Conflict and Leadership
Ukrainian Crisis Forever?

The inability of the Ukrainian elite to articulate national interests and its willingness to welcome the intervention of external players in the country’s affairs was both one of the factors of the crisis and the reason why Ukrainian politics has historically been highly internationalised. The dominance of the United States in the international system after the collapse of the Soviet Union determines the importance of relations with Washington for Ukraine, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.

The Ukrainian crisis is in all the headlines again. In late March, online negotiations were held in a new version of the Normandy format: “4 minus 1”, that is, without Ukraine. After a long pause, consultations were held between the Chiefs of Staffs of Russia and the United States. Against this background, Kiev wasn’t hiding its preparations for a military escalation.

Such news suggests that the Ukrainian crisis will remain with us, apparently, forever. Are there any objective laws governing the development of this crisis that would make it possible to look at this process from above, rather than participate in its development? So far, the analysis from such a standpoint is difficult. The Russian perspective is very different from the Western one. It has three key characteristics.

First, Russia focuses on regional stability and the conditions for maintaining it, which inevitably should be based on taking all the interests of the involved players into account.

Second, it proceeds from the fragility of political processes in the new countries of Eurasia that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And, thirdly, it emphasises the need for motives to be transparent and for the behaviour of all actors to be predictable, because careless behaviour can lead to the destruction of political structures and violation of regional stability.

In other words, Russian analysts proceed from the value of human life as a key priority. From this perspective, the main objective is to prevent a big war, and not to fulfil the speculative dream of the triumph of freedom and democracy, not to create heaven on earth, but to prevent hell.

Three key conditions led to the development of the Ukrainian crisis. These include the consumerist attitude of the Ukrainian elites to their own country; they put their own victory above national interests and, thereby, stimulate a permanent political crisis.

Second, Ukraine is not lucky enough to find itself on the geopolitical frontier in Europe between Russia and the West.

And, finally, the Ukrainian elites could not avoid the temptation to speculate on their role in European security, essentially inviting Russia and the West to interfere in the nation’s internal affairs. The situation is similar to the classical metaphor described by Nestor, the chronicler in The Tale of Bygone Years: “Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come reign as princes, rule over us.”

In the post-Soviet decades, Ukraine was unique and one of the most important partners for Russia. The most populous country in the former Soviet Union after Russia, it is closely connected with Russia economically, linguistically and culturally. Until 2014, Ukraine was considered a key player in determining the prospects for post-Soviet integration. In February 2014, everything changed. Russia’s relations with the West were damaged and can’t be expected to heal for a long time. Political groups within Ukraine which focus on cooperation with Russia have been marginalised and persecuted. The borders of Ukraine have changed; a civil war has begun in the country.

These events continue to determine the development of international relations in Europe and beyond. In this sense, the Ukrainian crisis is not over and it is still very far from over.

Given Ukraine’s huge starting potential, its elites have always lacked a strategic vision regarding the country’s development. The interests of Ukraine were lost in the chaotic struggle of the private short-term interests of individual financial and industrial groups.

Ukrainian politicians are accustomed to extracting dividends from the involvement of external players in the affairs of their country, and as a result, the Ukrainian agenda itself was supplanted by someone else.

The energy policy of Ukraine provides a good illustration of the substitution of national interests with the interests of external players. The Ukrainian political elite was so obsessed with the idea of getting rid of energy dependence on Russia that it became involved in a confrontation between Russia, the United States, and the European Union in this area, and Kiev’s behaviour played a big role in politicising the energy issue.

Moscow doubts the very negotiability of the Ukrainian political elite. Since 2014, Russia’s strategy has been to minimise the potential damage Ukraine could do to it and to help strengthen those groups in Ukrainian politics that are oriented towards cooperation with Russia, while also insisting on the reintegration of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics into Ukraine on terms that would include a broad recognition of their regional autonomy.

Ukrainian Tragedy: Two Years On
Jacques Sapir
The evolution of the situation in Ukraine since the beginning of 2014 is a real example of how leaders can destroy a state because of their mistakes and fanaticism.
Expert Opinions

Why were the actions of the West, which unconditionally supported the coup d’état in Kiev, so reckless? The leadership, and the general foreign policy community of the United States, was well aware of how sensitive the geopolitical status of Ukraine was for Russia. Nevertheless, the events in Crimea came as a shock to American politicians.

The reasons were several fundamental misconceptions. Seeing themselves “on the right side of history”, American analysts did not admit that the course of Ukraine’s joining the Western security structures could be very destructive for them. They believed that, in choosing between destroying relations with the West and ensuring its own security, Russia would prefer to maintain relations with the West.

They did not notice the potential for self-organisation in Crimea and south-eastern Ukraine, habitually considering only pro-Western activists “civil society”.

The 2014 crisis would not have been possible without a deep internal split in Ukraine. Over the three decades that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian political elite have not been able to overcome this split. The struggle between elite groups has become a structural factor in Ukrainian politics. Any consensus turns out to be unstable; the central authority is based on the balance of elite groups. This factor also explains the ideological dynamics in Ukraine.

The main economic assets, which are the source of power for the Ukrainian oligarchic clans, are concentrated in the eastern part of the country. Western elite groups compensated for their weakness with ideological expansion, eventually imposing a narrow and conflicting interpretation of Ukrainian identity on the whole country. After Ukraine lost Crimea and Donbass, the socio-cultural structure simplified, and the country stabilised somewhat. However, stable models of Ukrainian politics have survived for the time being.

The inability of the Ukrainian elite to articulate national interests and its willingness to welcome the intervention of external players in the country’s affairs was both one of the factors of the crisis and the reason why Ukrainian politics has historically been highly internationalised. The dominance of the United States in the international system after the collapse of the Soviet Union determines the importance of relations with Washington for Ukraine.

It was fatal for Ukraine that at a certain moment Washington began to perceive it as an element of confrontation with Russia over the future of the security system in Europe, NATO expansion and the fate of the post-Soviet space. The Ukrainian diaspora in the United States, which has significant ideological influence, played a role.

Key constants of the Ukrainian crisis, in the absence of strong external and internal impulses, will remain motionless in the future, at least for several electoral cycles.

Election in Ukraine: Don’t Expect Warming in Relations with Russia
Mikhail Pogrebinsky
From the presidential election in Ukraine, one should not expect a significant warming in Russian-Ukrainian relations, writes Valdai Club expert Mikhail Pogrebinsky, Director of the Kiev Centre for Political Studies and Conflictology.
Expert Opinions
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.