By Andrew Kydd
Is Ukraine destined for partition or even war? Powerful forces are driving the situation in that direction, and it is not clear that there is an alternative that all sides can agree on. In seizing Crimea, Putin has jumped through a window of opportunity. Windows of opportunity combine present temptations with future fears, and generate powerful incentives to act. To board up this window will take concerted action both within Ukraine and internationally.
Ukraine is roughly evenly divided between a nationalist, anti-Russian west and a Russophone pro-Russian east. In 1991, Leonid Kravchuk helped Boris Yeltsin break up the Soviet Union and led Ukraine’s first independent government. In 1994 he was defeated by Leonid Kuchma in a presidential election that was decided along regional lines; Kravchuk won the west and Kuchma the east. Kuchma won reelection in 1999 with much broader support, including from the western regions. In the 2004 election, Viktor Yanukovych, who was then prime minister, was declared the winner, but the results were contested. The resulting Orange Revolution brought greater democracy to Ukraine and shifted the balance to the west, but eventually discredited itself with corruption, mismanagement and incompetence. In 2010, Yanukovych ran again with support from the east and this time won a reasonably fair ballot, much to the dismay of the western Ukrainians. Their opposition was galvanized when, under Russian pressure, he walked away from an agreement with the EU, and the Maidan protest movement was born. That movement then succeeded in pushing him from power, shifting control back to western, nationalist Ukrainians. This time, things looked even worse for the eastern Ukrainians. Given their overthrow of an elected leader, the western forces seemed unconstrained by constitutional rules or democratic procedures. Given their immediate move to demote Russian as an official language, their anti-Russian agenda seemed clear as well.
Yanukovych’s overthrow therefore was a serious blow to Russian national interests. Russian speakers in the east might eventually be reduced to second-class citizens. Russia’s ability to continue to use the Black Sea naval port in Sevastopol was in jeopardy as well. Ukraine was heading to the West and might join the EU and NATO. Was there anything to be done?
As it so happened, there was. The revolution also weakened Ukraine, leaving it vulnerable to intervention. This presented a temptation to Putin to use force to secure a better outcome for Russia than an outright western Ukrainian victory. But why actually use force, why intervene? Why not just threaten to use force, and strike a deal with the new government on the issues of concern, such as protection for the eastern Russophones and indefinite basing rights for the Black Sea Fleet?
The problem with negotiations is that Ukraine’s weakness is temporary. Eventually the new regime will consolidate power and increase its ties to the West, possibly joining the EU or even NATO. At that point, intervention would be prohibitively risky and Russia would simply have to live with the loss of Ukraine. Therefore any deal struck now would some day be reneged upon by the Ukrainian regime. It would certainly want to, given its internal and international orientation. And it would eventually have the power to, given its consolidation and integration with the West.
This seems to leave Putin no choice but to intervene now and press his advantage to the point of peaceful partition, if the Ukrainians do not resist, or civil/international war if they do. Windows of opportunity are powerful things. When you combine demonstrated hostility, present weakness and future strength, the incentive to act can be overwhelming.
Is there anything that can be done to board up this window and prevent Putin from jumping all the way through? One strategy is to attempt to make the intervention so costly that Putin will eventually decide to accept the loss of Russia’s interests in Ukraine. Domestically, Ukrainians can resist the invasion, either peacefully or by fighting back and making a war of it. A lot will hinge on whether the Russian incursion is popular, or at least tolerated, in the Russophone areas. If it is not popular, the intervention may turn out to be much more costly than Putin anticipated, which may lead him to withdraw. Internationally, sanctions and diplomatic isolation are a first step, but these tools will take time to have an impact. Military action by the West appears to be off the table; even the many critics of the Obama administration are not suggesting the use of force. This is therefore a long-term strategy, and Putin is quickly establishing facts on the ground.
An alternative strategy is to attempt to provide Putin with credible guarantees for the future, so that the future-oriented incentive to take advantage of Ukraine’s present weakness is reduced. Can a negotiated deal that preserves Ukrainian territorial integrity while at the same time guaranteeing Russia’s interests be made to stick into the future? Putin must be persuaded that Ukrainian promises can be trusted despite the fact that they have the incentive and will have the power to break them. The usual way that governments are constrained in democratic systems is through constitutions and federal systems that empower minority veto players. A Ukrainian constitution that embodied a veto for the eastern regions on any move towards the West or any move to reorient Ukrainian security policy would in theory be attractive to Russia. Western Ukrainians would have to explain why they would abide by the new constitution when they failed to abide by the previous one. A further set of guarantees might be provided by the international community in the form of an agreement to neutralize Ukraine, that is, to reverse the 2008 decision to eventually offer it NATO membership.
All this smacks of appeasement of course, but it is appeasement back to a status quo that for 20 post-Cold War years was deemed basically tolerable, certainly internationally and by many inside Ukraine. There may be no going back to that option, but the alternative is a costly confrontation with an uncertain outcome.