A Symposium on the Crisis in Ukraine

By Rachel Epstein for Denver Dialogues
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It’s been well over a year since Russia annexed Crimea, and the cease-fire agreed at Minsk for the fate of war-torn Eastern Ukraine from February 2015 is in tatters. With the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day having just passed and Western-Russian relations at a post-Cold War nadir, this symposium examines the politics behind the crisis in Ukraine and the implications for international security.

Our contributors include: Valerie Bunce, the Aaron Binenkorb Professor of International Studies and Professor of Government at Cornell University; Donald Abenheim, Associate Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and a long-standing advisor on democratic civil-military relations to central European nations seeking to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; and Steven Pifer, who was the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine from 1998-2000 and who is currently a Senior Fellow in the Bookings Institution.

[Contributors’ insights on the Ukraine crisis were more extensive than I have space to present here. For a fuller treatment of the issues, and responses to some additional questions, see the complete transcripts at the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy.]

EPSTEIN: Russia has never acknowledged that it has a military role in eastern Ukraine. At the same time, it has accused the U.S. of deploying military trainers to eastern Ukraine. Who is winning this information war, and how do people in the region—that is, in Ukraine, Russia and neighboring countries—interpret the conflicting claims?

Abenheim points out that Russia has successfully mobilized what are, in fact, old techniques to modern effect, including various kinds of overt and covert subversion:

ABENHEIM: The Russians have very effectively waged a propaganda campaign in Ukraine that began with the hacking of the Victoria Nuland telephone call—a psychological operations coup de main of the first order. This propaganda offensive has since unfolded with a special operations campaign that has or has not used fifth column fighters on the classical pattern one knows from irregular conflict in the 20th century. While it is politically incorrect for some in the year 2015 to say so, I am especially reminded of German irregular warfare/covert operations to undermine the Dollfuss/Schuschnigg regime in Austria in 1934-1938, as well as the campaign against the Czechs at the same time. From there, the Russian side along with its sympathizers elsewhere in the world have put the Ukrainians, the west European EU powers, and NATO on their back foot with a remorseless propaganda offensive, complete with the reincarnation of the Ukrainian Waffen SS…

Pifer agrees that Russian efforts have been fairly effective, including in Western Europe, even if the objective evidence is not on Russia’s side:

PIFER: Russian denial of its military role is simply not credible. Even if one discounts NATO and Ukrainian reports about the presence of Russian military personnel in the Donbas and the influx of Russian military equipment, there are ample other reports. In February, for example, a pro-Russian journalist reported on the fighting around Debaltseve with several ‘separatist’ tanks in the background. Those tanks could only have come from the Russian military, as they had reactive armor and other equipment that is only known to be in the Russian army’s inventory.

Russia nevertheless is doing well in the information war… State-sponsored outlets such as RT and Sputnik receive considerable funding from the government… [They] seek to create smoke and confusion rather than offer a coherent story. Witness the effort that Russian media put into theories regarding the MH-17 shoot-down: it was downed by a Ukrainian fighter; it was shot down by Ukrainians believing they were shooting down President Putin’s plane; it was a CIA special mission to damage Russia’s image, using a plane full of dead bodies. All of these aimed to discredit the most likely explanation: Russian-backed separatists used a Russian-provided surface-to-air missile to down the plane… The Russian public largely buys the Kremlin’s line, and it appears to have made in-roads in Europe, where some accept the argument that Russian action in Ukraine is defensive, triggered by NATO and EU enlargement.

Bunce is more skeptical about how successful the Russians have been, except in Russia itself:

BUNCE: Russia has lost its information war with neighboring countries, including not just those neighbors that are members of the EU and NATO, but also neighboring countries that are part of the European neighborhood, such as Georgia and Moldova. In addition, Russian allies, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, are resisting adhering to Russia’s line on this conflict, because of their fear that Russia could do similar covert interventions in their countries.

The one exception to this generalization is Russians themselves who live in Russia. Here, it is important to recognize that Putin controls the media; his annexation of Crimea in March, 2014 has been extremely popular at home and boosted his popular support; but a majority of Russians, however, do not and would not support military intervention in Ukraine. In this sense, the domestic benefits of this war for Putin depend upon his ability to engage in covert, not overt aggression in Ukraine.

EPSTEIN: Further on the same theme, with Russia as a party to the Minsk 2 cease-fire agreement from February, which called for the evacuation of ‘foreign forces,’ how can Putin then convince his public that Russian forces are not involved?

BUNCE: The Russian media has portrayed political change in Ukraine as not just the work of Ukrainian fascists (a trope that plays especially well in Russia), but also the work of the West in general and the United States in particular. Thus, to refer to the evacuation of ‘foreign forces’ in that agreement is merely to reinforce not just the official characterization of the conflict in Russia, but also Putin’s recent claims to rule—for example, his appeals to Russian nationalism, his recognition of Russian exceptionalism, his commitment to expanding Russian influence in the international system, and his criticisms of the West as a decadent culture and a major force for instability in the international system…

Referring specifically to Russian annexation of Crimea, Abenheim notes:

ABENHEIM: Surely there remain critical and informed Russians at home who are skeptical of this neo-imperialist undertaking, and its ill effects on life and treasure, but I am also sure that, with the recent murder of Nemtsov, opposition is much more problematic.

Pifer’s assessment of the information environment in Russia:

PIFER: More Russians seem to understand what’s going on, but it is not clear that a majority do… In Soviet times, the general public was hugely skeptical about what they saw on television or read in the newspapers. The Russian public today appears to be far more accepting and far less questioning of what they see, particularly on television. By some accounts, the propaganda on Russian domestic media is worse than it was during the Soviet period.

EPSTEIN: Weak state capacity and corruption in Ukraine arguably contributed to the country’s vulnerability to Russian intervention and destabilization. However, the Ukrainian government is now 1) challenging the oligarchs and 2) pushing for anti-corruption reform. Are these steps likely to help stabilize the country and ward off Russian aggression? Or will these measures exact costs on the government by undermining critical support for the regime?

BUNCE: No doubt, there will be broad popular support for challenging the oligarchs and pushing for anti-corruption reform. Most Ukrainians agree that these are serious problems, and they help explain the abysmal performance of the Ukrainian economy since Ukraine became an independent state on January 1, 1992.

Because Poroshenko is himself an oligarch, he is signaling with such actions that he is breaking with his past and is committed to changing the way politics and economics have been conducted in Ukraine. While these actions will help stabilize Ukraine, they are likely viewed by some citizens, especially in pockets in the eastern half of the country, as threatening their economic livelihood.

But Bunce also points to the perverse incentives that Ukrainian reform provides to Russia:

BUNCE: [I]t is important to recognize that Russian aggression grows out of Russian interests in destabilizing Ukraine and thereby undermining its transition to authentic democracy and closer relations with the West. Thus, Russia wants Poroshenko’s government to fail. In this sense, the more successful Ukraine is in dealing with its domestic problems, the more incentives Russia has to continue its aggressive policies.

Pifer on the same question:

PIFER: Over the past 25 years, oligarchs have played an out-sized role in the political and economic life of Ukraine… Reducing their political influence is an important part of building a modern European democracy and will also aid the anti-corruption effort… The political risk for Poroshenko is that oligarchs may well push back against efforts to curb their influence, adding another headache for a Ukrainian government that already faces a long list of reform and political challenges, on top of dealing with Russian aggression in the east.

Our contributors are in fairly strong agreement that the Ukraine crisis is testing the will and capacity of those very organizations that were intended to cement the security and prosperity of European and Transatlantic communities following World War II.

EPSTEIN: Recently in the Financial Times, Wolfgang Münchau wrote that “a failed Ukrainian state or further annexation of its territory by Russia…would signal to the world that the EU is chronically incapable of defending its common interests.” Münchau was arguing, therefore, that the crisis in Ukraine represents a much more dangerous threat to Europe, and one imagines also to NATO (even though Ukraine is not a member of the EU or NATO), than the ongoing economic crisis in Greece. Is he correct?

BUNCE: The economic and political difficulties of Greece are not equal to the existential threats posed to Europe by Russian actions in Ukraine; that is, its invasion and then annexation of Crimea, followed by its aiding and abetting popular rebellion in eastern Ukraine.

Bunce goes onto to point out the bind in which the West now finds itself:

BUNCE: Just as Ukraine’s economic and political problems are much deeper than those of Greece, so Russia has a strong domestic and international interest in continuing its policies of de-stabilizing the country…it is unclear how the Europeans can deter Russian aggression without encouraging more aggression, boosting Putin’s domestic support and undermining both the political and economic reforms in Ukraine and the Poroshenko government.

If anything, Abenheim is even more concerned about what the knotted crises of Ukraine and Greece mean for global security:

ABENHEIM: The problems of economy and European institutions can easily become issues of war and peace. The union of French and German coal and steel in 1950, whence came the EU, did arise from this insight, which is no less valid now, even if populist terrible simplifiers in their number in the AFD, UKIP and the Le Pen party want to junk it. If both Greece and Ukraine become failed states within Europe, they can well emulate the experience of ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s or something worse from the epoch 1919-1939.

On the possibility that Europe’s terrible history can suddenly reappear, Abenheim says:

ABENHEIM: When I reflect on the fate of Greece in Europe, I recall its unhappy history in the inter war period, to say nothing of its martyrdom in the second war itself, and the aftermath of civil war and strife until 1974. In the same way, the fate of Ukraine as a nation that must overcome its past poses a challenge for the EU, which is indeed as grave as the author in the Financial Times article suggests, if not more so. And both crises must be mastered by policy makers at the same time, while the Middle East goes up in flames, and instability in Africa threatens peace and security in Europe, as well.

Perhaps most provocatively, Pifer notes the following:

PIFER: Vladimir Putin has shown a readiness to challenge the post-Cold War European security order, violating the cardinal rule of no use of force to change borders or take territory. Do his ambitions go beyond Ukraine? Europe and the West have to assume that they might, and they need to be prepared to fend off a possible Russian security challenge.  If Russia makes that challenge—say, a little green men incident in Estonia—and Europe does not respond adequately, that will be a greater disaster than a Greek exit from the euro or even a failed Ukrainian state.

  1. I think history is repeating itself as many first world countries such as the US do not punish Russia for violating post-Cold War European security. Russia is able to do what it wants with Crimea because it isn’t being faced with opposition at the moment by any of the many countries capable of stopping it. Putin is still a dictator with more power than one man should have and should be treated as such.

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