Ukraine, America and the ‘Island of Russia’

The confrontation between Russia and the United States on a wide range of issues is one of the realities of the modern world. The two countries proceed from fundamentally different visions of the world order and are divided on the issues of nuclear, information, energy and regional security. Although Russian-American confrontation does not preclude situation-specific cooperation, the tendency toward rivalry is expected to continue for many years to come. The old global rules may no longer apply, but some important constants remain. Among them are America’s ambitions to retain its status of global superpower and the desire of the major powers to expand their positions in the world.

The upcoming presidential election in Ukraine, as well as the no-less-important parliamentary election that will follow it, are also very significant in the context of how the rival powers understand them. For the West, which is guided by the logic of the expansion of its sphere of influence, Ukraine serves as the most important means to deter Russia and undermine its sense of pride and independence.

For Russia, the question of not including Ukraine in the Western sphere of influence (NATO, EU) remains a key for geopolitical and socio-cultural survival. The “insular” position of Russia, as Vadim Tsymbursky wrote at one time, requires the preservation of a “limitrophe” space around it. This is an indispensable condition to ensure security from external pressure for the development of “inner Eurasia”.

After five years of active opposition to Russia by the new Kiev government, Ukraine has reached an important milestone. The anti-Russian elite, united around Poroshenko, has consolidated power in its hands and will strive to preserve it. If it hopes to hold onto power, it needs to keep this notion of a Russian threat alive, even if it entails resorting to provocations. In particular, the Kerch Strait provocation in November 2018 led to a surge of nationalist sentiment inside the country, and also contributed to the cancellation of a scheduled meeting between Putin and Trump and the introduction of new sanctions against Russia.

In Western countries, especially the United States, there are forces at play that intend to “squeeze” Russia with sanctions and the cultivation of anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine. Ukraine continues to be drawn in to NATO’s military-political space. New shipments of lethal weapons to Kiev are planned. The West’s other means include sending military instructors, conducting joint exercises, the construction of a base in Ochakovo, a gradual upgrade of the Ukrainian army to Western military standards, and support for Kiev’s expectations to join the alliance. From the point of view of Washington, a scenario where Russia responds symmetrically to the aggravation in Eastern Ukraine is unlikely; this will  strengthen the position of pro-American forces in Ukraine. If Russia refrains from the use of force, then this will be considered a result of successful American diplomacy, and as evidence of the effectiveness of pressure tactics against Moscow. 

However, over the past five years, different changes have taken place in Ukraine, significantly weakening the positions of the Poroshenko regime. The economy depends on Western loans, corruption scandals are shaking the country, and public opinion is increasingly refusing to offer the president a necessary level of support. Anxiety is growing among the elites due to the inability of the authorities to offer effective ways of re-integrating the Donbass region, retrieve Crimea, improve living standards and fight corruption. At the same time, despite the anti-Russian rhetoric, Ukraine maintains a high level of trade with Russia and depends on it economically; Kiev’s extreme interest in Russian gas transit remains.

Whoever wins the presidential and parliamentary elections in Kiev, the aforementioned political and economic issues will retain their significance, giving Russia a certain advantage in terms of time. Except for responding to Kiev’s provocations, Moscow no longer needs to demonstrate military rigidity. Neither Ukraine nor the West today are ready for the resumption of active hostilities in the east of the country. Recently Kurt Volker, who visited Ukraine, warned Poroshenko against additional Kerch Strait provocations. Russia's assets include the construction of the Nord Stream-2 pipeline, the rise in pro-Russian sentiments among Ukrainians (as measured by sociologists) and the growth of Euro-Atlantic contradictions. The decisions of the White House are far from being entirely satisfactory for the European Union, which wants an early resolution of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Many Europeans prefer not to levy new sanctions against Russia, especially if they lead to the need to buy expensive American gas. Pushing Russia out of the European security space was costly for the Europeans, and this price continues to grow. Over time, the development of the described processes may make Kiev more inclined to take into account Russia's interests.

Of course, playing a long game in Europe can only be effective if Russia continues to demonstrate political and economic sustainability, in connection with active domestic and foreign policy. In modern international relations, Moscow has neither the strength nor the desire to compete with the United States for global power status. However, Russia has many opportunities to remain a great regional power. In the Eurasian, Eastern European and Black Sea-Baltic regions, Moscow has at its disposal a wide range of political, humanitarian, economic and military levers, which neither the Western countries nor other powers have. As long as this is the case, Russia will be able to use its “island” position, refraining from globalist temptations.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.