Ten months after the Minsk II agreement of February 2015, which aimed to end the unrest in eastern Ukraine, a strange and delicate status quo has emerged. It seems that all the major strategic players involved in the conflict—Russia, the government of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, the West, the Ukrainian oligarchs—can well live with the current precarious state of affairs. The big wild card that could break the standstill is the Ukrainian people.
The conflict over the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, where so-called rebels, equipped and directed by Russia, claim to have established autonomous regions to “protect” ethnic Russians from hostile action by the Kiev government, has all but disappeared from the headlines. This is not just because a relative calm has emerged on the frontlines, or because the war in Syria now hogs all the attention. It is also because all the major players in the Ukrainian conflict seem to have achieved roughly what they can realistically expect to achieve. All except the Ukrainians themselves.
Let’s look at Russia first. Through its proxy presence in Ukraine’s east, Moscow can ensure that Ukraine delivers the strategic goods that Russia wants from Ukraine. Moscow’s de facto veto power over Ukrainian constitutional reform will ensure that the country can’t properly settle its territorial and minority issues, thereby withholding a key success from the Poroshenko regime.
Russia can also prevent Kiev from veering too far to the West, as NATO and EU membership are basically impossible without a resolution of Ukraine’s existential internal conflict. Moscow can also escalate or de-escalate the war at will and therefore owns a powerful tool to punish Poroshenko should he go too far for Moscow’s taste.
Then there is the Poroshenko government. Kiev is not really reforming Ukraine with much vigor but can get away with it because all local alternatives look even worse to the president’s Western supporters. Despite his own shortcomings, the West is committed to Poroshenko. He has no interest in whipping up anti-Russian sentiments by getting robust in the east because he knows he is in the weaker position and does not want to see himself embarrassed by an additional Russian escalation that would only demonstrate his powerlessness.
Poroshenko, though not an oligarch in the classic, rent-seeking sense, can also expand his personal business. He can (rightfully) claim that state authority and economic activity have been restored after the meltdown that followed the ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovych. And enough superficial reform is going on for Poroshenko to claim that he is trying to improve things, and that all he needs to finish the job is more time.
In the West, Europeans can assert that their diplomacy has prevented the war in the east from boiling over to other parts of the country. They can stick to the Minsk agreement as the only plan for peace that gives them standards for organizing a technical diplomatic process, something Europeans are good at. Europeans can also continue their support for Kiev’s reform effort without having to face the ugly realities of the geopolitics behind the conflict, something they are not good at.
European investment in Ukraine is moderate, and as long as the calm holds, the EU can maintain a consensus to continue that investment. Under this status quo, Europeans can even work with Russia again, as Moscow is needed, via Syria, as a partner in the refugee crisis, an issue that is much more important to Europeans than the fate of the Ukrainians.
The Ukrainian oligarchs, in turn, have lost some influence and wealth, but essentially their business model remains intact. They not only control key industries, but they have also “learned to speak the language of the new times,” as one Ukrainian analyst put it. The oligarchs control most political parties and a large number of parliamentarians. They run their own NGOs.
Ukraine’s constitutional reform process is plotted, for the most part, by a nontransparent group outside the parliament, attached to the presidential administration, in which oligarchs have seats and decisive influence. They are the leaders of the unofficial sector, as they are now known in Ukraine—and in fact have always been in the past twenty-five years. The oligarchs don’t want to fall under Moscow’s spell, but nor do they want the boat rocked too hard. For them, some sort of middle position between the West and Russia is most lucrative. Poroshenko delivers just that. The oligarchs want it to stay that way.
The only party involved that does not like the status quo is the Ukrainian people. All of that power balancing among the big players comes at their expense. The economy is not really recovering, and nor is corruption on the way out. The culture of impunity in Ukraine remains in place, which is perhaps the most aggravating factor of all. EU membership is a distant dream, even though visa-free travel for Ukrainians entering the EU is finally forthcoming.
Observers and analysts in Kiev speak of widespread unhappiness and discontent among the Ukrainian population. That should be taken very seriously. Russians, Americans, and Europeans have been surprised before by Ukrainians who just don’t play along (at least, not all of them) in the geopolitical chess game that assigns them the role of pawns of other people’s strategies, not of players in their own right. But can the Ukrainians rise again?
Romantic Western thinking has it that Ukraine’s Maidan antigovernment movement is just waiting on the sidelines, like Jedi knights protecting the old republic, ready to come back in and save the country should things go appallingly wrong. But locals dismiss this as an illusion. “The Maidan was simple: everybody against Yanukovych. That brought together liberals, nationalists, oligarchs, students. Next time, it will not be peaceful, and it will be everybody against everybody else,” said an analyst I recently interviewed on the matter. “And there are a lot of arms in the country.”
Maybe that is slightly too dramatic a scenario. But it seems clear that the only party involved in this big game that wants real positive and substantial change is the Ukrainian people. Or at least a growing number of them. If no one else delivers on that promise, they might take things into their own hands again. The consequences could be grave, ranging from another economic implosion to increased Russian intervention to civil war. In absence of any real coercive power or willingness to change things in Ukraine, Western diplomacy should at least be mentally prepared for that kind of outcome.