A Stagnant War: What’s Next for Ukraine?

The war in Eastern Ukraine has severely debilitated the country on virtually all fronts. Since the beginning of the Euromaidan separatist conflict in 2013, the guerilla and proxy warfare in Eastern Ukraine has rendered Kiev a sitting duck. Meanwhile, Ukraine continues to grapple with stalemate tensions with Russia, and uncertainty with the European Union (EU).

In the run up to the Euromaidan separatist protests, preparations had been made for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to sign and initiate the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement in 2013, which would establish economic and political cooperation between the EU’s member states and Ukraine. Free trade, the absolution of visa restrictions, and access to the European Investment Bank (EIB), would be some provisions amongst other perks . On November 21st 2013, the Ukrainian Parliament failed to pass the motions necessary to meet the EU’s demands for the Agreement, and Russia-backed Yanukovych suspended the signing of the document. As a result, pro-European protestors flooded the Independence Square in Kiev and violently clashed with police. Fuelled by pro-Russian separatist sentiment, the Euromaidan Revolution began.

Russia and Ukraine’s Historical Ties

Russia and Ukraine have historically benefitted from cooperation. For instance, the Cossacks, or the inhabitants of modern day Ukraine, were subsumed by the oppressive Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. To gain support for their resistance efforts against the strict regime, the Cossacks voluntarily sought a union with Russia in the 17th century. Moreover, they shared much of the culture, religion, and language with their Russian neighbours, and through the Treaty of Pereyaslav, the Cossacks formally united with the Russian Empire in 1654. In turn, the Cossacks played a crucial role in defending the Russian Empire from invasions by the Caucasian tribes, and formed coalition armies to help defeat Napoleon during his attempted invasion of Russia in 1812. To this day, the Russian Coat of Arms bears three crowns above the double-headed eagle – the centre crown representing Grand Russia (Russia), and the two peripheral crowns representing White Russia (Belarus) and Little Russia (Ukraine). 

Russian Coat of Arms

Subsequently, Lenin feared that ignoring the national aspirations of Ukrainians would endanger support for the Bolshevik Revolution, so the borders of the new Soviet Ukraine were drawn to incorporate many provinces that comprised of large numbers of ethnic Russians. In 1922, Russia and Ukraine became the primary signatories, and the two founders of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), further consolidating their relationship.

It must be noted that the Ukrainian experience as part of the USSR was tumultuous and bitter. For example, the Holodomor famine under Stalin’s regime which killed up to 7.5 million people is an especially tainted aspect of Ukrainian history. Yet, in 1954, the USSR issued a decree to transfer the Crimean Oblast from the Russian SFSR to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), which significantly increased the Russian population of Ukraine. Effectively, this transfer came to be a symbolic gesture of a gift by Soviet Russia, marking the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s unification with the Russian Empire. It goes without say that Khrushchev did not conceive that the Soviet Union would cease to exist less than 40 years later, thereby problematising this territorial hand over. As of 2015, the Crimean territorial conflict notwithstanding, over 68% of the Crimean population consists of ethnic Russians, while 84% of the population considers Russian their native language. 

Oscillating Loyalties

Relations between Ukraine and Russia have embittered over the last two decades. During the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, Russia had accused Ukraine of selling arms to the Georgian military. To add insult to injury, Russia subsequently refused to comply with Ukrainian border passing regulations, which dictated that the Russian Black Sea Fleet needed to obtain prior permission before passing the border. Shortly thereafter, Ukraine began expressing plans to employ and modernise the natural gas infrastructure between Ukraine and the EU, which Moscow vehemently opposed as it would have harmed Russia’s interests. For instance, Russia benefits from the streamlined export of over 23% of gas to the EU. Whereas, Ukraine gains from discounted gas prices since 70% of the gas exports flows through Ukrainian routes. As a reaction, Moscow has sought pipeline routes through regions south and north of Ukraine, and even increased Ukraine’s gas prices by upwards by 80% in 2014. Nonetheless, Following Yanukovych’s ousting in 2014, it was clear that Ukraine was steadfastly appropriating strict pro-EU policy, essentially leaving the country’s vast population of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the shadows.

In the wake of the 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukrainian nationalists began to engender aspirations of greater integration with the European Union and western European economies. Conditions in Ukraine, however, made these prospects unrealistic from a European perspective. While trying to walk the tight-rope between the EU and Russia, the West extended Ukraine tepid offers of cooperation, namely, the Association Agreement. This Agreement essentially committed Ukraine to economic, judicial, financial, and social reforms so as to align it with the EU. However, the Agreement offered no guarantees, and a scant prospect for future EU membership. As Russia urged Ukraine not to sign the Association Agreement, Yanukovych was compelled to sign an agreement with Russia that would grant Ukraine a multi-billion dollar loan, a boiling point which indicated Yanukovych’s ultimate flight to Russia.

Yanukovych’s acceptance of Russia’s financial aid was perceived by the nationalist public as an attempt to establish closer ties with Russia, and thereby unacceptable. As a corollary, mass protests broke out at the end of 2013 in Kiev, as well as in other major Ukrainian cities, demanding closer integration with the EU. Predictably, the instalment of a pro-European government and its reforms began to fuel more pro-Russian unrest and separatist actions. Since Ukrainian independence from the USSR, many ethnic Russians already felt pressured by the state policy of Ukrainisation, including reduction in the number of Russian schools, the vandalism of the Russian Cultural Centre in Lviv, and the state-sponsored decline of the Russian language. Today, Kiev refuses to establish Russian as the second national language despite 33% of the Ukrainian population consisting of Russian speakers. It should not have been a surprise that Russian separatists and militias swiftly exerted an equal and opposite force against the Ukrainian nationalists during Euromaidan.

Most regions in Eastern Ukraine are inhabited by native Russian speakers

The Conflict Today and Ukraine’s Options

Now, four years into the bloody conflict, the war has been stagnating. The separatist conflict has caused overwhelming strain on Ukraine’s resources, and damage to its fragile and unstable economy. According to the Washington Post, Ukraine has needed a $40 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to avoid government default. However, despite the proxy war in Eastern Ukraine, Russian food chains remain open, grocery stores in Kiev still stock Russian products, and train tickets from Kiev to Moscow are still being sold. Yet, Poroshenko maintains his dogged refusal to initiate political dialogue and bilateral relations with Russia so long as the territorial dispute persists. Moreover, Poroshenko is tenaciously pushing Ukraine towards the prospect of EU integration and NATO admission. Whilst this direction appeases Ukrainian nationalists, it ignores the interests of the Russian ethnic minority in Donbass and Eastern Ukraine. Is the prospect for joining the EU so attainable that giving Russia an ultimatum will prove beneficial for Ukraine? And is EU integration a guarantor of growth and progress? The answer is a multifaceted “no.”

The EU has given no guarantee for a possible Ukraine admission in the foreseeable future, partially because the EU has been plagued by its own internal problems. Since the Growth and Stability Pact’s inception in 1997, the majority of EU member states have either exceeded deficit or debt limits that were set out in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. Despite undertaking over 30 excessive deficit procedures since 2003, the EU has yet to apply a financial sanction against any member state for violating deficit limits. The delay in applying such restrictions is also indicative of ineffective enforcement mechanisms. Thus, the EU is anything but stable; so Ukraine would be a far cry from receiving any semblance of security should it decide to go down that route. Moreover, it is extremely unlikely that NATO will admit Ukraine, given that the organisation does not accept countries with ongoing territorial conflicts. If Ukraine wants a tangible prospect at being considered for EU and NATO membership, the war in Donbass and Eastern Ukraine will have to end. Giving Putin an ultimatum, however, is surely not the appropriate course of action to achieve that outcome.

As for an alternative, getting cozier with Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) would be an option. The EAEU’s infrastructure is supported by a single, common market for goods, services, capital, and labour, in addition to supplementary integration infrastructure like the EAEU Court, the Eurasian Development Bank (EDB), and the Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development. Putin did not conceive of the EAEU as necessarily in opposition to the European one. Instead, he saw it as “an integral part of Greater Europe, united solely by the values of freedom, democracy and market laws”. In fact, in his article in Izvetya in 2011, Putin stated that he hopes a strong EAEU would be a natural partner for the EU, potentially participating in the creation of a joint economic space stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. For example, the EAEU is planning to create a network of free trade areas (FTAs), with an already active Vietnam FTA, and plans for Israel, Singapore, South Korea, India, and China FTAs as well. A potential sign of relief for Ukraine might also be the fact that, despite being responsible for over 80% of the EAEU’s GDP, Russia only has 20% of its total voting power. A steadily progressing EAEU may prove to be a feasible partner for Ukraine, since it would aid in improving the country’s economy, while reviving its relationship with Russia.

Thus far, however, both Russia and the West have continued to play zero-sum games. However, a strain between Russian and Western relations only serves to isolate Russia, which is not in the best interests of Europe or the United States. While picking sides will most likely be inevitable for Ukraine in the long term, pragmatic action has to be taken in the short term to end the war in the east, and break diplomatic ground to facilitate compromise. Perhaps the institution of Russian as the second national language, or at least in those regions comprised primarily of ethnic Russians, would be the first small step. Granting Donbass greater autonomy could be a more sensible means by which to ameliorate the imbroglio. Ultimately, Russia and its Ukrainian diaspora need a rebalanced political playing field – a political atmosphere conducive to dialogue and diplomatic understanding from all sides – with Ukraine and the West in order to come to any progressive agreement. The longer Kiev turns a cold shoulder to Russian interests, the more mutually destructive the effects of this stagnant war will be.

Edited by Arnavi Mehta.