consolidating the gains Moscow has made so far in a stalemate in which Russia continues to dominate Ukraine’s easternmost provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk but marches no farther west.

In the run-up to the October 26 election German Chancellor Angela Merkel – to whom US President Barack Obama has essentially outsourced Western leadership in the crisis – restated the West’s interests in the outcome of the crisis in a government declaration. She ranked Russia’s land grab in Ukraine by force together with IS terror and the ebola scourge as the world’s three main challenges today. The terms of the September 5 truce in southeast Ukraine must be fully implemented, she stressed, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe must be allowed to conduct robust monitoring of the Russian-Ukrainian border that in the past half year has served as a conduit for delivery of Russian heavy weapons to pro-Russian militants in Ukraine.

This is the latest iteration of an eight-month-old contest that still pits Moscow’s short-term military advantage in the Ukrainian theater against the long-term might of the global financial sanctions the West imposed after Russia annexed Crimea in March in violation of international law and Russo-Ukrainian treaties. Militarily, Moscow enjoys local “escalation dominance” by virtue of Russia’s supremacy in regional ground forces, the weakness of Ukraine’s long-neglected army, and the West’s refusal to risk World War III to defend a non-NATO member on Russia’s doorstep. This has allowed Putin to weather a series of setbacks that began when Ukraine refused to add its 45 million to the Russian president’s pet Eurasian Union and drained the project of critical mass. He has surmounted each failure by raising the ante militarily – and reaping a nationalist domestic approval rating of more than 80 percent after each new fait accompli. Most recently, he sent paratroopers from Russia’s elite 331st Airborne regiment into Luhansk and Donetsk in late August in a direct invasion (though Russian officials deny this) to stave off a looming victory by the ragtag Ukrainian army and militias over Russia’s even more ragtag proxy separatists there.

Putin still scorns the West’s sanctions as “utter foolishness” and flaunts new trade, investment, and weapons deals with China as proof that Moscow doesn’t need the West. Already, however, the costs of Russian incursions in Ukraine are rising, both in damage to the Russian economy from sanctions and in deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Capital flight from Russia has reached $110bn this year, the ruble has plunged into freefall, the price paid for Russia’s crucial oil exports has dropped by 20 percent, and Russian GDP growth will be close to zero, Sorely needed Western investment in energy and other technology has dried up, and Russia has had to accept commercial deals with China that greatly favor Beijing. Such subordination of Russian economic interests to populist expansion of Russian territory would relegate the land to stagnation as an extraction and rent economy.

The longer such negative trends continue, the more they could cut into Putin’s popularity at home and undermine his 21st-century social contract of giving Russia’s growing urban middle class a steadily rising standard of living in return for political passivity. Despite Putin’s denials, the legal challenges to the sanctions filed at the European Court of Justice this month by Putin’s old judo partner Arkady Rotenberg and the Rosneft state oil firm suggest that they are finally beginning to hurt the president’s inner circle of old KGB hardliners.

Putin’s popularity–more Russians now say they believe in Putin (86 percent) than believe in God (78 percent)–could drop sharply as the death toll of Russian soldiers rises and as economic stagnation thwarts rising Russian expecations of better lives. The Russian Soldiers’ Mothers Committee (which has now been branded as a “foreign agent” in Russia) has been protesting the secret burial of Russian corpses shipped back from Ukraine and the blackout on information provided to the families of the deceased. And a Russian plurality of 43 percent now says it would not “support the Russian leadership in the event of open military conflict between Russia and Ukraine” (as against 41 percent that would support the Kremlin).

Moreover, Russia’s belligerence toward Ukraine has, for the first time in a millennium, solidified a counterproductive consensus among Ukrainians that their identity is distinct from that of Russians and is more closely linked to a European than to an East Slav future. By now the consensus includes Russian speakers in the east of the country, as shown both in opinion polls and in the failure of Russian proxy forces last summer to ignite even pointillist rebellion in six of the eight Ukrainian provinces that Putin targeted as “Novorossiya” (New Russia). Ukraine’s growing consensus has nudged Putin’s long-time client in Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, to distance himself somewhat from his patron. And it has even begun to cast doubt on the the old aphorism that Russian liberalism ends at Ukraine.

Under the circumstances, Putin will face a strong temptation to continue his pattern of steady military escalation by extending “hybrid warfare” to more profitable Ukrainian provinces than the Donbas–and by stepping up his air and naval probes of ex-Soviet NATO members and Baltic non-members Sweden and Finland. Former Polish foreign minister Radislaw Sikorski argues that Putin sees his choice as either neo-imperialist glory or surrendering power–and that he is ready to sacrifice Russia’s real interests to his own political survival.

Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s alternate options are less dramatic than Putin’s. Now that Russia has invaded Ukraine once and can clearly invade it again at will, Kiev’s only choice is the nature of its accommodation of the giant next door. This comes down basically to using the shock of the Russian land grab to effect real democratic and economic transformation in Ukraine, even under the constant threat of Russian guns, or slipping back into the country’s post-Soviet kleptocracy of oligarchs and clientelist politics of the past two decades.

Opinion polls still forecast a 40 percent plurality for Poroshenko’s party and its allies on October 26. The Ukrainian president would need to parlay that into ad hoc majorities, probably by repeated buying of votes. Such tactics would hardly suffice to produce the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution and permit the root-and-branch reforms that are urgently needed, however. The electoral lists show that many oldtimers will re-enter parliament, will still operate within clientelist clans–and will do their best to prevent any clean-up of chronic large-scale corruption.

Petro Poroshenko’s and Vladimir Putin’s parallel choices of lesser evils will define the next stage of the Ukraine crisis.

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, has covered Ukraine for more than thirty years.

IP Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations  October 20, 2014