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LMC 2018

Ukraine: Is There a Future Beyond the Status Quo?

The West should come up with a totally different response.

James Sherr

Senior Fellow, Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the ICDS

Ukraine’s President Petro (Pyotr) Poroshenko (C) steps off a helicopter as he arrives to watch US-supplied Javelin antitank missile systems tested by the Ukrainian military at undisclosed testing grounds. Popular support for Poroshenko is not very high.
Ukraine’s President Petro (Pyotr) Poroshenko (C) steps off a helicopter as he arrives to watch US-supplied Javelin antitank missile systems tested by the Ukrainian military at undisclosed testing grounds. Popular support for Poroshenko is not very high. Photo: Mikhail Palinchak / Press Office of the President of Ukraine / TASS / Scanpix

Since Ukraine’s re-emergence as an independent state in 1991, it has lived with the fear that it would find itself hostage to the West’s relationship with Russia. Yet to Russia’s indignation, initially NATO and eventually the EU made it clear that they would deal with Ukraine on its own terms and deny Russia any role in their arrangements. The derailed and now resurrected EU-Ukraine Association Agreement of 2013 exemplified this approach, as well as its risks.

At present the Russia factor plays a significant role in the West’s policy towards Ukraine. Yet because relations with Russia have become demonstrably bad, many Ukrainians now welcome the linkage they once dreaded. They should be more wary. Antagonism towards Russia is an infirm foundation upon which to anchor Ukraine to the Euro-Atlantic world. The fact is that worsening relations between the West and Russia have been accompanied by rising disillusionment between the West and Ukraine. The West’s urgent and robust response to Russia’s aggression in 2014 not only reflected its alarm about Russia’s intentions but its enthusiasm about Ukraine’s new-found determination to put its house in order and remedy the post-Soviet ills that have constrained the country’s development for more than twenty-five years.

Today, that enthusiasm has largely dissipated. The reformist, not to say revolutionary impulse that seized the country in 2014 has been displaced, as it was after the 2005 Orange Revolution, by new alliances between power and money and a marked reluctance to establish firm property rights, responsible public institutions and the rule of law. Without doubt, substantial reforms have been undertaken as well during this period. But they have not penetrated the membranes of the system, and for that reason the standing of Ukraine’s governing class is as low, if not lower, than at any time in the past. The March 2018 opinion polls not only show President Poroshenko trailing fifteen percentage points behind his arch rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, but also considerably behind the populist Oleh Lyashko and less than half a percentage point ahead of the Yanukovych era Yuriy Boyko, widely regarded as the Kremlin’s ‘systemic’ candidate.1 Factor in the deadlocked conflict in Donbas, and all of this is grist to Russia’s mill.

Eternal Russia

Russia has not failed in Ukraine. It has created the conditions for its failure, but that is very different. The war will not be over until it is over, and it remains eminently possible that Ukraine will unravel with Russian help and that unsound concessions will be imposed upon it with Western help. Russia began the war on assumptions entirely consistent with its own propaganda: that the Revolution of Dignity was a coup, that Russian speakers were persecuted, and that ‘Russian speaking’ was synonymous with loyalty to Russia. The Novorossiya project was launched on these ignorant assumptions and it swiftly collapsed. Russia’s project of ambiguous warfare also collapsed. By summer 2014, the reconstituted Ukrainian army and the volunteer units of its reconsolidated society had the Russian commanded ‘militias’ encircled and on the verge of destruction. The offensives carried out by Russia’s combined-arms (August 2014 and February 2015) dramatically turned the tables, but they also destroyed the fiction that Russia was merely an interested party in this conflict, rather than its overseer and lead protagonist.

The ensuing ‘Minsk process’ revived this fiction and formalised it. By their absence, the United States and United Kingdom (respectively, initiator and co-signatory of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum) acquiesced in this Franco-German effort to resolve with Russian agreement what could only be resolved by abandoning the West’s core interests and principles. These were stated with impressive clarity by Angela Merkel after the 2014 G20 summit. But after Minsk-II, Western sanctions were no longer tied to the ‘restoration of international law’. They were tied to the implementation of Minsk.

It is not easy to explain why Germany, France and the majority of EU states remain committed to a diplomatic exercise, the ‘Minsk process’, that was imposed upon them over three years ago by Russian force majeure.

Nevertheless, fourteen hours of negotiation in the Belarusian capital secured terms that were not entirely to Ukraine’s disadvantage: an immediate and complete cease-fire, withdrawal of heavy weapons and foreign forces, unimpeded access for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, the holding of OSCE-monitored elections and, at the end of the process, ‘reinstatement of full control of the state border by the government of Ukraine’. The main ambitions of Russia and the leaders of the so-called republics fall outside the terms of the agreement, notably Ukraine’s ‘neutrality’ and ‘federalisation’ (absolute autonomy and right of veto over Ukrainian state policy), as opposed to the far more limited provisions of ‘special status’ that Ukraine provisionally incorporated into its constitutional reform in July 2015.

Rather than emphasise the obvious — that Russia has done nothing to implement the core provisions of Minsk – the ‘Normandy partners’, Germany and France, have allowed themselves to be drawn by Sergei Lavrov, a master of minutiae, into a negotiation over sequencing, over which the former are determined to ‘make progress’, oblivious of the fact that the latter had lured them into a maze. That is where the Minsk negotiations reside to this day.

Not content with achieving this paralysis, Russia launched a new initiative in September 2017: the introduction of UN ‘blue helmets’ into Donbas. To those like Germany’s then foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, who never grasped the connection between the devil and the details, this was a ‘change in policy that we should not gamble away’. Wasn’t Putin’s initiative merely a constructive response to Petro Poroshenko’s similar call for a UN presence in 2015? No it was not. What Poroshenko proposed, based on the Bosnian and Kosovo precedents, was a robust, militarily capable UN Chapter VII style deployment. What Putin proposed was a tightly constrained deployment under Chapter VI: lightly armed forces confined to the line of contact, tasked with protecting the OSCE monitors (who, presumably, would also be confined to the line of contact). Surreptitiously, he also tossed in a second modification of the Minsk accords: heavy weapons and foreign forces also would be withdrawn from the line of contact rather than across the conflict zone, as stipulated by Minsk-II. To be sure, France and Germany understood that Putin’s proposal could not be accepted in its original form. But by treating it seriously, they have burdened themselves as well as Ukraine with a second morass of negotiations whilst still remaining enmeshed in the first.

Not surprisingly, in January 2016, the United States launched its own channel of bilateral negotiations to resolve the deadlock. At their first meeting in Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia’s representative, Vladislav Surkov, was most forthcoming with US representative, Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland, about how this could be accomplished: agree Ukraine’s neutralisation and federalisation and then, as a ‘concession’ Russia would return the interstate border to Ukraine’s control – but only if the composition of Ukrainian border troops were agreed with the leadership in the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics. In short, grant us the political aims we seek to achieve by war, and we will end the war. Nuland made it clear, and her Trump administration successor, Kurt Volker, has made it clearer that there can be no progress on this basis.

An Interminable Status Quo?

It is not easy to explain why Germany, France and the majority of the EU states remain committed to a diplomatic exercise, the ‘Minsk process’, that was imposed upon them over three years ago by Russian force majeure. In matters grand and tawdry, the motives of states are invariably mixed. The most straightforward explanation for such a stance is that here, as in other such ‘processes’ in Moldova and Nagorny-Karabakh, the Western parties have convinced themselves that the management of an unresolved (aka ‘frozen’) conflict is the only alternative to war. Angela Merkel’s staunchness over Ukraine in 2014 — ‘old thinking in spheres of influence and the trampling of international law will not succeed’ — is overshadowed by her abhorrence of war and her conviction that ‘there can be no military solution’ to the Ukraine conflict.2 Yet it was exactly the spectre of a ‘military solution’ that drove her to the negotiating table in the first place.

This analysis is flawed on two levels. Russia’s diplomatic energy might be inexhaustible. But its capacity is limited and becoming more so. It has substantially reduced its subsidies to the republics over the past two years. Moreover, Ukraine’s army is no longer the army of early 2015. Whilst the capacity of Russia’s armed forces to defeat it should not be doubted, that is hardly to say that they can subdue the country. Barring a Ukrainian assault on Donbas or some other act of folly, Russia is most unlikely to launch another major military assault.

Western interests demand a more informed perspective and a different response. The flaws of Ukraine’s governing class bear no comparison to the malfeasance and degeneracy of Russia’s satraps.

What it will do is wage hybrid peace as vigorously as it wages hybrid war. It has long employed de facto states to undermine the stability of recognised ones. Today, it is waging a holistic effort to penetrate and sabotage the Ukrainian state and ‘reset the ruling regime’.3 Whilst the West remains preoccupied with Donbas, Russia has shifted the central front to unoccupied Ukraine by means of assassination, ‘false flag’ operations, enhancement of ‘fifth column’ activities and the increasing utilisation of criminal groups to commit violent political acts. With the connivance of what is still a corrupt system of power, its business presence, open and covert, has also increased.4 As the next presidential election (March 2019) draws closer, the likelihood of a systematic response to these challenges by Ukraine’s authorities becomes progressively more remote.

We therefore return to the second explanation for the West’s dismal performance: disenchantment with Ukraine. Were this not so, the EU’s mounting determination to resist Russian encroachments would be complemented by a redoubled effort to stiffen Ukraine’s resolve and strengthen its security. Instead, the West is treading water. In 2005 and 2014, political upheaval stimulated a redoubled investment in Ukraine’s future. In 2019, upheaval might stimulate risk avoidance and compromise at Ukraine’s expense. Already in some Western chanceries, there are those who speculate that sooner or later, Ukraine will return ‘naturally’ to Russia’s fold.

Western interests demand a more informed perspective and a different response. The flaws of Ukraine’s governing class bear no comparison to the malfeasance and degeneracy of Russia’s satraps. A ‘return to Russia’ is ruled out because the vast majority of Ukrainians who believe in a different future and the distinguished minority who bear arms in Ukraine’s defence will not allow this to happen. But destabilisation and wider conflict are possible. Those who care about the West as well as Ukraine have the ability to diminish this possibility, but nothing will be achieved unless they recover the will to diminish it.

This article was published in the Lennart Meri Conference special edition May 2018 of ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

  1. All of these polls are remarkably similar, e.g.:
  2. Comments following the November 2014 G20 summit.
  3. UNIAN, ‘Putin orders intel services to achieve “reset of Ukraine’s ruling regime” – SBU chief’, 22 July 2017,
  4. Arkady Moshes and Ryhor Nizhnikau, Russian-Ukrainian Relations: The Farewell That Wasn’t (FIIA Briefing Paper 235, March 2018).

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