Ukraine Is Not the Only Battlefield Between Russia and the West

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Until the crisis in Ukraine, the EU and Russia were not geopolitical competitors. In one “big bang” enlargement in 2004, the EU expanded its membership to include ten new countries, many of them former Soviet satellites and three republics of the former Soviet Union.

In the subsequent years, EU membership was granted or promised to several other countries in southeast Europe, including Russia’s historical allies. Moscow’s reaction to this was muted or, in some cases, barely noticeable—in sharp contrast to its response to many of the same nations’ accession to NATO. The only issue arose when Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave, became surrounded by EU territory, and a transit agreement had to be negotiated.

Why is Ukraine different? To the Russian establishment, and to President Vladimir Putin personally, Ukraine lies east of the line that marks the extent of Western civilization in Europe.

Alongside Belarus and Russia itself, Ukraine is part of the historical core of the Eastern Slav / Orthodox world that Putin and the Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, commonly refer to as the “Russian world.” The term “Russian” used here—and in the name of the church—is broader than ethnic Russian. It descends from the mediaeval name “Rus,” which described the eastern Slav realm of Kievan princes, a more durable and slightly later version of Charlemagne’s empire.

Putin was prepared to live with a Ukraine that was essentially a buffer zone between Russia and the EU. Even the prospect of Yulia Tymoshenko replacing the ousted President, Viktor Yanukovych, as the end result of the February 21 agreement did not worry Putin too much. He had dealt with Tymoshenko as prime minister. He had even preferred her to Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential elections. He would deal with her again, if necessary.

Putin, of course, loathed the method of change of leadership in Ukraine: revolutionary violence is always a bad example, particularly next door, but he looked forward to continuing his tactical maneuvering in Ukraine in an effort to eventually win it over to his side.

Then something unexpected happened. The radical nationalists in Ukraine’s Right Sector coalition refused to support the February 21 accord and Yanukovych, abandoned by the oligarchs, in turn abandoned his own supporters and fled from Kiev.

The power of these radicals demonstrated to Putin how much Ukraine had changed since the Orange revolution a decade ago. He saw a threat of Galicia, or western Ukraine, which lies west of Europe’s “civilizational boundary,” taking over the entire country and turning it into an anti-Russian force. He also watched the EU, whose three foreign ministers had witnessed the February 21 accord, to wash its hands off it when the radicals scrapped it. Immediately, Moscow’s policies changed from passive to hyperactive and contingency plans long prepared for the possibility of Ukraine making a decisive step toward NATO membership have apparently been activated.

With Crimea now incorporated into the Russian Federation, Putin may have no need to execute his authority to send the Russian military forces into eastern or southern Ukraine. This does not mean, however, that the geopolitical battle for Ukraine between the West and Russia is now over, with Crimea going to Moscow and Kiev aligning itself with Washington and Brussels. As before, Moscow can live with a Ukraine that is “neutral” while having close links with Russia, but it will not accept a Ukraine that is leaning to the West. The only compromise the Kremlin would consider is allowing Galicia to secede and join the West on its own, in whatever way and form it wants.

The battle for Ukraine promises to be a long and hard one. This, however, will not be the only battleground between Russia and the West. Moldova exhibits some striking similarities with Ukraine. Transnistria, a region attached to the Soviet Moldovan republic by Stalin and which broke away from Chisinau even before the breakup of the Soviet Union, wants to join Russia. By contrast, the government in Chisinau is looking west, both to the EU and now also to NATO. But it is being challenged by a pro-Russian communist-led opposition. The stalemate along the Dniester river and the periodic alternation in power in Chisinau of pro-western and pro-Russian parties will not continue indefinitely. The Ukrainian crisis and the Crimea annexation have changed the pace of developments there as well.

Thus, what originated as the European Union’s modest Eastern Partnership program has inspired civic and nationalist movements, demolished delicate balances within elites, presented Russia with a specter of Western threat, and provoked a geopolitical avalanche. The result, in the long run, is likely to be the end of the notion of the “lands between” Russia and the EU. Hard and painful choices are now unavoidable.



Comments (18)

  • Jaba Devdariani
    The role of the Eastern Partnership in "presenting Russia with a specter of the Western threat" seems quite exaggerated. Launched in 2009 it came way after Georgia's 2003 Rose and Ukraine's 2004 Orange revolutions. Far from idealising these events, one should admit that they genuinely expressed the fatigue of the majority of populations agains the corrupt and innefective local models of governance. It is the patent failure of these post-Soviet models that inspired civic and statist-nationalist movements in the younger elite. Russia has been no exception: the difference is that in a resource rich country tightened order and higher profit distribution helped build and sustain Putin's "vertical of power" - essentially also a statist peoject. That the "specter of the West" is alive, and the feeble Eastern Partnership so attractive, is a testimony for President Putin's failure to propose a credible alternative model in his neighborhood, apart from direct subjugation. The attractiveness of this alternative is not going to improve after Crimea.
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  • Otto Kern
    If one analyzes the battle over Ukraine and Crimea: the victor seems to be Russia and Putin. The swiftness of the decision-making process was impressive.

    Now the West can show how to modernize and democratize Ukraine, and Putin can show to the world the same.

    And foremost: Who will be more successful in economic terms, especially in terms of standard of living. Possibly the Crimea costs Russian some tens of millions per annum but the West will have to pay billions to develop the Ukraine with all the turmoil of the diverse ethnicities.

    Although there will be no war over Crimea, this what now happened will weaken the West in a way the normal EU-citizen has still no idea about and I'm not sure whether all the politicians in the West are conscious about that.

    One thing is very clear: China is already the winner. I don't mind at all. I only hope that any future step Russia takes will be in close contact with China and the other BRICS states.

    As a German national I do feel sorry for my country and my countryfellowmen because we have to pay for the mess the American government caused. Possibly the words of Fuck-the-EU-Nuland were not addressed only towards Russia but even more towards the EU. The EU is militarily weak but the EU is still the greatest economic rival of the US (although it' going to be surpassed by China).

    There might be another side-effect: The sanctions might help Putin in his fight against corruption. Sometimes history is a very paradoxical process and brings about results the originators didn't think of.

    Otto Kern
    DE-37412 Herzberg-die Esperantostadt
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    • bilihor replies...
      "This time he reacted to the belligerent Russophobia of the rightist radicals in Kyiv and those who supported them, enjoying an ephemeral victory. "

      He IS the corruption. How that can help him to fight himself?
  • Kryvonis

    Hindsight is twenty-twenty — but I imagine when you wrote, three weeks ago:

    "Despite what some Ukrainians suspect, Moscow is unlikely to try bringing about the breakup of Ukraine in order to annex its southern and eastern parts. That would mean civil war next door, and Russia abhors the idea..." yourself didn't appreciate how overdue you were for an optometrist's exam.

    But, new lunettes in place, if you're still hunting for radicals, extremists and fascists, you'll find very rich game lurking in the thickets of the Russian Federation's Election Monitoring Team, deployed in Ukraine during the last Presidential elections, and the only "international" observers permitted to witness the Crimean "referendum". It's difficult to find a single member of that hallowed and impartial body who hasn't, in the not-so-distant past, been photographed against the backdrop of a swastika, which makes every furrow on Putin's and Lavrov's brows over anti-semitism in Ukraine a tasteless joke.

    Now, your readers are asked to read this latest eye-chart:

    "With Crimea now incorporated into the Russian Federation, Putin may have no need to execute his authority to send the Russian military forces into eastern or southern Ukraine."

    Military forces? Together with our fellow myopes, once the thing is before our noses, we'll see. But surely it must be admitted that if a rather comprehensive "contingency" was enacted in Crimea, something similar has already been puzzled through in the case of Donet'sk, Lugans'k, Odessa: the whole southeast.

    Agents and operatives are already there. How is it that Russian citizens are hoisting the tricolour over city hall in Kharkov and those who ought to be serving prison sentences for firebombing Central Asian fruit-sellers in Moscow are now photographed rioting in Donets'k?

    The Russian Duma may have granted Putin what you inadequately choose to style "his authority" to protect Russian-speaking citizens in other countries (God save parts of Switzerland, Austria, London and the south of France!) -- but it is cynical in the extreme when another aspect of that authority permits him to create the very conditions that dip Russian-speaking citizens in other countries in a manufactured peril to begin with.

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    • niku replies...
      “Moscow is unlikely to try bringing about the breakup of Ukraine in order to annex its southern and eastern parts.”

      As Mr Trenin predicted, Moscow hasn’t tried to bring about a breakup of Ukraine proper. (Crimea is/was not really a part of Ukraine, as even the referendum results show.)

      “Russian Federation's Election Monitoring Team [are] the only "international" observers permitted to witness the Crimean "referendum"”
      This isn’t true. And, I know of nothing which supports any of the rest you have said. (But I am not an “expert”.)
    • Kryvonis replies...

      Start with Mateusz Piskorski and work your way through Enrique Ravello, Zoran Raojicic, Valerio CIgnetti, Béla Kovács, Manuel Ochsenreiter, Aymeric Chauprade, Kiril Kolev, Christian Verougstraete, Frank Creyelman, Johannes Hübner, Ewald Johann Stadler, and Luc Michel -- and the rest of the Eurasian Observatory For Democracy & Elections (EODE)

      Then compare with the Commonwealth of Independent States Election Monitoring Organization (CIS-EMO) that wrung its hands over anti-semitism in Ukraine during the last Presidential election. You can start with Piskorski again — and you'll end with «Русское национальное единство».

      Perhaps you'll be able to discern a certain, swastika-shaped trend.
  • Samotus
    Agreement brokered by three EU diplomats was modeled on Polish "Round table" between opposition and communist elite enabling slow transition into democratic state but giving apparatchiks opportunity to be wealthy capitalists. The same procedure in Ukraine undermine soviet model of governance in Russia where there are no capitalists only appointed oligarchs serving state interests.
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  • Hertsen
    So, who is to blame and what to do?
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  • walterasgbenjamin
    Why Dmitri repeats word by word the Putin's arguments? All are primitive lies. It is Putin who is at the origin of the crisis - it is him not the EU who has forced Yanukovitch to sign with him and not with EU. It is him who has forced Yanukovitch to kill opponents during three months with a pic of 100 in February. It is him who has invaded and is occupying Crimea , part of Ukraine.
    It is a total lie that "far right" has refused the deal in February - it was the majority of the population who could accept that up to 100 people have been killed in cold blood in less than 2 days. It was impossible that Yanukovitch will have stayed in power until December. It will have been ridiculous.
    It is Putin today who is making a proposal to settle the crisis that nobody will accept because not only it means to recognises that Crimea is part of the Russian Federation but more than Ukraine is totally dependent of Russia - "neutral" means "belongs to Russia."
    Putin has started this war with armed forces. At the end of a process that nobody could predict he will be defeated with a counter attack of armed forces. It could take week,s months, years or one decade , it is not the point: nobody in the West and even in Central Asia or in Asia will accept this armed forces invasion. Every major state - including China - will use that to fight against this Russia, this Putin's political system until it is destroyed.
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  • Hibernicus
    In the light of what has happened, it's certainly not all over. The Ukrainian elections in May will be another crucial turning point. At some stage, however, those in Moscow who are acting on the agenda Dmitri Trenin alludes to will have to ask themselves if they really want to turn the clock completely back.
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  • Tengiz Pkhaladze
    "Until the crisis in Ukraine, the EU and Russia were not geopolitical competitors..." - are you sure Mr. Trenin? What about Georgia and concept of "sphere of privileged interests"? It was before Ukraine. What about the Russia's Foreign Policy Doctrine and National Security Strategy? Both were adopted before the crisis in Ukraine and both define the West as a geopolitical competitor of Russia. What about "Sovereign democracy", propaganda against the Western values, concept of "Russian World" and statements about "incompatibility of liberal and "traditional Russian" values? Let's be honest, Russia's "main problem" is that Moscow can't struck US directly and therefore Mr. Putin has doctrine of "asymmetric response" (it also was "introduced" before the crisis in Ukraine) - Russia "struck US" in post soviet are and punish new democracies because of their Western orientation. Regrettably "asymmetric response" serves as an most common and usable instrument of Russian foreign policy and Georgia-2008 and Ukraine-2014 are "good" examples of its realization.
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    Russia is very right to stand very strong against expansion of the West. There should be a limit that western powers can expand and Russia is only country which can tell them where to stop their nonsense. U.S.A. continue to distabise neighboring countries who don't support America but expect Russia to remain quiet as things happen next door. Unipolar world is very dangerous and you must have a second thought to know the path western powers are leading the world to
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  • observer48
    Russia will most likely suffer immensely from western sanctions. Putin has bitten way more than he can chew.
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  • Pygmalion
    Very reasonable analysis, but with one contradiction. I too think that February 21 accord was a lost opportunity, for Ukraine, for Russia, as well as for West. However, Janukovič's flight made it almost impossible. Nevertheless, I think it would be fairly possible for Putin to push modified February 21 accord (with some eastern-Ukrainian politician instead of Janukovič) using solely military pressure (e.g. waiting with Crimea "referendum" until situation in Kyiv settles down). But fast and uncompromising Putin reaction suggests that from the beginning Putin was not interested in February 21 accord but in carving up Ukraine with the West.
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  • Larry
    The overthrow of Yanukovych, is a direct threat to Putin.

    Putin is 1000 times more corrupt then Yanukovych,. He is stealing $10 million per day or $3 billion per month. Putin is worth between $40 to 60 billion. He owns around 11 different estates. Putin and his cronies have stolen close to 1 trillion from the mouths of the Russian people. The target is not Crimea but Kiev to crush the revolution and re install Yanukovych, Indeed Yanukovych, has stated yhat he will be returned to power. He is correct.
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  • Nick D.
    Generally I agree except one important point of difference. There's a misperception and exaggeration even of the power of the "radicals." Yes, they promised to storm the President's administration on the morning of Feb. 21 but let's face it, Yanukovich could have mustered enough security force defenses around that building to have prevented it (e.g. more Berkut, more snipers). Instead, he fled before there was any attempt to storm. Why? One plausible reason is that he was ordered to do so by the Kremlin, which in turn meant that any government that was afterwards established could be plausibly considered "illegitimate" (the excuse Putin is using now) with the "legitimate" President still being Yanukovich. The result? A situation where Putin has the excuse to take Crimea, invade Ukraine, have an excuse to take over Transnistria, thumb his nose at the West while restoring "Russky Mir" and Russian imperialist greatness.
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  • Mr Gail H Nelson, Ph.D.
    Dmitri Trenin has helped us identify alternative crisis scenarios in the near and distant future with major strategic implications for Europe. A truncated Ukraine assumes the loss of Eastern Ukraine to the Russian Federation including the Transniester. The Western Ukraine (Galicia) would not leave Poland indifferent to events and Baltic States will be badly shaken. A careful survey of all the East European international boundaries including various national enclaves & ethnic faultlines are in order if only to get the diplomats up to speed on possible and undesirable Alternative Futures. Now is the time for leaders in Moscow and Kiev to get a grip on the Law of Unintended Consequences before ultra-nationalist extremism takes a regional hold.
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  • TT
    The USA's Assistant State Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was recorded discussing that Arseniy Yatsenyuk should be Ukraine's prime minister. It is no surprise then that Mr Yatsenyuk is now Ukraine's Acting Prime Minister.

    The EU in discussions with Ukraine's now deposed president Viktor Yanukovych over the EU Association Agreement always insisted on the release of Yulia Tymashenko as part of the agreement. It is no surprise then that she is now running as a presidential candidate in upcoming May elections despite her abysmal record in office following the 2004 revolution. During the protests, parliamentarians from EU countries addressed protesters, while at the same time warned Russia of interfering in Ukraine's domestic affairs.

    The EU and US were frankly taking the Russians to be dumb.

    The unfortunate reality of history is that whatever rules there are in international affairs do not always apply to the big powers (regardless of whether it is Russia, USA, UK, France or Germany, and we will soon have to add China to this list) when it comes to their national interests. Russia acted as it wished in Georgia and Crimea. The USA acted as it wished in Iraq in 2003. In the 19th century, Britain, this great power of freedom and enlightenment, went to war with China to protect its supply of opium to China.

    The centuries have changed, but the way the big powers protect their national interests, has not. He with the biggest guns gets to call the tune.
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