Putin’s last term in office has now begun, at least if he abides by the Russian constitution. The election and, in particular, Putin’s eventual departure have implications for Ukraine.
The election itself was a bone of contention between Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine protested against ballots being cast in Russia-occupied Crimea.
The election was deliberately timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the formal annexation of Crimea, and the vote was celebrated as a second “referendum” on the peninsula belonging to Russia. The Ukrainian authorities only allowed Russian diplomats to vote and prevented Russians based in Ukraine from casting their ballots by sealing off access to Russian polling stations in the Russian embassy in Kyiv and to consular offices in Lviv, Odessa, and Kharkiv.
The upshot is that Russian foreign and domestic politics will remain closely interconnected in the years to come. There are signs that foreign policy alone will not suffice as the basis of legitimacy for Putin’s fourth term in office.
The status of Crimea still resonates with the Russian public, but the costs and purpose of Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine and Syria are becoming harder to justify.
This could, in principle, increase the Kremlin’s interest in conflict management, if not conflict resolution, in the Donbas. Putin will have to refocus, at least in parts, on domestic issues. He will attempt to tinker with policy areas the population is concerned about, such as education, medical services, and living standards more generally.
However, Putin is aware of the inherent risk of a reform process for the reformer himself. The fact that the space for domestic reforms is extremely small in turn increases the likelihood that foreign policy will be characterized by continuity.
Yet, consider the results of the continuity. Overall, Putin has achieved the opposite of what he intended in Ukraine: the country’s westward orientation, its overall reform commitment, and the cross-country identification with the Ukrainian state have been strengthened, not weakened.
Nevertheless, Russia’s involvement in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics remains a useful tool to call Ukraine’s overall stability into question and to escalate or deescalate the situation on the ground as it befits the Kremlin’s agenda.
The point is that any conflict that lasts for a long time takes on a life of its own. Local dynamics—such as criminal structures or the human, social, and environmental costs of conflict—become harder to control. The most one can hope for in this context is small adjustments that allow for direct or indirect contact between the nongovernment controlled areas and the Kyiv-controlled Donbas.
That would include Russian and Ukrainian or international humanitarian organizations and environmental experts equipped to deal with the deteriorating situation around collapsing coal mines. It would also include improvements to border crossings and access to welfare payments for residents from the war zone in the rest of Ukraine.
In the area of humanitarian aid, some promising steps are being undertaken in this direction. These small changes will be felt by those most affected by the war and are therefore significant.
The bottom line is that amidst the current escalation in the relationship between Russia and the West over the Skripal attack, the Normandy format remains the only functioning high-level mechanism engaging the Russian leadership in a regular dialogue with Europe. Through this format—in which the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France have been tasked with the implementation of the Minsk accord—the Russia-Ukraine conflict will remain internationally visible, even if the relationships around it have become even more adversarial and run the risk of distracting from the war in Ukraine.
In the meantime, Ukraine is beginning to gear up for its own election campaign ahead of the 2019 presidential election.
In the current political climate, there is already little space for the main contenders to appeal to voters with ideas about conflict management or greater engagement with the occupied territories. The election campaign is likely to further harden this position, as the main candidates will try to outbid each other by tapping into the war-induced patriotic rhetoric.
In sum, the 2018 Russian presidential election, the fallout from the Skripal attack, and the upcoming Ukrainian election campaign are further deepening the rift between Kyiv and Moscow. Apart from the small scope for local adjustments in the war zone, a momentum for improved bilateral relations can only be expected in the post-Putin and post-Poroshenko era.
Gwendolyn Sasse is non-resident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and the Director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS), Berlin.