Why Kyiv’s Confrontation with Moscow in Eastern Ukraine Will Continue without an EU Policy Change
Andreas Umland is Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, Principal Researcher with the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, as well as General Editor of the ibidem-Verlag book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” and “Ukrainian Voices” distributed by Columbia University Press.
When it became clear, in spring 2019, that Ukraine’s leadership was undergoing a fundamental change, hope that the Donbas conflict may have been nearing a resolution rose. Not only did Ukraine get a new and less demonstratively nationalist President than Petro Poroshenko who—much like former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko had done ten years earlier—turned right by the end of his term. It also became clear that the parliament and government would also change radically. As of now, Ukraine is reconstituting itself with a largely rejuvenated, less ardently anti-Moscow, and more cosmopolitan political elite.
expectation, to be sure, was not that Ukraine would principally change
its position and course vis-à-vis Russia. Given the clear fronts and
iron logic of the Donbas conflict, there is little that Volodymyr
Zelenskyy can do differently from Poroshenko. In spite of the Kremlin’s
wishes, Zelenskyy can neither give away Ukrainian territory nor
sacrifice Ukrainian sovereignty in the Donbas and Crimea in order to
achieve peace with Russia.
The issue of decentralization
raised in the February 2015 Minsk Agreement, as a sometimes presumed
solution to the Donbas problem, is also a non-starter. Since April 2014,
Kyiv has been conducting a far-reaching all-Ukrainian decentralization
independently from the conflict of the Donbas, and unrelated to the
negotiations with Moscow. This ongoing devolution of power from the
center to municipalities, however, did not help Poroshenko solve the
Donbas conflict, nor will it help Zelenskyy in his attempts to do so.
general, there is little that Zelenskyy can really do to solve the
Donbas conflict; rather, the hope was that Putin may take advantage of
the more Russia-friendly image of post-electoral Ukraine in order to
justify, to his various domestic audiences, a less confrontational
approach towards Kyiv. This expectation was built on the assumption that
the EU’s sanctions may have done their job. Moscow, the assumption
goes, would be seeking a reset of Russian-Western relations, through a
resolution of the Donbas conflict, less out of sympathy for Ukrainian
sovereignty or concern for European stability.
Instead, one hoped that the Kremlin would become more accommodative, out of long-term self-interest—namely, in view of its need for the EU as a foreign investor, modernization collaborator, and trading partner. With a Russian-speaking new President in Ukraine, such was the supposition, this would be easier to do than with the loudly anti-Putinist Poroshenko. The former Ukrainian President’s rhetoric had hardened increasingly over the five years of his presidency. Poroshenko’s reputation among Russians has been damaged by relentless defamation in Kremlin-controlled mass media. Zelenskyy, by contrast, is a well-known and sympathetic entity not only in Ukraine, but also in Russia where the former showman and actor has performed in numerous Russian popular television programs and cinema movies.
The seemingly encouraging
circumstances after Ukraine’s presidential elections notwithstanding,
there is no substantive progress in sight so far. On the contrary,
Moscow announced, shortly after Zelenskyy won with a spectacular margin,
a significant easing of rules, for Donbas’s Ukrainian population, to
obtain Russian citizenship. This implicitly irredentist strategy had
already become known under the label of “passportization” because of
Moscow’s approach to the Russia-controlled territories of Georgia. The
Kremlin’s sharp and demonstrative policy change during the election
period is not only an affront to Ukraine and its new president, but
also undermines the logic of the agreed upon plan of returning the
currently occupied territories under Kyiv control, as outlined in the
Minsk Agreements of 2014 and 2015.
A new possibility, in
which a large part of the Ukrainian Donbas’s population will have become
Russian citizens, needs to be seen within the context of Moscow’s
immoderate public foreign policy doctrine. Various official Russian
documents explicitly allow and even prescribe Moscow’s active
“protection” of its citizens abroad. Russia’s unapologetic approach to
furthering the supposed interest of its foreign “compatriots” will also
apply, in full, to the newly minted Russian citizens in Ukraine. It
would thus—even in the best-case scenario of a successful implementation
of the Minsk Agreements—remain unclear whether the Kremlin will
actually let the currently occupied East Ukrainian territories go, if
many of the inhabitants have become Russian citizens. That such a
far-reaching modification of the status quo occurred when it was already
clear that Poroshenko and his government will soon be gone does not
bode well for the future of conflict-solution in Eastern Ukraine.
In the best possible interpretation, it means that the Kremlin merely wanted to raise the stakes and improve its position before going into negotiations with Ukraine’s new president. In the worst case, it means that Moscow has decided to unofficially, maybe even officially eventually, annex the territories around Donetsk and Luhansk. It would, in doing so, be following one of the various models supplied by its earlier unsanctioned occupations of Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Crimea. Whatever the Kremlin’s exact intentions behind the consequential move, the lessons for the West should be clear: The current sanctions linked to the Minsk Agreements have obviously had little effect.
The various minor limitations for Russia
introduced by the EU in summer 2014 did not prevent the bloody
escalations in Ilovaysk in September 2014 and Debaltseve in February
2015. They also did not end the ensuing low-intensity conflict during
the last four years. In November 2018, the sanctions did not avert a
dangerous escalation in the Azov Sea, and Russia’s arrest of 28
Ukrainian sailors. Finally, the sanctions were unable to foreclose
Moscow’s recent start of “passportization” of the Donbas.
seems to be preventing a more resolute destruction of the post-Cold War
order by the Kremlin in Eastern Ukraine—instead of the EU sanctions—is
the lukewarm relationship ordinary Russians have to Moscow’s Donbas
adventure, as well as the hesitant reaction of East Ukrainians towards
Putin’s offer of Russian passports. According to opinion polls, many
Russians do not support annexing the Donbas, and do not endorse giving
out Russian Federation passports to supposedly pro-Russian Ukrainians.
That is because Russian citizenship allows people to receive social
support from the Russian state budget such as pensions. Many Russians
seem to suspect that such additional obligations for the Russian
government could lower their own transfers from the Russian pension fund
and their access to other state subsidies.
in Kyiv have it that only a few thousand Ukrainians have by now
responded to Putin’s public proposition. Perhaps, Donbas inhabitants
fear losing their Ukrainian passports-more valuable in terms of actual
traveling—if the Ukrainian state finds out that they have obtained
Russian citizenship. Currently, Ukrainian legislation forbids double
citizenship. As long as the EU does not provide visa-freedom in the
Schengen zone for Russian citizens, as it has been doing for Ukrainians
since 2017, many Donbas citizens may fear to lose more than they win by
obtaining a Russian passport.
The continuation of Russia’s
low-intensity warfare against Ukraine, and recent decision to easily
provide Ukrainians with Russian citizenship indicate that the EU’s
current sanctions regime is ineffective. The Kremlin-supported frozen
conflicts in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain unsolved,
in the absence of any Western sanctions regarding them. There is thus
little reason to assume that Moscow would become more accommodative, if
the EU’s measures against Russia would be reduced or abolished.
All that means that, if the West wants to solve the Donbas conflict at least (not to mention the Crimea issue), the current sanctions regime needs to be intensified—perhaps, significantly so. While this will imply certain expenses for the sanctioning states, the eventual overall costs for Europe, if no such actions are undertaken, may be much higher. Most Europeans currently perceive the Donbas conflict as an exclusively Ukrainian problem. Yet, its continuation and escalation could easily turn it into an all-European headache with potentially devastating consequences not only for Ukrainians, but many other Europeans too.