Russia’s Ukraine policy is in the spotlight once again over the fragile ceasefire in the Donbas and talk of resurrecting the so-called Normandy format negotiations between the leaders and foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France on resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Moscow should realize that Kiev’s anti-Russian stance is here to stay, and reassess its long-term policy regarding its neighbor accordingly.

Right now, the main topic of discussion is the implementation of Minsk II, as the agreement reached in the Belarusian capital in February 2015 is known. However, it is unlikely that the agreement will be fully carried out. Minsk II mostly suits Russia, but it hardly does Kiev. Implementation of the agreement would mean autonomy for the Donbas and de facto constitutional regionalization of Ukraine, which would effectively preclude Kiev from even applying for NATO membership. It would legitimize a Russian enclave in the Donbas and provide amnesty for leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, and it would transfer responsibility for the welfare of the region’s more than one million people from Moscow to Kiev.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed the Minsk accords under strong pressure from Europe, in particular Germany, which feared that the armed conflict would spread and result in a major war in Europe’s east. However, there is a big difference between signing an agreement and announcing a ceasefire on the one hand, and implementing the agreement and resolving the conflict on the other. The current Ukrainian authorities simply cannot fully comply with Minsk II without precipitating a major domestic crisis that would jeopardize the stability of the regime itself. 

Berlin and Paris are powerless to effectively pressure Kiev, and Washington is unwilling to do so. The continued confrontation between Russia and Ukraine and the tension in Russia-EU relations help the United States to contain Russia and increase demand for U.S. leadership in the Old World.

So while Moscow and the European capitals have no reason to reject Minsk II, Kiev will openly resist it, citing Moscow’s military assistance to Donetsk and Luhansk and constant shelling along the line of contact. Not to forget: there are also those in the Donbas who are less than enthusiastic about reintegration with Ukraine and who occasionally also trigger skirmishes. 

Unlike the Western capitals, Moscow, of course, has an incentive and the ability to exert pressure on its proxies and bring them to heel. But this is not enough. A low-level conflict will most likely persist in the Donbas, but despite popular Western stereotypes, its effect is not so much to destabilize Ukraine, as to keep Ukraine mobilized in the face of a “clear and present danger” in the east.

What lies ahead? Many in Russia expect the current Ukrainian leadership, brought to power following the Maidan revolution, to fail and a chastened Ukraine to return to the fold of the “Russian world.” This will never happen, however: the point of no return in Russian-Ukrainian relations was passed in 2014–2015. For the next three to five years, Ukraine will remain an unstable but more or less functional state with a government that is more hostile to Russia than any other country. The regime in Kiev will continue its policy of severing all ties with Russia. 

As Ukrainians lose hope of swift integration with Europe, confronting and opposing Russia will become the guiding principle of Ukraine’s domestic policy for the foreseeable future; it will also serve as the basis for the modern Ukrainian political nation. This nation-building strategy will not yield quick results, as there are many internal contradictions to overcome. But with each month, a new reality is crystallizing that will most likely outlast the current political configuration in Kiev. Ukraine is already billing itself in the foreign policy arena above all as a “barrier to Russian expansion in Europe,” and it will continue to bid for this role.

To date, Russia’s Ukraine policy has focused on the premise of “one people,” a single Russian-Ukrainian fraternal community. This concept, however, ignores the steadfast unwillingness of the Ukrainian elites (regardless of region or language) to integrate with Russia. Their unwillingness is based on fears—perfectly founded, by the way—that any integration with Russia, including purely economic integration, undermines the Ukrainian political project. Even Ukraine’s most pro-Russian president Leonid Kuchma was opposed to integration with Russia, as evidenced by the title of his book, Ukraine is Not Russia.

Theoretically, Russia could have tried to cultivate a counter-elite in eastern and southern Ukraine that would have either prevented or neutralized a Maidan. Instead, for two decades after the collapse of the USSR, Russia constricted its Ukraine policy to the diameter of a gas pipeline and conducted diplomacy in the format of chummy, opportunistic contacts with Ukrainian officials and oligarchs. This is why the project to create an independent state based on the self-declared republics under the historical name of Novorossiya fizzled out so quickly: Moscow had no support base in political, economic, and cultural elites, even in those regions of Ukraine that have traditionally gravitated toward the “Russian world.”

Moscow has missed its chance to integrate Ukraine into the Eurasian project, which, incidentally, is not such a bad thing for Russia, given the cost of such integration. Going forward, the permanent state of hostility between the two nations might prompt Russia to treat its large neighbor with a bit more courtesy and consideration. This would necessitate a closer study of Ukraine in Russia, which should help the latter to disabuse itself of its former illusions and convenient but misleading stereotypes about its former fellow Soviet state. 

Russia’s interests in Ukraine are obvious and include securing constitutional guarantees that Ukraine will neither enter NATO nor host foreign military forces, as well as recognition of Crimea as part of Russia; restoration of productive economic relations; a waiver of any financial claims by Ukraine against Russia; and the opportunity for Russia to regain a presence in Ukraine’s information space and use its soft power there. It is unthinkable that Kiev will agree to all this in the foreseeable future. Yet Russia has the opportunity, over time, to build a non-exclusive functional relationship with Ukraine: this time within the framework of a “Greater Eurasia” stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic. 

Political power in Ukraine will change hands frequently, generating diverse combinations of political forces. Kiev will most likely stay on its pro-Western course, but at some stage some more pragmatic political figures might become interested in finding a modus vivendi with Russia. This would create conditions for starting a meaningful dialogue: first between experts, then among individuals with access to officials, and finally involving representatives of the two governments. 

Such a dialogue will not be easy, and it will take a long time to see any results. And yet it is essential for any future agreements that will satisfy Russia’s interests without infringing on Ukraine’s dignity.

This article originally appeared in Russian in RBC.

By:
  • Dmitri Trenin