The logic of competitive influence-seeking: Russia, Ukraine, and the conflict in Donbas

Based on an article in Post-Soviet Affairs with my colleague Tatyana Malyarenko, I had the honour of delivering a keynote address at the UPTAKE workshop “Ethnopolitics in Central and Eastern Europe in a State of Flux” at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies at the University of Tartu in Estonia. In the talk, I argue that the crisis in Ukraine since late 2013 has seen four successive internationally mediated agreements that have been at best partially implemented. Drawing on extensive fieldwork and 42 key informant interviews on all sides, I explain this outcome with reference to the logic of competitive influence-seeking. Given that Russia is currently unable to secure a regime in Kyiv that is friendly and stable, the Kremlin has been hedging against the consolidation of an unfriendly and stable, Western-supported regime in Kyiv by maintaining its control over parts of eastern Ukraine and solidifying the dependence of local regimes there on Russian support. This gives Russia the opportunity to either maintain the current status quo or settle for favorable re-integration terms through which Russia can sustain long-term influence over Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policy orientation. The talk concluded by offering three broader perspectives on the consequences of competitive influence-seeking in the post-Soviet space: the likely persistence of low-intensity conflict in Ukraine; the further consolidation of territorial divisions in other post-Soviet conflicts; and the need for policy-makers in Russia and the West to prioritize the management of the consequent instability in their contested neighborhood.