Ukraine - a stake for the long run

Ukraine – a stake for the long run

The West is stuck in reactive mode to what it perceives as a Crimean crisis; it needs instead to prepare for a strategic competition with Russia of unforeseeable duration for influence over Ukraine.

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By David B. Kanin

A reporter on France 24 recently asked Anne Brasseur, Chair of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, why Russian President Putin made his grab for Crimea.  She said she did not know and then pronounced standard pieties.[1] Ms. Brasseur is not the only voice in the West either to express uncertainty at why Putin is behaving as he is, insist he has made a big mistake, or both.  This narrative, which likely just covers the sense of surprise and weakness over a move by Moscow the West cannot reverse, is based on the teleological notion that armed enforcement of national security interests not sanctioned by the Western “International Community” just is not done.  It is, of course; Russia’s actions make sense in a traditional conceptual context.

What does Russia want – and will Russia get it?

There are two issues involved in the Ukrainian dynamic.  The first partly involves Putin’s carefully honed image as a virile potentate.  He has been either President or Prime Minister for a while now, and he is not the first long-serving ruler to feel the ground shift under his feet as some of his subjects/constituents tire of his act.  (I would like to be a fly on the wall if ever Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan get into a discussion of power and frustration).

There is much more involved in recent events than the Russian president’s personal legitimacy, however.  As I have noted on this site before, if Moscow irrevocably loses influence in Ukraine Russia will have had its power pushed farther east since the time of Catherine the Great and Potemkin.  This catastrophe would happen on the watch of a man whose reputation depends on an image of strong leadership and personal virility, but Putin is not the only Russian who genuinely believe this would be an unacceptable result of hostile and purposeful planning – and rhetorical hypocrisy – coming from the West.

The second issue is the Ukrainian variant of the creeping failure of representative democracy that has become evident since the global financial crisis of 2008 but actually started a bit earlier.  Current problems with the democratic narrative resemble somewhat conditions in the 1930s, when political bosses and economic elites could not make decisions or adapt to economic emergency.  The main difference now is the lack of what in the earlier period appeared to be vibrant and attractive alternatives to the tired democracies in Fascism and Communism.  Today, each autocrat or patronage boss chooses his or her combination of democratic forms, family- or crony-based economic networking, and public relations to cobble together a system of power and privilege.

Sometimes, as in Egypt, Bahrain, or other Middle Eastern states outside of Tunisia, this has involved the failure to establish a functioning democratic system.  In much of southeastern Europe (to include EU members Romania and Bulgaria, as well, as various shards of former Yugoslavia), it has been marked by the perverse morphing of democratic forms into covers for kleptocratic structure.  In Bangladesh and Thailand it has highlighted dueling oligarchies (what will “democracy” in Myanmar look like as the generals, Aung San Suu Kyi, and their Burman-based system make deals with Kachin and Shan minorities, but de-legitimize the Muslim Rohingya?)

Ukraine’s stumbling system combines Russian-style business oligarchism with southeast European Potemkin democracy.  The heroes of 2004’s Orange Revolution proved to be just as incompetent and prone to corruption as the pro-Soviet/Russian group they overthrew.  The fact that pro-Western politicians lost legitimacy and the last election lends credibility to Russians’ and others’ belief that hypocritical Westerners orchestrated a coup against a freely elected government that had done nothing wrong except to reject conditions Brussels put on financial assistance.  The decision by the current heroes in Kyiv to enable local oligarchs to maintain power in Kharkiv and Donetsk is an important red flag [2] – such “temporary” arrangements often become permanent and could undermine the new government’s popular appeal.

These issues provide the backdrop for a long-term tug-of-war.  Russia’s seizure of Crimea is only the latest round in an intense competition with the West over Ukraine’s physical space, strategic orientation, and economic affiliation going on since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.  Putin and his advisors almost certainly are aware that Crimea was a low-hanging fruit.  They will have a much greater problem restoring Russia’s hegemony over the rest of Ukraine.  For that reason, more than minor further Russian military action is unlikely for now – Moscow knows it would face resistance even in the Donbas in case of a bald-faced kinetic attack.

For this reason, the Ukrainian tussle likely will settle into a classic cold war-style struggle for influence between Western and Russian acolytes, moneymen, propagandists, and various local interests.  The poor performance of the “good guys” after 2004 should give us pause – there is no guarantee that the champions of representative democracy are going to perform better going forward than they have so far.

Comparisons with the Balkans – a digression

The sudden return of Crimea to Russia’s bosom has sparked occasional efforts to draw parallels with what happened to former Yugoslavia after 1990.  In my view, most of these are not very useful.  The Balkans is a peripheral region (in geo-strategic terms) with a history of sucking in great powers who make the mistake of betting too much on winning local contests and gaining points in larger rivalries.  Whether after 1815, before World War I, or in the wake of the collapse of Communism, these unwary outsiders have found themselves either in a bigger conflict than they expected or else responsible for local clients who have lightened the big powers’ purses and manipulated their sense of self-importance.

Make no mistake – since the days of the Teutonic Knights, the Polish Commonwealth, Ottoman power, and such forgotten concepts as “Livonia,” Ukraine has had the misfortune of being a central stake in much bigger games.  Location is part of the reason for this, along with the critical fact that communications and movement of people, goods, and services in this region is much easier than in the Balkans.  The people now called “Ukrainians” have had more room to move but much less in which to maneuver than the peoples living in southeastern Europe.

Also, during the first few years of Yugoslavia’s collapse Russia, a power critical to European stability, was at least as much the West’s partner as its adversary.  Regarding Ukraine, that clearly is not the case.

Forced comparisons between Kosova’s contested independence and Russia’s decisive seize of Crimea are, at best, facile.  The Kosova imbroglio involves the effort of a 90 percent Kosovar majority to escape efforts by Belgrade to reimpose a repressive regime invoked from Belgrade after 1913 (not 1389), lifted by Tito in 1974, and slapped back in place by Milosevic after 1987.  Kosova’s rejection so far by five EU members creates a huge obstacle to the fragile state’s long-term prospects.  On the other hand, Russia’s quick, decisive embrace of Crimea makes international rejection of this coup de main irrelevant.

Nevertheless, two minor analogies do deserve mention.  First Russia’s seizure of Crimea serves somewhat the same purpose as its dash to the airport in Pristina in 1999.  Moscow had noticed how, during the Bosnian war a few years earlier, France had used its control over the airport in Sarajevo to maximize its influence over local events.  The Russians did not want to be shunted aside by a triumphal NATO, and used their presence in Pristina to maintain at least some influence during the immediate post-bombing (and, subsequently, post-Milosevic) era.  In this context, it is important to understand that Moscow is counting on the West to refuse to recognize its absorption of Crimea – this will enable Russia to act like a hostage taker and involve itself in negotiations over the rest of Ukraine something like a kidnapper involves him- or herself with a hostage’s family.  In a sense, Western acceptance of Russian sovereignty in Crimea could actually weaken Moscow’s larger strategic position – but only if it took place in the context of muscular Western assertion of dominance in the rest of Ukraine.

Second, the effort of Crimea-less Ukraine to maintain long-term Western attention to its effort to escape Russia’s embrace might come to resemble the strategy used by Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro’s Big Man, after 1996.  Djukanovic made the mistake of believing Milosevic would lose power after he botched local elections in Serbia.  When he did not, Djukanovic had to assume the identity of a liberal democrat and find a way of convince the West to support the independence for a small physical space that was (and is) largely his personal fiefdom.  In part, he did this by provoking a series of minor armed skirmishes with Serbian forces at the airport in Podgorica and along the border with Serbia.  Expectations of possible Russian military movements into Ukraine should not blind Western observers to the possibility Ukrainian decision-makers might eventually attempt to provoke the Russian military, especially if over time Western attention to Ukraine begins to wane.

The West’s response should be a marathon, not a sprint

Putin has played one of two cards he has – local military superiority.  Whether he plays the energy card depends on what happens next.  In any case, an effective Western response depends in whether Washington and European capitals can agree to establish and stay a course that can erode Moscow’s advantages over time.

There is little evidence so far of such resolve on either side of the Atlantic.  Strategists on all sides know the Europeans have no stomach for a renewed economic and strategic East-West conflict.  Meanwhile, while the Russians greatly overestimate America’s ability to conceive and implement complex and hostile plots, the Europeans doubt Washington’s attention span and have seen little indication strategic thinking is America’s strong suit.

The immediate problem is that the West is stuck in reactive mode to what it perceives as an immediate Crimean crisis; it needs instead to prepare for a strategic a competition with Russia of unforeseeable duration for influence over Ukraine.  The crisis mentality is reflected in the focus on sanctions – over time, European private actors and governments will evade such punishments for the sake of economic interests and the EU’s ideological and emotional devotion to dialogue.  Washington, meanwhile, knows it needs to work with Moscow in the Middle East, South Asia, and elsewhere.  The West needs a plan to calibrate its residual attention to Ukraine (and re-Russianized Crimea) when Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, or Korea once again take over American headlines, or when problems outside the Ukrainian space remind the Europeans of their diminishing global clout.

The longer-term ideological and practical issue is that the West needs to encase its approach to Ukraine inside a strategy designed to repair the damage done to the efficacy of representative democracy.  As things stand, it is not clear the American democracy can make decisions or whether the EU is a democracy at all.  Notables in the former Soviet space, Eastern Europe, and farther afield have learned how to absorb Western political and rhetorical forms into their autocratic and patronage-based structures.

The West has considerable economic and cultural weapons it can use to resist Russian efforts to re-absorb Ukraine – even if it cannot push the Russians back to its 18th century borders it might be able to negate the advances Stalin made in 1945.  But this will be possible only if the Americans and Europeans can conceive and implement policies that restore their domestic functionality and strategic credibility.  The first step is to recognize that sanctions are just a stop-gap, that Crimea is lost, but that the rest of Ukraine can be won if – unlike after 2004 – local friends of the West treat their constituents honestly, manage the country competently, and prove they are capable of doing more than making noise in the streets.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).


1) I saw this interview on the morning of 8 March.

2) Maria Danilova, “Ukrainian Oligarchs get Key Posts in Bid for Unity,” Associated Press, March 7, 2014.

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