(Co-authored with Tatyana Malyarenko. Originally published in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage.)
As Russia headed to the polls Sunday to reelect President Vladimir Putin, there was one policy that they were implicitly reviewing. Many remember Russia’s Cold War strategy of invading, destabilizing and intervening in other countries’ governance. Putin has apparently once again made this his policy.
Consider, for instance, that since late 2013, Russian policy toward Ukraine has become ever more aggressive. First, the Kremlin pressured then-President Viktor Yanukovych not to sign a free-trade agreement with the European Union. When Yanukovych buckled to Russian pressure, Ukrainians overthrew him in the Maidan revolution of 2013-14 — to which Russia responded by annexing Crimea in March 2014. About the same time, Russia began supporting a separatist movement in Donbas, the easternmost part of Ukraine that includes the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. Pro-Russian regimes are now firmly entrenched there; although Russia hasn’t annexed the area outright, neither does it look likely to withdraw its protection from the separatists anytime soon.
And that’s true even though since February 2014, France, Germany and Russia negotiated four “agreements” about the region — none of which has resulted in so much as a stable cease-fire between separatist and government forces.
Many think the crisis in Ukraine has signaled the start of a new Cold War. Our latest research, involving four years of extensive fieldwork, including interviews with officials on all sides, leads us to agree. Today, unnervingly for the West, “success” in Donbas has once again become the Kremlin’s model for destabilizing post-Soviet states — and perhaps beyond — when doing so would support Russia’s geopolitical interests.
Is geopolitics a zero-sum game?
Expert analysis of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has largely divided into two schools of thought. The first is that Russia has acted opportunistically. The second is that we’re glimpsing a grand strategy to restore Russia’s global superpower status.
The latter view suggests that, as in the original Cold War, Russia is playing a worldwide zero-sum game in which it perceives that even the tiniest gain in influence for one side means an equivalent loss for the other. Our study indicates that this is precisely the logic that Russia has been following in the Donbas region.
We traced Russian policies from late 2013 to early 2015, finding that with each new agreement, it focused on gaining a stronger status for the separatists, including predetermining a future “special status” should the territories be reintegrated into Ukraine. Within a year, Russia had managed to shift the discussion from a power transition with uncertain outcomes (in the February 2014 Kiev agreement) to an established role for the Donbas separatists in a constitutional reform process that would decentralize power (in the February 2015 Minsk II agreement).
How did Russia shift the discussion so powerfully? By getting its military more involved. Each time one of the agreements collapsed, Russia increased the stakes. When the first agreement collapsed, it supported separatist forces logistically and with military equipment as they roamed eastern Ukraine, temporarily occupying public buildings while not holding any territory permanently. Then the three powers negotiated the Geneva Declaration of April 2014 — another agreement that was never put into force.
At that point, Russia sent in military advisers and Russian soldiers who took leave from their units to fight in Ukraine, while delivering military hardware to the separatists who took control of eastern Ukraine. After intense fighting in July and August, the three powers negotiated the first Minsk Agreement in early September 2014, which did not result in a cease-fire. At this stage, Russia helped the separatists consolidate their territorial gains and begin building a state, complete with their own government, in the areas under their control.
Russia will use whatever means it deems necessary to stop its former satellite states from drifting away from its control
Why? We spoke with Ukrainian officials in Kiev; with officials in the Brussels E.U. and NATO headquarters; in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna; and with Russian experts and analysts. What we learned is that Russia considers Ukraine a strategically important prize — and has escalated its policies to ensure that Ukraine will not drift out of its control.
Ukraine hasn’t been the only battleground on which Russia and the West have been fighting to impose their respective geopolitical visions. As one of us has demonstrated earlier, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova have similarly been pulled in different directions — east toward Russia and west toward the European Union and NATO. And in all these cases, Russia has increasingly shown that to prevent the drift westward, it will intervene by any means it deems necessary.
Russia appears, understandably, to want secure, settled and unambiguously pro-Russian neighbors. Of course, nations don’t always get what they want.
If it can’t have its ideal outcome, Russia would prefer an unstable neighbor over a stable one that is fully aligned with the West.
Russia has clearly concluded that Ukraine is not about to become a friendly and stable regime. Nor will Russia gain a friendly yet unstable Ukraine, the kind of government it arguably had under Yanukovych. Russia is therefore choosing to destabilize the current Ukrainian government — not just through the low-intensity Donbas conflict but also the renewed “gas war” between Russia and Ukraine.
Western aims mirror Russia’s. The European Union and NATO also view Ukraine as too strategically valuable to concede. And so the two sides are escalating much as they did during the Cold War: Washington announced the sale of antitank missiles to Kiev just as Russia’s Gazprom threatened to cancel all its supply contracts to Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose efforts have been vital in managing the crisis in Ukraine, described the Minsk II agreement of three years ago as “a glimmer of hope.” No longer. Russia apparently would rather tolerate instability than Western influence. That bodes ill for future East-West relations the world over, no matter what margin Putin wins by.