By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
What next with Ukraine
An unclassified U.S. intelligence document details some of the intelligence findings, including the positioning of what officials say could eventually be 100 battalion tactical groups, as well as heavy armor, artillery, and other equipment. Whereby Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. “We do know that he’s putting in place the capacity to do so in short order should he so decide.”
As Russian forces mass on the border with Ukraine, U.S. analysts and politicians argue about Moscow’s intentions. When the U.S. secretary of defense talks about “the Soviet Union” potentially invading “Ukraine,” the mistakes are excusable, but the optics betray a general sense of confusion.
In one crucial way, the Russian approach is equally confused, and dangerously so. Arguments against the possibility of invasion argue that it simply wouldn’t be rational, that Russian President Vladimir Putin must be cognizant of the dangers of a long and bloody war, one in which the West might well get involved.
Yet many in Russia believe the war would be swift and easy, because the Ukrainians themselves would join them. For years now, Russian state propaganda has churned out stories of how nightmarish the lives of Ukrainians are. Ukrainians, who recently elected a Jewish president, are portrayed as having their lives controlled by Nazis, agents of George Soros (a regular target of anti-Semitism), and other evil-doers. These stories are further buffeted by long-standing Russian stereotypes of Ukrainians as their little brothers who are living in an “artificial state,” with the nation portrayed as a byproduct of Soviet bureaucracy, not an organic nation like Russia itself. Ukrainians are Russia’s “fraternal brothers” and the two countries are “one people.”
Why Putin believes Ukraine was given to Russia
When the Cossack officer Bohdan Zinoviy Mykhaylovychl organized a rebellion against Polish rule in Ukraine between 1648 and 1657, it ultimately led to the transfer of the Ukrainian lands east of the Dnieper River from Polish to Russian control.1 But the revolt soon became internationalized, and Khmelnytsky eventually decided to seek a new protector. In 1654, in the town of Pereiaslav, a group of Cossack officers and their leader swore allegiance to the new sovereign of Ukraine, Tsar Aleksei Romanov of Muscovy, the second Romanov tsar. So ended the first, brief period of Ukrainian independence and began the long, complex relationship with Russia. In 1954, with great fanfare, the USSR celebrated the tercentennial of Ukraine’s “reunification” with Russia. The reality is a little more prosaic. Unlike the Polish king, the tsar was willing to grant the Cossacks privileged status and recognize their statehood. Hence Khmelnytsky’s decision to align with Muscovy. What is striking in the complex Russia-Ukraine relationship is the constant inveighing of competing for historical narratives.
In 2017, when the separatists in Southeastern Ukraine declared their independent state, they did so with a replica of Khmelnytsky’s banner.2
Why Putin’s beliefs all of the Ukraine “was given” to Russia.
Between the late eighteenth century and 1917, people who came to identify themselves as Ukrainians lived in both the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. This split historical experience is the basis for Putin’s claim to Bush that part of Ukraine is in Eastern Europe while most of it “was given” to Russia. It also explains why forming a unified Ukrainian national identity has been such a challenge since independence and why some Ukrainian citizens in the east feel more affinity with Russia than with Ukraine.
A brief period of greater autonomy for the Cossack Hetmanate ended after Peter the Great defeated the Swedes in 1709 at the Battle of Poltava, declared himself emperor in 1721, and renamed the tsardom of Muscovy the Russian Empire, thus signaling the rise of Russia as a significant European power. Those Ukrainians living under Russian rule were gradually absorbed into the Russian imperial system, and Cossack self-governing units were abolished. Russians began to call Ukrainians “little Russians.” In 1768, Catherine the Great went to war with the Ottoman Empire. For the first time, Russia gained control over today’s Donbas region in Southeastern Ukraine, the territory seized by Russian-supported separatists in 2014. Catherine called these lands, including the Port of Odesa, Novorossiya (New Russia). Russia also conquered Crimea for the first time. The peninsula had been under Ottoman rule, and its inhabitants were Muslim Crimean Tatars.
Catherine the Great’s lover, Prince Grigory Potemkin, who administered these newly acquired territories, persuaded the tsarina to visit her new conquests. In 1787, she set out from Saint Petersburg on a six-month trip to Sevastopol in Crimea, covering more than 4,000 miles by land and water. Potemkin, realizing that the trip had to be flawless, arranged for all the roofs in villages she passed on the Dnieper River to be freshly painted, the streets freshly paved, giving rise to the legend of “Potemkin villages,” or “false fronts covering a gloomy reality.” 3 Catherine was gratified as she traversed the new lands of Ukraine. A wilderness was waiting to be developed, and Potemkin planned cities on the Black Sea, attracted foreign colonists to settle in them, and began to create the fleet that would be his legacy.
As Russia conquered Southeastern Ukraine, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth began to break apart, ending in 1772 with Poland’s first of three partitions. Those Ukrainians living in Galicia were now ruled from Vienna and were called Ruthenians in most Austro-Hungarian Empire and Rusyns in the Transcarpathia region. By 1795, ethnic Ukrainians were divided between Dnieper Ukraine under the Russian tsars, where 85 percent lived, and Austria-Hungary. The social and cultural development of ethnic Ukrainians between the late eighteenth century and the Bolshevik Revolution diverged widely. Galician Ukrainians in Western Ukraine preserved their language and customs more than those Dnieper Ukrainians under imperial Russian rule in the east. They began to develop a distinct national consciousness, participating in the revolutions of 1848 and declaring their autonomy. For the next half-century, this consciousness grew. In imperial Russia, by contrast, there was little effective political activity on behalf of ethnic Ukrainians, nor was the Ukrainian language well developed. Most Russians did not consider Ukrainians a separate ethnicity. After the 1905 revolution, the first Ukrainian-language journal appeared in Kyiv. Ukrainians gained a few dozen seats in the new Duma, promoting Ukrainian causes. But the tsar soon dissolved the Duma and ended these endeavors.
Revolution, war, famine, and war again.
Vladimir Lenin promised the non-Russian ethnic groups living in the empire that if the revolution came, they would achieve independence. In March 1917, after the tsar’s abdication, representatives of Ukrainian political and cultural organizations in Kyiv composed a coordinating body, the Central Rada. The revolution came in October 1917, and the Ukrainians took Lenin at his word. Following the Bolshevik coup, the Rada proclaimed the Ukrainian People’s Republic and, in January 1918, declared Ukraine’s independence. Thus began Ukraine’s second, a brief period of Freedom from Russia during the chaotic post-revolutionary period and the civil war. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Army and the ensuing Russo-Polish War also reunited the Dnieper and Galician Ukrainians. It led to the proclamation of an independent Ukrainian state of former Russian-and Austrian-ruled parts of the country in 1919. But the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire also created a new, independent Polish state.
As the Russo-Polish War intensified, Lenin’s long-term goal of world revolution was subordinated to the imperatives of military victory over the Poles. Without Ukrainian bread and coal, that would not be easy. Ukraine’s rich black earth and abundant grain supplies were indispensable for a Russian victory. In 1920, the Poles defeated the Russians and seized lands the fledgling Ukrainian state had sought to incorporate. By the terms of the March 1921 Treaty of Riga, Poland took back Galicia, and Ukraine was again divided between Russia, Romania, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. The question of why Poland and Czechoslovakia were able to achieve independence after 1918, while Ukraine was not, is partly answered by the weakness of the Ukrainian national movement and the different historical trajectories of Galician and Dnieper Ukraine.4
Under Stalin’s rule, Soviet Ukraine experienced a brief cultural renaissance-- with increased use of the Ukrainian language in educational institutions. This was soon followed by a dark decade of famine and violence during collectivization and the purges. When Stalin began his campaign of forced collectivization of the Soviet countryside, and many peasants throughout the USSR burned their crops and slaughtered their livestock in acts of resistance against being herded onto collective farms, the regime singled out Ukraine for especially harsh treatment. Between 1932 and 1934, increasingly unrealistic grain requisition quotas were levied on Ukrainian peasants. Altogether, close to four million people in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic perished due to the ensuing famine.5 Ukrainians refer to this man-made famine as the Holodomor, a premeditated act of genocide during which Stalin deliberately targeted Ukrainians for elimination. Many Russians dispute this narrative, claiming that Stalin was essentially an equal-opportunity killer and Soviet-made famines in other parts of the Soviet Union during collectivization.
Ukrainians had barely recovered from the famine and Stalin’s purges when Germany invaded Poland under the secret terms of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, followed shortly thereafter by the USSR invading Eastern Poland and acquiring the Galician Ukrainian population. In June 1941, Hitler scrapped his agreement with Stalin, launched Operation Barbarossa, and invaded the USSR— through Belarus and Ukraine. Ukraine was, for the Nazis, the ultimate Lebensraum (living space), a territory where racially pure Germans could escape from the “unhealthy urban society” and build a racially pure society. This meant, of course, removing the local Slavic population, who they considered Untermenschen (subhumans). The Reichskommissar for Ukraine, Erich Koch, was a particularly brutal leader.6 Nevertheless, given many Ukrainians’ antipathy toward Soviet rule, some of them initially welcomed the Nazi invaders as liberators and collaborated with them. This, plus the fact that one of their nationalist leaders, Stepan Bandera, initially allied his organization with the Nazis, has fueled the current Russian narrative about “Ukrainian fascists” running the government in Kyiv. Other Ukrainians joined the resistance to the Nazis. By the time Lieutenant-General Nikita Khrushchev led Red Army troops to recapture Kyiv in November 1943, Bandera and others had grown disillusioned with the Germans.
The territorial settlement at the end of World War Two reunited Galicia and Dnieper Ukraine in the new Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Stalin had managed to secure Roosevelt’s ascent to allow Ukraine to have its own delegation at the United Nations, which gave it international status. His successor, Nikita Khrushchev, in a seeming act of generosity, made that decision in 1954 whose consequences he could not possibly have foreseen. In honor of the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereiaslav, and celebrating the “great and indissoluble friendship” of the Russian and Ukrainian people, he transferred Crimea from Russian to Ukrainian jurisdiction, making it part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.7 At that point Khrushchev was involved in an ongoing power struggle and he wanted to improve his support among Ukrainian elites. He did this not just for symbolism and sentiment but also for practical economic reasons, hoping that Ukraine was in a better geographic position to help Crimea’s struggling economy. After all, Ukraine and Crimea were connected by land, whereas Russia had no access by land to Crimea.8
In the years between Khrushchev’s rise and Gorbachev’s coming to power, Ukrainians were well integrated into Soviet society, with a disproportionately high percentage serving in the Soviet armed forces. Much of the Ukrainian intelligentsia was Russified and co-opted into the Soviet system. A quarter of the Soviet military-industrial complex was located in Eastern Ukraine. Periodically nationalist currents would assert themselves, but they would be suppressed. Mikhail Gorbachev himself embodied this Soviet reality, with a Ukrainian mother and a Russian father. When he came to power, his calls for glasnost were not immediately taken up by the more conformist Ukrainian party leadership. But events soon changed that. In 1986, the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl, including the initial cover-up that may ultimately have cost hundreds, if not thousands, of lives in Ukraine and the subsequent admission of guilt by the Soviet authorities, mobilized public opinion.9 Between 1986 and 1991, different Ukrainian nationalist groups organized themselves, pressuring for greater autonomy and, ultimately, for independence. Although much of the Ukrainian party ruling nomenklatura were reluctant nationalists, they were caught up in an accelerating process of state collapse as Soviet citizens took Gorbachev at his word and insisted on self-determination.
When asked at a lecture in the Library of Congress some years after the Soviet collapse what his greatest mistake had been, Gorbachev paused and said, “I underestimated the nationalities question.” Ever since the tsarist empire began to expand, eventually comprising more than one hundred different ethnic groups, the rulers’ challenge was to maintain centralized control over this complex mosaic of languages, cultures, and religions. The default instinct was Russification, the imposition of Russian language and culture on the population, which produced a counter-reaction and mobilized non-Russian groups to join the Bolsheviks. Eventually, history repeated itself seventy-four years later. Like Soviet leaders before him, Gorbachev believed that the federal Soviet state, which had existed since 1922, had resolved the national question by granting limited cultural autonomy to different ethnic groups. This was especially true of Ukraine, viewed as the cradle of Russian history.
But in the end, Ukraine was instrumental in the collapse of the USSR. Throughout 1990 and 1991 Gorbachev sought to negotiate a new union treaty that would have held the USSR together by granting more autonomy for the union republics. How different things might have turned out had he succeeded. But just before the vote on a new treaty, a group of disgruntled hard-line officials staged a coup against Gorbachev while he was on vacation in Crimea. Shortly after the August 1991 putsch collapsed, Ukraine’s top legislative body the Supreme Soviet, under the leadership of party chief Leonid Kravchuk, declared its independence, much to Gorbachev’s dismay.
He was not the only official to oppose the Ukrainian move. President George H. W. Bush did everything he could to keep the Soviet Union alive. The U.S. was very concerned about the security implications of a potential Soviet collapse because of the USSR’s vast nuclear arsenal. Just before the coup, in a speech in Kyiv, Bush admonished Ukrainians: “Freedom is not the same as independence. Americans will not support those who seek [independence] in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.” 10
Boris Yeltsin’s hunting lodge meeting
In December 1991, the Ukrainian people voted in a referendum for independence: 90 percent supported independence, including 83 percent in the Donetsk region and 54 percent of the population of Crimea. Shortly thereafter, Boris Yeltsin met with Kravchuk and Belarusian leader Stanislau Shushkevich in the hunting lodge in the Belavezha Forest outside Minsk. What happened at that meeting? What promises were made? Revisionist interpretations of this meeting have fueled the current Russian narrative about Crimea. While the Russian delegation arrived with proposals for a reformed Slavic union, Kravchuk was determined that Ukraine emerge from the meeting with its independence. On the first night, dinner was dominated by a vigorous debate about whether some form of a union could be preserved. Kravchuk argued with Yeltsin about whether the USSR should be completely dissolved. In the end, after two days of intense discussions, the three leaders emerged with a handwritten document (there were no typewriters in the hunting lodge) that dissolved the USSR.
The agreement on establishing a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) consisted of fourteen articles. The three leaders agreed to recognize the territorial integrity and existing borders of each independent state. So ended seventy-four years of Soviet rule. Andrei Kozyrev, Yeltsin’s foreign minister, called George H. W. Bush to give him the news. As for Gorbachev, he was furious: “What you have done behind my back with the consent of the U.S. president is a crying shame, a disgrace,” he told Yeltsin.11
Almost from the beginning, Russians began to question the legality of the hastily written agreement. They hinted that a secret addendum would have permitted changes in borders where the local population to decide this by referendum. What is indisputable is that Kravchuk’s refusal to sign a new union treaty led to the Soviet Union’s demise. For that reason, some Russians blame Ukraine for precipitating what Putin has called “a major geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century.” 12
Nuclear weapons, the disposition of the Black Sea Fleet, and Crimea.
The three signatories to the treaty that ended the USSR termed it a “civilized divorce.” But as the 1990s wore on, the Russian-Ukrainian divorce became increasingly acrimonious. Yeltsin’s main objective in convening the meeting that dissolved the USSR had been to oust Gorbachev from the Kremlin. He had not thought through the implications of ushering in an independent Ukrainian state. Four years later, it became clear that Yeltsin was having second thoughts about the security implications of the Soviet breakup. A September 1995 presidential decree, laying out Russia’s security interests in the CIS and the imperative of protecting the rights of Russians living there, stated that “this region is first of all Russia’s zone of influence.” 13 Almost from the beginning, Russian officials sought to reinforce that decision by using the extensive financial, trade, personal, political, and intelligence networks that bound the two societies together to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty and strengthen dependence on Moscow. The Russian Duma, even in its early, more pluralistic incarnation, intervened on several occasions to declare that Crimea was Russian, backed by Moscow’s powerful and outspoken mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who had extensive personal investments on the peninsula. Domestic developments inside Ukraine served to facilitate these Russian endeavors. In the 1990s, Ukraine developed a more pluralistic political system than that in Russia but one ruled by corrupt, oligarchic clans that failed to build transparent institutions of government and law strong enough to resist Russian meddling. The energy sector was particularly corrupt, with opaque middlemen, both Ukrainian and Russian, amassing fortunes from the transit system that carried Russian gas to Europe via Ukraine.14
Three issues dominated Russia-Ukraine relations in the 1990s: nuclear weapons, the disposition of the Black Sea Fleet, and Crimea. When the USSR collapsed, Ukraine was the world’s third largest nuclear state after the United States and Russia, with one-third of the Soviet nuclear arsenal and significant capacities in design and production. It had 2,000 strategic nuclear warheads and 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons. Immediately after the Soviet collapse, the fate of Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal became an urgent matter for U.S. policymakers. The prospect of “loose nukes” set off alarms in the White House. The issue dominated Washington’s policy toward Ukraine during the last year of the George H. W. Bush administration and the first years of the Clinton administration.15 The United States was determined that Russia be the only nuclear state in the post-Soviet space. That meant Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan (the latter two also had nuclear weapons on their territories) should transfer their warheads and delivery systems to Russia, which would destroy them. Initially, Washington wanted Russia to handle the negotiations with its three post-Soviet neighbors, but that proved impossible. So, in the end, the United States negotiated with all four states to accomplish denuclearization.
At the end of the USSR, acrimonious rhetoric was exchanged between Ukrainian and Russian officials, parliamentarians, and commentators; there was a concern that war-- perhaps even a nuclear conflict-- might break out. Hence the urgency the West felt to move the nuclear weapons out of Ukraine. The new Ukrainian government, suspicious of Yeltsin’s longer-term intentions, asked the Americans to give it security guarantees similar to those of NATO members-- namely that the United States would come to Ukraine’s assistance was it attacked by another power. But American officials realized that was impossible and proposed that Russia also provide Ukraine with security assurances. And so, after an arduous negotiation process, the U.S. insisted on using the word “assurances” instead of “guarantees” in the legal document that accompanied Ukraine’s denuclearization. “Assurance” implies a lesser commitment than “guarantee.” Here is where translation fails. The problem is that both Russian and Ukrainian use the same word for guarantee and assurance, leaving room for misinterpretation.
In January 1994, Bill Clinton had to twist the arms of both Yeltsin and Kravchuk to sign a trilateral agreement on the disposition of Ukraine’s nuclear weapons.16 He met with them in Moscow wearing a button that reads “Carpe Diem” (Seize the Day).17 In December of that year, the deed was finalized in Hungary with the new Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma. The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances was signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia. The three signatories agreed to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine,” “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine,” and “to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine… if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression.” 18
In June 1996, two trains carrying the last strategic nuclear warheads departed Ukraine and arrived in Russia, where the warheads were delivered to a dismantlement facility. Ukraine had given up its nuclear weapons in return for security “assurances” from Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Just how credible these were became clear in March 2014, when neither the United States nor the United Kingdom came to Ukraine’s assistance after Russia’s military incursion into Crimea and later into the Donbas region. Nor was the United Nations able to intervene, because of Russia’s veto in the Security Council. The Budapest Memorandum was a dead letter, a lesson not lost on either advocates of nonproliferation or states aspiring to become nuclear powers. Giving up nuclear weapons makes a country vulnerable to outside aggression.
The Black Sea Fleet was the second most contentious issue between Russia and Ukraine. The former jewel in Russia’s naval crown, created by Prince Potemkin and headquartered in Sevastopol, Crimea, was, in the words of the nineteenth-century London Times, “the heart of Russian power in the East.” The fleet had 350 ships and 70,000 sailors at the time of the Soviet collapse.19 Russia was determined to maintain its naval presence in Crimea. Ukraine, which had a $ 3 billion debt to Russia, mainly to Gazprom, was not in a strong bargaining position. Although Yeltsin himself understood that a compromise had to be found, he was battling his Supreme Soviet, which called for “a single, united, glorious Black Sea Fleet.” 20 In the immediate post-Soviet years, the situation was tense, as Russian and Ukrainian commanders challenged each other by raising, and then taking down, each other’s flags on their ships. Ukraine did not have the wherewithal to take over the fleet completely, and Russia would never have acquiesced to that. After a series of protracted negotiations, Yeltsin and Kuchma eventually signed an agreement in 1997 dividing the fleet. Russia agreed to lease basing facilities in Crimea, principally in Sevastopol, for its Black Sea Fleet until 2017 and would pay for the lease by forgiving part of Ukraine’s debt. When Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010, he extended the Russian lease until 2042.
Closely tied to the Black Sea Fleet issue was the dispute over Crimea. At the time of the Soviet breakup, ethnic Russians constituted 60 percent of the peninsula’s population and 70 percent of the population in Sevastopol, home to the Black Sea Fleet. For the first half of the 1990s, Russian lawmakers would vote to reincorporate Crimea into the Russian Federation, and local leaders in Crimea would declare independence from Ukraine. In May 1992, the Russian parliament declared illegal Khrushchev’s 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine, and the Crimean legislature scheduled an independence referendum-- with Moscow’s approval. Eventually, Crimea was granted the status of an autonomous republic inside Ukraine with considerable self-rule powers. But the peninsula began to suffer from economic neglect. “The Palm Springs of the Soviet Union has now become the Coney Island of Ukraine,” said a U.S. official.21
In 1997, Yeltsin and Kuchma signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership Between the Russian Federation and Ukraine. The treaty codified the border, and both sides agreed to work toward a strategic partnership. It was Yeltsin’s first official visit to Kyiv as Russian president, and he sounded a conciliatory note: “We respect and honor the territorial integrity of Ukraine.” 22 At this point Russia appeared to have reluctantly reconciled itself to the independence of a Ukraine that included Crimea. The treaty in retrospect represented the high point of Ukraine-Russia relations in the post-Soviet era. Once Putin came to power, things began to change.
The Orange revolution and the gas wars
When Putin entered the Kremlin in 2000, Ukraine’s president, Leonid Kuchma, was steering a careful course between Russia and the West. Putin traveled to Kyiv shortly after becoming president and praised the relationship with Ukraine while pointedly noting Kyiv’s outstanding gas debt to Russia.
The two presidents traveled to Sevastopol, boarded flagships of both their navies and Putin acknowledged Ukraine’s sovereignty over both Sevastopol and Crimea. It appeared to be a promising start to relations. Privately, however, Ukrainian officials expressed wariness about this unknown Kremlin leader with a KGB past.23
Ukraine’s domestic situation under Kuchma suited Moscow. Economic reform had stalled, oligarchic capitalism and corruption were on the rise, and the gas trade was arguably the most corrupt element in a system that united Russian and Ukrainian magnates. Eighty percent of Russia’s gas exports to Europe went through Ukraine. The gas trade, including gas purchased from Central Asia and then re-exported to Europe via Ukraine, was in the hands of an opaque middleman company jointly owned by Russians and Ukrainians, RosUkrEnergo (RUE). There was no “us versus them” in the gas trade, and both Russians and Ukrainians amassed large fortunes from RUE.24 Ukraine’s weak institutions, a floundering economy, and corrupt political system left it vulnerable to Russian influence. Moreover, financial and intelligence networks from the Soviet period that connected Ukrainians and Russians had survived the Soviet collapse. When Kuchma was implicated in the murder of investigative journalist Georgiy Gongadze, the United States demanded an unbiased inquiry. The Kremlin never criticized Kuchma for undemocratic practices.
But the people of Ukraine had a different view. They became increasingly frustrated with their government and its lack of accountability. In the lead-up to the 2004 presidential election, they were determined to choose a more accountable leader. Kuchma’s chosen successor was Viktor Yanukovych, a former juvenile delinquent from the Donetsk region who represented the pro-Russian part of Ukraine and spoke Russian. His main rival was Viktor Yushchenko, former central bank governor with an American wife, whose first language was Ukrainian and who represented Ukraine’s pro-Western forces. Unlike in Russia, elections in Ukraine were not “managed” and the outcome was not predetermined. The election campaign became a contest between Russia and the West. Ukraine occupied a key place in Putin’s foreign policy priorities, and he was determined that Yanukovych win. The Kremlin also mistakenly believed that tactics that had worked well in manipulating Russia’s own elections would be equally effective in Ukraine. But, in the words of outgoing president Kuchma, “Ukraine is not Russia.” 25
In July 2004, Putin effectively endorsed Yanukovych in a meeting with Kuchma. Indeed, during a visit with Putin in May, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was introduced to Yanukovych and the implication was clear: the Russian leader was communicating that he had the power to choose the next Ukrainian leader.26 Shortly thereafter, Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin-connected “political technologist” established a “Russian club” in Kyiv aimed at promoting Yanukovych and denigrating Yushchenko through aggressive media tactics. The Kremlin also offered a series of economic and political concessions to convince the Ukrainian people of the importance of cooperation with Russia. 27
The U.S. government, by contrast, did not endorse either candidate but stressed the importance of a fair, free, transparent election. Nev, U.S. NGOs, in cooperation with European civil society U.S. NGOs groups, were involved in training Ukrainian groups in activities such as parallel vote counting and election monitoring. Many U.S. officials and democracy-promotion organizations saw the Ukraine election as a test case for political transformation in the post-Soviet space, and the Kremlin understood this as a direct challenge to its influence in this neighborhood. The Soros Foundation contributed $ 1.3 million to Ukrainian NGOs, and USAID gave $ 1.4 million for election-related activities, including training the Central Election Commission.28 Russian commentators-- betraying a profound misunderstanding of how the U.S. system worked-- later conflated Soros and George Bush as jointly promoting regime change in Ukraine, apparently not realizing that in 2004 Soros was spending large sums of money in the U.S. to defeat Bush in the upcoming U.S. election. But U.S. public relations firms were also working to burnish Yanukovych’s credentials. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager in 2016, who resigned after his Ukrainian and Russian connections were exposed and was subsequently jailed as part of the Mueller investigations into the 2016 U.S. election, was hired by Yanukovych in 2004 to assist in his election campaign.29
The results of the first round of elections were inconclusive. During the interim between the first and second round, Putin personally campaigned for Yanukovych. The day after the second round, on November 22, 2004, Putin congratulated Yanukovych on his win— before the results were announced. He was duly proclaimed the winner. But all the exit polls and NGO parallel vote counting pointed to a rigged vote count, indicating that the real victor was indeed Yushchenko. Thousands of Ukrainians began congregating in sub-zero temperatures in Kyiv’s snow-covered central Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), demanding a rerun of the election. Protestors blocked access to government buildings, effectively shutting down the government for weeks. The stalemate ended when U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell chose sides for the West and announced, “We cannot accept the Ukraine election as legitimate.” 30 Thereafter, Polish president Alexander Kwasniewski and Lithuanian president Valdas Adamkus led a mediation process that resulted in a rerun of the election and Yushchenko’s victory. Four months after his installation as president, he visited Washington, spoke to a joint session of Congress, and received a standing ovation.
Moscow’s candidate had lost and Washington’s had won-- at least that is how the Kremlin saw the Orange Revolution. Putin had invested personal and political capital in backing Yanukovych but had not prevailed. For Putin, Ukraine now represented a double challenge-- to Russian foreign policy interests and to the survival of the regime itself. Yushchenko’s desire to move toward the West threatened Russia’s political and economic ties with and influence over its most important neighbor. But equally threatening was the specter of the Ukrainian people protesting against a corrupt, repressive government and bringing it down. Hence it was convenient to blame the United States for pursuing regime change in Ukraine. For example, Sergei Markov, one of the Kremlin’s “political technologists,” told an international audience in May 2005, “The CIA paid every demonstrator on the Maidan ten dollars a day to protest.” 31 The Kremlin made similar comments a decade later when the next major Maidan upheaval occurred. As Putin told the friendly American filmmaker Oliver Stone, after the Orange Revolution, “We saw the West expanding their political power and influence in those territories, which we considered sensitive and important for us to ensure our global strategic security.” 32
Putin’s relationship with Yushchenko and Yushchenko’s one-time ally and then opponent Yulia Tymoshenko remained tense for the next five years. The battle of historical narratives between Russia and Ukraine resurfaced, challenging the legitimacy of Russia’s claims. The new government revived all the arguments about Ukrainian historical identity, introducing a far more critical stance toward Russia’s role. The Holodomor-- Stalin’s man-made famine in the early 1930s-- was commemorated as a Soviet genocide against the Ukrainian people. Stepan Bandera, the wartime Nazi collaborator, was posthumously and controversially designated a “Hero of Ukraine.” Yushchenko spent much of his time traveling to Europe, seeking assistance from the E.U. and NATO, and promising economic and legal reforms. His conflicts with Prime Minister Tymoshenko ultimately led to a stalemated reform agenda and increasing Ukrainian and Western frustration with his government. Meanwhile, many of the old ties between Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs and security service personnel remained. Ukrainians who had flocked to the Maidan became disillusioned with the Orange government because its leaders spent more time abroad or quarreling with each other than implementing real reforms. When Yushchenko came into office, Ukraine rated 122nd on Transparency International’s corruption perception index. When he left office, it was ranked at 146th, on a par with Zimbabwe.33
Throughout this period, Russia retained a major source of leverage over Ukraine: the gas trade. After Yushchenko’s election, Gazprom engaged in tough negotiations with Kyiv over the price it would pay for Russian gas. Ukraine has one of the least energy-efficient economies in the developed world. Gas from Russia was heavily subsidized, and Kyiv paid one-third the price for Russian gas as Europe. As Putin said in 2005, if Ukraine wanted to join the West, why should Russia subsidize its energy? As the December 31, 2005, deadline for agreeing on a new price approached, the Ukrainians refused Gazprom’s latest offer. On January 1, 2006, Gazprom turned off the gas tap to Ukraine without informing its customers in Europe, leaving many along the pipeline route without heat in freezing temperatures. But the Kremlin miscalculated. Ukraine siphoned off supplies destined for Europe, and the Europeans blamed Russia for their shortages. Three years later, in 2009, Gazprom repeated the cutoff after another price dispute, but Europe was better prepared this time, having stored gas reserves. Nevertheless, Russia’s energy leverage over Ukraine continued to limit Kyiv’s Freedom to maneuver throughout the Yushchenko presidency.
Crimia’s seizure and the break with the West
In January 2010, Ukraine went to the polls in a presidential election viewed as a referendum on the Orange Revolution. Tymoshenko and Yanukovych were the main contenders, and Yanukovych emerged victorious after the second round. With the Obama administration pursuing its reset with Russia, Washington had no desire to have Ukraine as a contentious issue in US-Russia relations and decided to try to work with the new Yanukovych government. The Kremlin, needless to say, welcomed Yanukovych’s election, particularly since he said that his first priority was to improve ties to Russia and that Ukraine would not seek NATO membership. During his first months in office, he reversed Yushchenko-era policies that angered Moscow, such as the designation of Holodomor as a genocide, the praise for Bandera and his colleagues, and the de-emphasis on the Russian language. From Putin’s point of view, Russia now had an opportunity to reassert its influence over Ukraine.
But Yanukovych was not an easy client. He also continued to seek closer ties with the European Union, something the oligarchs from Eastern Ukraine-- who supported him-- favored because they wanted better access to European markets for their metals and industrial equipment. The Obama administration decided to scale back its involvement in Ukraine and let its European allies focus on encouraging Ukraine to commit to a reform program. After Yanukovych became president, he began negotiations with the E.U. for an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. The E.U. bureaucrats who carried out these negotiations focused on technical details, perhaps failing to comprehend the broader geopolitical impact of their actions, so there was little consideration given to how Moscow might. However, it is also true that Moscow rebuffed several E.U. attempts to bring it into these discussions. Initially, the Kremlin appeared to be indifferent to these talks. But as the negotiations neared their conclusion in 2013, the Kremlin began to focus more intensely on the content of the E.U. agreements. A critical point came when it realized they were much more far-reaching than Russia had originally understood. If Ukraine signed them, it could not join the Eurasian Economic Union and its economic relationship with Russia would be disrupted. The economies of Russia and Ukraine, especially Eastern Ukraine, are quite interdependent, and the E.U. was offering Ukraine a deal that involved a great deal of economic pain while reforms were implemented in return for a more prosperous economy somewhere further down the road.
Once the Kremlin understood the full implications of the E.U. deal, it sprung into action. Russia used a mixture of sticks, including preventing Ukrainian trucks from crossing the border to deliver goods into Russia and carrots to dissuade Yanukovych from signing the Association Agreement. They worked. On November 21, 2013, Ukraine announced that it had suspended its talks with the E.U.34 At the November 28– 29 E.U. summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Ukraine had been expected to sign the agreement, Yanukovych pulled out. 35 Soon after that, it was announced that Moscow would loan Ukraine $ 15 billion to bail out its faltering economy. The Kremlin breathed a sigh of relief. It had stopped Ukraine from moving closer to the E.U. But Putin had not reckoned with the Ukrainian street, which had mobilized to oust Yanukovych almost a decade earlier. Since his election in 2010, his administration had become increasingly corrupt. Symbolic of the regime’s excesses were his palatial estate north of Kyiv, which housed a zoo with wild boars and a mansion with ornate furnishings, marble staircases, vintage automobiles, and golden toilets. 36 Even though the palace was only opened to the public after his flight from Ukraine, Ukrainians understood the scale of corruption under which they were living, for them, signing an agreement with the E.U. meant committing to a more democratic, less corrupt Ukraine. So when they once again poured into Kyiv’s central square in protest, they called their movement EuroMaidan. Three days after Yanukovych’s announcement, 100,000 protestors went out into the streets of Kyiv.
For the next three months, the number of protestors in Maidan grew to 800,000, demanding that Yanukovych change course. Protestors ranged from pro-Western liberals to right-wing nationalists, and as the demonstrations continued, the government’s response became more violent. 37 U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and Senator John McCain both visited the protestors in the Maidan and offered food and support. U.S. secretary of state John Kerry expressed “disgust with the decision of the Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kyiv’s Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers, and batons rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity.” 38 “Yanukovych,” wrote one eyewitness, “claimed to the Western media that Maidan was filled with fascists and anti-Semites, while telling his own riot police that the Maidan was filled with gays and Jews.” 39 Things came to a head between February 18 and 20, 2014, when Ukrainian special forces and Interior Ministry snipers launched an attack on the Maidan, eventually killing one hundred people and wounding hundreds more. Today the Maidan commemorates the Heavenly Hundred with a permanent exhibition of their photographs and biographies lining the outer perimeter of the square.
Two days later, the German, French, and Polish foreign ministers arrived to try to broker a settlement between Yanukovych and opposition politicians. Russia sent former diplomat Vladimir Lukin to take part, but he did not sign the agreement negotiated by his colleagues. On February 21, Yanukovych and the leaders of three opposition parties agreed that presidential elections would be moved up to December 2014, that constitutional reform would be undertaken, and that there would be an independent investigation into the slaughter in the Maidan. The E.U. officials left convinced they had negotiated a compromise to de-escalate the crisis. They were, therefore, stunned to find out the next day that Yanukovych had fled Kyiv during the night, eventually turning up in Rostov in Southern Russia a week later.40 Apparently, his security detail had abandoned him when they realized he would soon be out of power and no longer able to protect them, and he feared for his safety. It was subsequently ascertained that he had begun packing his belongings a few days earlier. Shortly thereafter, opposition politicians announced the formation of a new government and set new presidential elections for May. In what was a provocative gesture, they also voted to deprive the Russian language of its official status—although that unwise decision was soon reversed.
The issue of how and why Yanukovych fled inflamed relations between the Kremlin and the West. Russia’s version of the facts differed radically from that of the West. Given that the Kremlin controlled all major Russian news outlets, it served a unitary and consistent diet of news. A “fascist junta” had taken over in Kyiv, illegally ousting a democratically elected president. Russian media excoriated the appearance of posters in Kyiv bearing the picture of Stepan Bandera. Russians consistently speak of a “coup” in Ukraine, orchestrated by the U.S. and E.U. The truth is more prosaic. Yanukovych was not overthrown. He simply fled. While Putin was known to hold Yanukovych in contempt, he was demonstrating that unlike Obama—who had abandoned such allies as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak during the 2011 revolution in Egypt—he would stand by his allies and welcome them to Russia.
Nevertheless, Putin was convinced that the United States and its allies were responsible for Yanukovych’s ouster. Actions by U.S. officials reinforced this view. Nuland was overheard on a phone call leaked by the Russians bluntly discussing with the U.S. ambassador in Kyiv which of Yanukovych’s opponents they should support. Since Putin was already convinced that Washington was out for regime change in the post-Soviet space, he viewed Yanukovych’s ouster as a direct threat to Russian interests. It is also likely that he feared the next Ukrainian president might renege on the deal for the Black Sea Fleet. Moreover, to have not reacted to the Maidan events and to Yanukovych’s ouster would have left him looking weak.
A few days after Yanukovych fled, and just after the Sochi Winter Olympics had ended, President Putin ordered surprise military exercises of ground and air forces on Ukraine’s doorstep. Suddenly hundreds of troops with no insignia (“little green men”) began appearing in Crimea. The decision to invade was made by Putin in consultation with only four advisers: his chief of staff, the head of the National Security Council, his defense minister, and the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB). Foreign Minister Lavrov was apparently not consulted.41 In the name of protecting Russians in Crimea from oppression by the “illegal fascist junta” in Kyiv, unidentified militiamen took over Sevastopol’s municipal buildings, raising the Russian flag, and then proceeded systematically to repeat these moves around Crimea and intimidate the Ukrainian naval forces in Sevastopol. Ukrainian forces in Crimea, on the advice of the United States, remained in garrison and did not challenge the Russians. The Russian military soon controlled the whole peninsula. After that, events moved very quickly. Crimea held a referendum in which 96 percent of the 82 percent of the eligible population who went to the polls voted to join Russia. 42 On March 18, Putin walked into the Kremlin and announced, to thunderous applause, the reunification of Crimea with Russia, proclaiming, “In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia.” 43
The stealth annexation was masterfully executed and took the world by surprise. The post—Cold War consensus on European security was at an end. The leaders of the G-8 countries were scheduled to hold their annual summit in Sochi in June. But the meeting was canceled, and the seven other members voted to expel Russia from the group. The luxury hotel built especially for the G-8 in the picturesque Caucasus Mountains in Krasnaya Polyana above Sochi stood empty. A year later, at the annual Munich Security Conference, a stone-faced Sergei Lavrov claimed that the reunification of Crimea with Russia via a referendum was more legitimate than German reunification: “Germany’s reunification was conducted without any referendum, and we actively supported this.” 44 He was greeted with boos.
Putin was now emboldened to mobilize separatist groups in the Donbas region who resented Kyiv and favored closer ties to Russia, just as Russia had done in Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. No sooner had Crimea been annexed than new groups of little green men, a motley assortment of Soviet Afghan veterans, Russian intelligence agents, mercenaries, disgruntled pro-Russian Ukrainian citizens who felt neglected by Kyiv, Cossacks, Russians from Transnistria, and Chechens dispatched by their leader Ramzan Kadyrov—began to appear in Southeastern Ukraine, particularly Donetsk and Luhansk, and repeated the Crimean scenario, systematically taking over municipal buildings. They were called separatists because they supported secession from Ukraine, but they were in fact insurgents armed by Moscow and led by often feuding Russian and Ukrainian warlords, yet with one common ambition: to wrest Southeastern Ukraine from Kyiv’s rule and reunite it with Mother Russia. The Donbas has had a particularly difficult time coping with the aftermath of the Soviet collapse and many of its inhabitants still regard themselves as Soviet, as opposed to Russian or Ukrainian, so they were receptive to these insurgents.
In the ensuing months, Russia poured troops, funding, ammunition, heavy arms, and other aid across the border to support the separatists, all the while denying that they were there at all. The Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic were proclaimed early in April 2014. Harking back to Catherine the Great’s eighteenth-century conquests, the separatists referred to this region north of the Black Sea as Novorossiya. The first separatist leader and paramilitary organizer in these operations was a Russian, Colonel Igor Girkin, who went by the nom de guerre Strelkov (Rifleman). Apart from his previous combat experience in various wars, he enjoyed participating in historical battlefield reenactments.
Who or what brought MH-17 down?
Unlike in Crimea, however, the Ukrainian Army fought back this time. The armed forces were weak because much of the Western assistance given to train and strengthen the military had previously disappeared into the black hole of corruption. There were also private paramilitary groups, such as the Azov Battalion, which played a major role in recapturing territory from the separatists and was eventually incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard. In May 2014, in the midst of what was now a full-fledged war in Southeastern Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, a confectionery magnate and former prime minister known as the “chocolate king,” was elected president. One of his first acts was to go to Brussels and sign the Association Agreement that Yanukovych had spurned. As the fighting raged in the Donbas, disaster struck in the air. On July 17, a Malaysia Airlines flight took off from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport bound for Kuala Lumpur. It was shot down over the war zone in Southeastern Ukraine. Many of its 298 passengers were traveling to a major AIDS conference in Canberra and one of the world’s leading AIDS researchers was on board. Local residents described pieces of debris and body parts hurtling out of the sky onto fields covered with sunflowers. Everyone on board perished. The once bucolic landscape was now a killing field guarded by heavily armed separatists, who initially prevented any access to the crash site. Who or what brought MH-17 down? Immediately the tragedy became part of the information war between Russia and the West. Reconnaissance photography showed that the plane was shot down by a sophisticated Buk anti-aircraft missile and the missile had been transported from Russia.45 The Ukrainian government had recordings of separatist leaders reporting to their Russian superiors that they had mistakenly shot down a plane they had believed to be a Ukrainian Antonov military transport, not a commercial airliner.46 Russia vigorously denied that it had anything to do with the tragedy and blamed the Ukrainian Army. The majority of victims were from the Netherlands, and the anger of the Dutch people at constant Russian prevarications was such that Putin’s elder daughter, Maria, who was living with her Dutch partner in Amsterdam at the time, had to return to Russia after a Facebook campaign revealed her address.47 Several inquiries into the cause of the crash have been hampered by the lack of Russian cooperation. Like so many issues connected to the Ukraine crisis, the Kremlin continues to deny any involvement, a source of endless frustration to those seeking a solution to the conflict and restitution for the lives lost.
The Ukrainians continued to battle the separatists and, by August 2014, appeared to be in sight of regaining control of the Donbas. But by late August, regular units of the Russian Army crossed the border, attacked the Ukrainian forces, and regained separatist territory. In September, a cease-fire agreement was signed in Minsk by Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine, but by December heavy fighting had resumed. Another cease-fire, Minsk II, was signed in February 2015 and remains the only basis for a settlement on the table. But even in the three days between its signing and implementation Russian and separatist forces launched a major assault on a key Ukrainian transport junction between Donetsk and Luhansk and captured it. By the terms of the Minsk agreement, each side was required to withdraw its heavy weapons behind the line of contact, to exchange all prisoners and hostages, and to allow OSCE officials to monitor the implementation. Foreign forces and equipment were to be withdrawn, there was to be constitutional reform in the disputed region, and Ukraine was to regain full sovereignty over its border with Russia.48 The Minsk II agreement applies only to the war in the Donbas. It does not mention Crimea. There is a tacit consensus in the West that, although the West will refuse to recognize Crimea’s annexation, it will be a very long time—if ever—before Crimea is reunited with Ukraine. Only a handful of countries—including Cuba, North Korea, and Syria—have recognized its incorporation into Russia.
Since February 2015, fighting in Ukraine has continued intermittently, and the OSCE has been constantly thwarted by the separatists in its attempts to monitor the cease-fire. The Minsk II agreement has barely begun to be implemented. Russia and Ukraine disagree on the sequencing of implementation because the agreement itself is vague on that score. Moscow says Kyiv must introduce far-reaching decentralizing reforms and special status to the Donbas—which would give the region a virtual veto over Ukraine’s foreign policy—before Ukraine can regain control over its own border. Kyiv says it will not begin to introduce constitutional reforms until the Russians have withdrawn behind the border. Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia meet regularly at various levels, and all agree that Minsk II must be fulfilled—but virtually nothing happens. The United States has had its own bilateral channel with Russia to discuss Minsk II implementation with Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s close colleague and author of the “sovereign democracy” concept, who manages the separatists. Many observers fear that the situation in the Donbas has already turned into a frozen conflict similar to those in Georgia and Moldova, where Russia supports separatists who make it impossible for the governments in the titular state to have full control over their territory. Others question how “frozen” the conflict is. In July 2017, Kurt Volker, newly appointed Trump administration special envoy for Ukraine, said after visiting Southeastern Ukraine, “This is not a frozen conflict, this is a hot war, and it’s an immediate crisis that we all need to address as quickly as possible.” 49
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has abandoned the idea of creating a Novorossiya as it was in Catherine’s time. Instead, in July 2017 the separatists proclaimed a new state of “Malorossiya” (Little Russia), which would encompass most of Ukraine. Russian officials disavowed this move, highlighting the opaque nature of Moscow’s control over the separatists. Some Ukrainians and their supporters in North America have begun to question whether it really is in Kyiv’s interest to try to regain control over the impoverished, battle-scarred, unruly Donbas. Since the beginning of the conflict, so this argument goes, Kyiv is “no longer obliged to sustain a rust belt that once drained its coffers, endure the region’s corrupt oligarchs, political elites, and criminal gangs, or appease its pro-Soviet and pro-Russian population.” 50
Russia has suffered economically from its invasion of Ukraine. After the annexation of Crimea, the United States imposed sanctions on individuals close to Putin. But the more serious financial sanctions came after the MH-17 crash. The new sanctions, imposed by the U.S. and Europe sharply restricted access for Russian state banks to Western capital markets, a major source of foreign lending. Under the sanctions, E.U. and U.S. firms were barred from providing financing for more than thirty days to the country’s key state-owned banks. This has severely limited the banks’ ability to finance major projects. Russia’s energy sector was also targeted. Sanctions prohibited access to certain energy technologies and participation in deep-water Arctic oil shale development, ending Rosneft’s collaboration in the Arctic with ExxonMobil. In retaliation, Russia imposed counter-sanctions on European agricultural imports, and the Kremlin used this to encourage domestic production of high-end agricultural products. Indeed, at the 2017 Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum, in what became known as the “cheese ambush,” a Russian farmer accosted the U.S. ambassador John Tefft and proudly handed him a large cheese wheel, explaining that he had been able to produce it because of the ban on competing cheeses from Europe. The ambassador, though taken by surprise, was a consummate diplomat and explained that he was from the cheese-producing state of Wisconsin and graciously accepted the gift.
Can the Ukraine Crisis be resolved?
At the 2014 G-20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, Putin endured hours of criticism from Western leaders about Ukraine and left the summit early. Yet it was, of course, impossible to isolate him, given Russia’s relationship with China and other countries. And his calculation-- proven correct-- was that he could ride out this initial wave of ostracism, knowing full well that in the end, the West would have to deal with him. The Russian leader has patience. The West would have to seek him out again, particularly after Russia launched its air strikes in Syria in September 2015. The 2017 Hamburg G-20 meeting proved him right. He was center stage, sought out by most leaders, held a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with President Trump, and attended many other bilateral meetings.
The Ukraine war has been particularly challenging for the West because Russia repeatedly denies that it is directly involved. Ukraine is a new type of “hybrid” war, combining cyber warfare, a powerful disinformation campaign, and the use of highly trained special forces and local proxy forces. The Russians sought to mask the reality of what was happening by having “little green men” invade Crimea and the Donbas, claiming that the Russian soldiers who were observed fighting in the Donbas were “on vacation,” asserting that trucks going to and from Ukraine were carrying “humanitarian supplies” instead of weapons and men, accusing Ukraine of shooting down MH-17, and burying dead Russian soldiers in unmarked graves without informing their families.51 Ukraine and the West understand that Russia is dissembling and that there have been as many as tens of thousands of Russian troops in the Donbas, but the constant barrage of state-run Russian television news tells another story, not only to Russia’s own population but to those around the world. In Oliver Stone’s four-hour television interview with Putin, for instance, the narrative is Putin’s. The audience is told that the separatists are fighting alone, mobilized by the “coup d’état” in Kyiv, and Putin questions whether MH-17 was indeed shot down.
In May 2018, the Australian and Dutch governments published a report detailing the results of their years-long investigations into the MH-17 downing. Its conclusion was unambiguous: “The Netherlands and Australia hold Russia responsible for its part in the downing of flight MH-17.” 52 A Dutch police official went further. The investigative team, he said, “has come to the conclusion that the Buk TELAR by which MH-17 was downed originated from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade from Kursk, in the Russian Federation. All of the vehicles in the convoy carrying the missile were part of the Russian armed forces.” 53 The report did not specify who fired the missile, but several media outlets named a high-level Russian GRU officer tied to the downing.54 Russia continues to deny that it had anything to do with the crash.55 When Putin was asked at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum about whether a Russian missile had downed the plane, he replied, “Of course not!” 56
There are few signs that Russia is interested in resolving the Ukraine crisis. Continuing conflict makes it difficult for the Poroshenko government to function, and the Kremlin wants a weak, divided Ukraine. Russia and the West have discussed the possibility of deploying U.N. Peacekeeping troops to the Donbas, but there is no agreement on where these troops should be stationed or what their remit would be. Western sanctions are tied to Minsk II implementation, but although Putin would like sanctions lifted, he apparently is not willing to moderate Russian policy toward Ukraine. Former secretary of state Rex Tillerson suggested that the U.S. administration should not be “handcuffed” if Russia and Ukraine work out their differences bilaterally outside the Minsk II structures. 57 But prospects for such a deal also appear remote. Putin has indicated that Russia might withdraw to its side of the border if both the Donetsk and the Luhansk People’s Republics are granted wide-ranging autonomy, including leverage over foreign policy decisions made in Kyiv. But Poroshenko does not have the votes in the Rada to pass such legislation, even if he wanted to. Thus Moscow blames Kyiv for failing to implement Minsk II, and Kyiv blames Moscow. Meanwhile, all sides realize that the Crimean issue will not be resolved for a very long time.
Russia has also indicated that a precondition for Ukraine regaining sovereignty over its territory would be a pledge not to seek NATO membership and revert to the “non-bloc” status it had until Yushchenko came to power. However, Poroshenko in July 2017 committed Ukraine to seek NATO membership by 2020. It is not at all clear that NATO wants Ukraine. The idea that Ukraine should “Finlandize”-- that is, accept a status similar to that of neutral Finland during the Cold War-- has been advocated by two U.S. statesmen who often did not agree with each other: the realist Henry Kissinger and the more ideological Zbigniew Brzezinski. 58 Viktor Pinchuk, prominent Ukrainian oligarch and son-in-law of Leonid Kuchma, has also argued that Ukraine must give up its aspirations to join the E.U. and NATO if it wants the war to end. 59 In fact, neither E.U. nor NATO membership is on offer for Ukraine, nor will they be for the foreseeable future. But the specter of the United States, Russia, NATO, and the E.U. agreeing to keep Ukraine neutral is disconcerting. It resurrects the ghosts of Yalta and the division of Europe into great power spheres of influence, with limited sovereignty for the countries that lie in the E.U.’s and Russia’s common neighborhood. It would signal that the post-- Cold War international order, which Russia seeks to undermine, is indeed over. There is also no guarantee that such an agreement would curb Russia’s appetite for increasing its influence in the post-Soviet space and continuing to undermine Ukraine’s ability to function as an independent state.
Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Russia’s stake in Ukraine is far greater and more compelling than is that of the United States or many members of the E.U. Ukraine is an existential question for Russia, as Russia is for Ukraine.
Kyiv is 5,000 miles away from Washington, and until now Ukraine has not been considered a core interest for the United States. There is not much ambiguity there. The U.S. and its allies will continue to support Ukraine’s independence, territorial integrity, and political and economic development, but they will draw a line at taking actions that would involve any military conflict with Russia. Berlin is only 750 miles from Kyiv but will continue to oppose any NATO membership for Ukraine. So despite the tensions in Russia’s relations with the West that have increased since 2014, Putin knows there is a limit to how far the West will go to counter Russian actions, as the reaction to Russia’s seizure of the Kerch Straits showed.
No short-term solution to the Ukraine crisis appears to be on the horizon. Disillusionment with the lack of reforms and persistence of corruption has largely soured the people who came to the Maidan in 2013. The E.U. and the United States continue to deal with the “Ukraine fatigue” that periodically emerges when Ukrainian leaders make verbal promises to reform but do not act on them. But Russia’s actions have also served to integrate the heirs to the Dnieper and Galician Ukraine. Ukrainian national identity has become more unified in reaction to the Russian invasion and occupation of their country. The West may be dealing with a frozen conflict that sometimes becomes hot for some time to come-- but that might be a preferred option in Putin’s world. Even when Tass recently claimed that Russia (in spite of by international law, it is occupying Crimea) does not even as much as occupy ‘any’ Ukrainian territory.
In the end, however, one should not forget that in the two decades that have seen the rise of Putin’s world, several lessons have become clear. Isolating Russia and refusing to deal with it, however appealing that may appear to some, is not an option. The West, therefore, should encourage a wider dialogue with Russians wherever possible. Above all, it should be prepared for surprises in dealing with Russia and agile enough to respond to them, just as Putin’s judo mastery has taught him how to prevail over an indecisive opponent. In Putin’s world, it is prudent to expect the unexpected.
As for the elections, following the Russian occupation of Crimea and military intervention in the east of the country, there was a widely shared perception that the Ukrainian political system has tilted towards the Ukrainian-speaking West. That was certainly the thinking behind President Petro Poroshenko’s decision to emphasize nationalist politics in his re-election campaign and try to win over the votes of the Ukrainian-speaking (and supposedly more nationalistic) part of the population in the country’s center and West.
Recent surveys however show that more than half of Ukrainians actually have a positive attitude toward Russia. Even back in conflict-ridden 2017, the same number of Ukrainians named Russia as a military ally as they did the United States.
All this gives us a picture of a rather different Ukraine to the one Poroshenko was appealing to with his triple patriotic slogan, “Army! Language! Faith!” There is much less public enthusiasm for Ukraine’s five-year war with Russia. Servant of the People shows that language is more important for the intelligentsia, who has overseen the country’s emancipation from the Russian language for a century than it is for ordinary people. The characters in Servant of the People, which was filmed for the domestic market, speak Russian but watch the news in Ukrainian or switch to Ukrainian in official situations. Finally, Ukraine is more religious than Russia, and many were pleased to finally get their own independent Orthodox Church--but ultimately, the final part of Poroshenko’s slogan, faith, is still less important to most than the economy, medicine, or transport might have been.
So is all this good news for Russia and Putin? Yes and no. There were expectations in Russia that Ukrainian public opinion would cool down after the Maidan revolution and get over the damage inflicted by Russia when it annexed Crimea and supported separatism in Ukraine’s Donbas region. The hope was that Ukraine’s silent majority would find their voice at the secret ballot. The winner would not be a pro-Russian party nor the party of peace (this is tricky as long as there is no end in sight to the conflict in Donbas) but the party of geography. These are people who believe that Ukrainian politics should be built more on the country’s geographical position than on idealist aspirations. You can do everything possible to be European and as far from Russia as possible, but those wishes won’t magically transport Ukraine next door to Austria or Belgium. It will stay just where it is, next to Russia.
That change of mentality will be welcomed in Russia. Yet, in the longer run, Zelensky could prove a much less convenient opponent for the Kremlin than Poroshenko is. Putin projects himself as the leader of global populism, but at home, he increasingly lacks the popular touch. Surrounded by circumspect technocrats and a close circle of billionaires, the president is the object of populist derision. Unknown spoiler candidates are already winning regional elections in Russia, and demand is building for a people’s candidate at the federal level.
Meanwhile, the White House has announced President Joe Biden will hold video talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to discuss Ukraine and other issues. Press Secretary Jen Psaki issued a statement on Saturday saying the leaders will discuss a range of topics including strategic stability, cyber, and regional issues. She also said President Biden will underscore US concerns with Russian military activities on the border with Ukraine and reaffirm American support for the sovereignty of Ukraine.
Update 11 December: Washington's top diplomat for Europe and Eurasian affairs Karen Donfried will be in Kyiv and Moscow on 13 and 14 December to meet senior government officials and to reinforce the United States' commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity. She allegedly will emphasize that we can make diplomatic progress on ending the conflict in the Donbas through the implementation of the Minsk agreements in support of the Normandy Format.
The 2015 Minsk Agreement aimed at halting fighting inside Ukraine, bolstered by the Normandy Format - a diplomatic push by France and Germany to end the conflict.
1. Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, 2017, 98– 100.
2. “From ‘Malorossiya’ with Love?” Digital Forensic Research Lab, July 18, 2017, https://medium.com/dfrlab/ from-malorossiya-with-love-8765ed30242d.
3. Marvin L. Kalb, Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine, and the New Cold War (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2015), 55.
4. Plokhy, The Gates of Europe, 226– 27.
5. Plokhy, The Gates of Europe, 253.
6. Paul Robert Magocsi, A History of Ukraine: The Land and Its Peoples, 2014, 574.
7. Mark Kramer, “Why Did Russia Give Away Crimea Sixty Years Ago?” Cold War International History Project, Wilson Center, March 19, 2014, https:// www.wilsoncenter.org/ publication/ why-did-russia-give-away-crimea-sixty-years-ago.
8. Plokhy, The Gates of Europe, 298– 99.
9. Roger Highfield, “25 Years After Chernobyl, We Don’t Know How Many Died,” New Scientist, April 21, 2011, https:// http://www.newscientist.com/article/ dn20403-25-years-after-chernobyl-we-dont-know-how-many-died/.
10. Reuters, “After the Summit; Excerpts from Bush’s Ukraine Speech: Working ‘for the Good of Both of Us,’” New York Times, August 2, 1991, http:// http://www.nytimes.com/ 1991/08/02/world/after-summit-excerpts-bush-s-ukraine-speech-working-for-good-both-us.html?pagewanted=all
11. Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 306– 15.
12. “Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation,” President of Russia website, April 25, 2005, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/ transcripts/ 22931.
13. Samuel Charap and Timothy Colton, Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2016), 56.
14. Global Witness, It’s a Gas: Funny Business in the Turkmen-Ukraine Gas Trade, https:// http://www.globalwitness.org/en/reports/its-gas/.
15. Steven Pifer, The Eagle and the Trident: US-Ukraine Relations in Turbulent Times (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2017).
16. “Rossisko-Amerikanskii Dialog v Kremle,” Krasnaia Zvezda, January 14, 1994.
17. Strobe Talbott, The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy (New York: Random House, 2002), 114. See “Tri Prezidenta Stavit v Kremle Posledniuiu Tochku v Kholodnoi Voini,” Izvestiia, January 15, 1994.
18. Steven Pifer, The Eagle and the Trident: U.S.—Ukraine Relations in Turbulent Times, 2017, 70.
19. Celestine Bohlen, “Ukraine Agrees to Allow Russians to Buy Fleet and Destroy Arsenal,” New York Times, September 4, 1993, http:// http://www.nytimes.com/ 1993/ 09/ 04/ world/ ukraine-agrees-to-allow-russians-to-buy-fleet-and-destroy-arsenal.html.
20. Pifer, The Eagle and the Trident, 31.
21. Angela E. Stent, “Ukraine’s Fate,” World Policy Journal 11, no. 3 (Fall 1994): 83– 87.
22. Michael Specter, “Setting Past Aside, Russia and Ukraine Sign Friendship Treaty,” New York Times, June 1, 1997, http:// http://www.nytimes.com/1997/06/ 01/world/setting-past-aside-russia-and-ukraine-sign-friendship-treaty.html.
23. Pifer, The Eagle and the Trident, 197– 98.
24. Margareta M. Balmaceda, Energy Dependency, Politics, and Corruption in the Former Soviet Union (New York: Routledge, 2008).
25. Andrew Fedynsky, “Perspectives,” Ukraine Weekly, September 21, 2003, http:// http://www.ukrweekly.com/old/archive/2003/380316.shtml.
26. Condoleezza Rice, No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington (New York: Random House, 2011), 358.
27. Andrei Litvinov, “Vybory. Vladimir Putin Ukazal Viktoru Ianukovychu Na Mesto,” Gazeta 188, October 11, 2004.
28. Oleksandr Sushko and Olena Prystayko, “Western Influence” in Anders Aslund and Michael McFaul, ed., Revolution in Orange: The Origins of Ukraine’s Democratic Breakthrough (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006).
29. Kenzi Abou-Sabe, Tom Winter, and Max Tucker, “What Did Ex-Trump Aide Paul Manafort Really Do in Ukraine?” NBC News, June 27, 2017, http:// http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/what-did-ex-trump-aide-paul-manafort-really-do-ukraine-n775431.
30. Steven R. Weisman, “Powell Says Ukraine Vote Was Full of Fraud,” New York Times, November 25, 2004, http:// http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/25/ politics/powell-says-ukraine-vote-was-full-of-fraud.html.
31. Angela E. Stent, The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 115.
32. Oliver Stone and Robert Scheer, The Putin Interviews, 2017, 175.
33. Rajan Menon and Eugene Rumer, Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order (Cambridge, MA and London, UK: MIT Press, 2016), 38.
34. “Ukraine Ditches Plans for EU Deal, Turns to Russia,” Sputnik, November 21, 2013, http:// en.ria.ru/ russia/ 20131121/ 184845623/ Ukraine-Rejects-Laws-to-Free-Tymoshenko-Jeopardises-EU-Deal.html.
35. “Joint Declaration of the Eastern Partnership Summit, Vilnius, 28– 29 November 2013,” Lithuanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, archives, December 2, 2013, http://www.eu2013.lt en news/statements/-joint-declaration-of-the-eastern-partnership-summit-vilnius-28-29-november-2013.
36. “In Pictures: Inside the Palace Yanukovych Didn’t Want Ukraine to See,” The Telegraph, 2014, http:// http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ ukraine/10656023/In-pictures-Inside-the-palace-Yanukovych-didnt-want-Ukraine-to-see.html? frame=2834873.
37. “Demokraticheskii Gosperevorot v Ukraine,” http://ru-an.info/.(/novosti/gosudarstvennyi-perevorot-v-ukraine-podgotovlen-sionistskoi-mafiei).
38. “Kerry’s Statement on Ukraine,” New York Times, December 10, 2013, http:// http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/11 world/europe kerrys-statement-on-ukraine.html.
39. Marci Shore, The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 69.
40. Senior German diplomat, who was present at the talks, in conversation with the author. The European side believed that Yanukovych had signed the agreement in good faith.
41. Mikhail Zygar, All the Kremlin’s Men (New York: PublicAffairs, 2016), 275.
42. Many Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars were prevented from voting, so these official Russian figures should be treated with caution.
43. “Address by President of the Russian Federation,” President of Russia website, March 18, 2014, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/20603.
44. Sergey Lavrov, “Speech by Sergey Lavrov at the 51st Munich Security Conference,” Voltaire Network, February 7, 2015, http:// http://www.voltairenet.org/ article186844.html.
45. Sabrina Tavernise and Noah Sneider, “Bodies from Malaysia Airlines Flight Are Stuck in Ukraine, Held Hostage over Distrust,” New York Times, July 20, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/ 07/ 21/world/ europe/ malaysia-airlines-jet-ukraine.html?r=0.
46. “Intercepted Audio of Ukraine Separatists,” New York Times, July 17, 2014, video, 2: 13, http:// http://www.nytimes.com/video/world/europe/ 100000003007434/intercepted-audio-of-ukraine-separatists.html.
47. Will Stewart, Jill Reilly, and Gordon Darroch, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?[…],” Daily Mail, July 25, 2014, http:// http://www.dailymail.co.uk/ news/article-2705308/How-solve-problem-like-Maria-Putin-s-daughter-said-fled-Holland-boyfriend-Dutch-fury-Russia-s-response-MH17-disaster.html.
48. “Full Text of the Minsk Agreement,” Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/ content/21b8f98e-b2a5-11e4-b234-00144feab7de
49. Natalia Zinets and Matthias Williams, “Russia to Blame for ‘Hot War’ in Ukraine: U.S. Special Envoy,” Reuters, July 23, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/ us-ukraine-crisis-volker-idUSKBN1A80M4.
50. Alexander J. Motyl, “Kiev Should Give Up on the Donbass,” Foreign Policy, February 2, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/02/02/ukraine-will-lose-its-war-by-winning-it/.
51. Terence McCoy, “What Does Russia Tell the Mothers of Soldiers Killed in Ukraine? Not Much.” Washington Post, August 29, 2014.
52. “MH17: The Netherlands and Australia Hold Russia Responsible,” Ministry of General Affairs, Government of the Netherlands, May 25, 2018, https:// http://www.government.nl/ topics/ mh17-incident/news/2018/05/25 mh17-the-netherlands-and-australia-hold-russia-responsible.
53. Michael Birnbaum, “Dutch-Led Investigators Say Russian Missile Shot Down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014,” Washington Post, May 24, 2018.
54. Kevin G. Hall, “Russian GRU Officer Tied to 2014 Downing of Passenger Plane in Ukraine,” McClatchy DC Bureau, May 25, 2018, http:// http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news nation-world/world/ article211836174. html.
55. “Rossii Prizvali Dokazat’ chto Obvinenia Protiv Moskvy po Delu MH 17 Lozhnye,” https://ria.ru/mh17/20180610/1522491823.html.
56. Joost Akkermans and Henry Meyer, “Putin Rejects Dutch, Australian Claim of Russia Role in MH17,” Bloomberg, May 25, 2018, https:// http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-05-25/netherlands-australia-hold-russia-liable-for-its-part-in-mh17-jhlqz5ti Bloomberg news.
57. Patricia Zengerle, Reuters, “U.S. doesn’t want to be ‘handcuffed’ to Ukraine agreement,” https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-diplomacy-tillerson-idUSKBN19528J
58. Henry A. Kissinger, “To Settle the Ukraine Crisis, Start at the End,” Washington Post, March 5, 2014.
59. Victor Pinchuk, “Ukraine Must Make Painful Compromises for Peace with Russia,” Wall Street Journal, December 29, 2016, https://www.wsj.com/articles/ ukraine-must-make-painful-compromises-for-peace-with-russia-1483053902.