Current authors of a number of national strategies and opinionson the implementation of the Minsk-2 agreement, and the development of the situation in the Donbas and Crimea underestimate to some extent the drivers of changesin political rhetoric of Russian officials in relation to the EU and western countries, as well as the willingness of individual recipients in the European Union to hearthis rhetoric.
During a security conference in Munich in late 2015, the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that tensions between Russia and the West have sent the world into a “new Cold War”. Conversely, ata June international economic forum in St. Petersburg, attended by the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker who called for the normalization of relations between Russia and the EU, Vladimir Putin announced the need for the so-called pragmatic approach to mend relations between the European Union and the Russian Federation. In particular, he said: “We do not hold a grudge against the EU for the actions that led to the deterioration of relations with Europe.We must regain the trust in Russian-European relations, and restore the level of our cooperation. After all, Russia could help resolve the economic, social, and security problems faced by the EU.”“For many decades, our two countries have built up a very substantial potential for mutually beneficial cooperation in various fields,” Putin wrote in his recent congratulatory letter to the French President.There are a lot of similar pragmatic statements and calls for dialogue by the Russian leadership. The Russian propaganda in the EU works continuously and aggressivelythrough the mass media. In early 2016, the Head of East Stratcom Task Force at the European External Action Service Giles Portman said that as a result of Russia’s smear campaign, the number of those who blame Kyiv for the war in the Donbas and sympathize with Russia is growing in the European Union.
Despite the extension of the economic sanctions by the EU and the U.S. against the Russian Federation due to the annexation of Crimea and the absence of progress in the implementation of the Minsk agreements, and a decision of the NATO summit in Warsaw to counter Russian aggression in the East, the above “pragmatic” arguments were one way or another perceived by the European business community. “Pragmatic rhetoric” could strike a chord with EU politicians. Specifically, in his statement, the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called NATO “not to inflame the situation further through saber-rattling”, and seek dialogue with Russia. The criteria for seeking this dialogue are, at best, considered to be the need to comply with the Minsk accords. Some EU countries, which have always supported Russia, listen to the calls for changes in its policy, notwithstanding a steady course toward restricting the rights and freedoms in Russia’s domestic policy, strengthening authoritarianism, and carrying out aggression against Ukraine in the Donbas and in the post-Soviet space.
The real plans and actions of Russia – to return and strengthen the status of a geo-political actor and one of the leading world powers – have for long remained behind the scenes. Even in theaverage economic situation and growing economic crisis, this does not affect the direction of Russia’s domestic and foreign policy. “Pragmatic” rhetoric here plays the role of a “carrot”for the European Union.
The Russian leadership has always treated Ukraine and other republics of the former Soviet Union as “countries with limited sovereignty”. Russia perceives the world in these categories and actively uses them. It seemingly stopped labeling Ukraine as an artificial state, but philosophy of Russia’s policy toward it did not actually change. On 31 December 2015, in an updated version of its National Security Strategy, Russia said:“The U.S. and EU support for the coup in Ukraine has led to a deep split in Ukrainian society and prompted an armed conflict <…> making it a long-term source of instability in Europe and directly at the Russian border.” At the same time, Russia has not said a word about its role of a catalyst for war. This also holds true for the constant escalation of the Donbasconflict, the building of military bases atthe Ukrainian border, and the modernization of Russian Armed Forces.
Russian politicians and experts get very irritated with any manifestation of political independence on the part of Ukraine. What Ukraine perceives as practical aspects of the political process and communication with society is interpreted by Russian conspiracy theorists as provocative signals to Russia, sent by Western leaders.
The political realities in Russia and its political languagesimply prevent itfrom understandingUkraine’s other contexts, in particular, any real political competition is seen by mostsocial groups and experts in Russia as a signal of danger and chaos, or part of a deep political crisis. Our socio-political vocabulariesgive a completely different interpretation of the events in and outside of the country. In this case, Russia interprets the reality through the prism of neo-imperialism, as some kind of a “collective Putin”,which manifested after Crimea’s annexation and continued to strengthen.
It is noteworthy that this approach to Ukraine and other countries of the former Soviet Union is not only a manifestation of political preferences or a personal opinion of current Kremlin leaders. The “collective Putin” means a critical social mass that supports the neo-imperial policy, despite economic difficulties and a great deficit of democracy (the Yarovaya package, etc.). After all, the “collective Putin” meansa common position of the next generation of Russian neo-imperialists, formed over the past 15 years and blossomed under Putin.By this logic, the official Russian doctrines of security, NATO enlargement to the East, and the interests of the Russian Federation had been formulated before Putin came to power. Today, these political approaches and priorities continue being implemented under Putin as decider-in-chief.
Russia wants to have a kind of “permanent Chechnya” rather than Transnistria in the ORDLO (occupied areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions). The Chechenization implies that the Ukrainian government will have to eventually negotiate with ORDLO leaders and invest political and financial resources in exchange for their conditional loyalty. According to Germany’s DerBild, Russia annually spends at least € 1 billion or 0.6% of state budget expenditures for maintaining the breakaway DPR and LPR.
RUR 676 billion was earmarked for the implementation of the“Federal Target Program for the Socio-Economic Development of Crimea and Sevastopol until 2020” alone(nearly $ 19 billion in 2014), but its funding should be increased.
The political and resource aspects of the Chechenization of some occupied areas of the Donbas could mean not only quasi-elections in the territories temporarily uncontrolled by Ukrainian authorities for legitimating the DPR and LPR and their political regimes, but also the prospects of including puppet leaders into the political process in Ukraine. From this viewpoint, possible local elections in the ORDLO is an interim stage, a Trojan horse for Ukraine. Hence, Ukraine’s proactive efforts are needed to prevent this scenario, even in the context of the Minsk agreements. In particular, a bill on local elections in the Donbas should provide for security and political preventive mechanisms so as to avoid the imposition of election rules by Russia in the future.
The Minsk accords are, above all, a means to de-escalate the conflict as it is impossible to completely resolve it without the constitutional amendments agreed upon with Russian-backed insurgents, reinstatement of control of 408 km of the Ukrainian border, etc.
The stalemate in the political settlement of the conflict, even amid the ongoing military operations, is presented by Russia as Ukraine’s fault. The Russian Federation believes that it is able to persuade the international community that it is not a party to the conflict and therefore cannot comply with the Minsk agreements.
The Russian Federation believes that changes in the political situation will make western economies tired of the Ukrainian conflict, which in actual fact was not launched by Ukraine. Once the EU is guided by the “new economic pragmatism” in its policy towardRussia without any strings attached, the leadership of, say, Germany could be reshuffled as a result of elections. Yet, this scenario in its pure form is unlikely to be realistic. Russia therefore will continue to interpret different processes in Ukraine as a manifestation of its defeat and failure. Amid no progress in the implementation of reforms in Ukraine, some EU countries may agree with these arguments.
Russian officials however prefer not to discuss the annexation of Crimea, trying to pretend that this issue has already been solved and presenting it as the “historic reunification of the divided nation”, which the EU will have to swallow. Notwithstanding the EU strongly negative political assessment of Crimea’s annexation and the disturbed security architecture of Europe, the Crimean issue was not put on the international political agenda. Consequently, Russia is convinced that despite the sanctions imposed on it over Crimea, it will sooner or later find a plausible excuse for “legitimating the annexation” under favorable political conditions, e.g. the conduct of another “referendum under the auspices of the OSCE”, without taking Ukraine’s interests into account. Although Russian liberal politicians view violations of the rights of Crimean Tatars as a kind of discrimination and, probably, tensions, most political actors in Russia deem them to be an element of the anti-extremism policy under the North Caucasian scenario to suppress anyone whom law-enforcement agencies consider to be disloyal.
Hence, not only Ukraine and the EU, but also the “collective West” should take a decision on their policies toward the Russian Federation and future relations with it. They really need a vision of how these relations will develop in politics and economics in view of Russia’s strategic goals, the “collective Putin”, and the neo-imperial policy.
A traditional way out for Ukraine would be to strengthen its national sovereignty in the socio-economic, security, and information areas in parallel to building a democratic, economically modern and successful countryin the post-Soviet space;the real implementation of reforms, not their imitation for the sake of the interests of different oligarchic groups, attracted by the “pragmatism” in its various forms; and the non-admission of Ukraine’s Chechenizationthrough activelysearching for and implementing different political and diplomatic scenarios, as well as developing social and humanitarian projects.
By Yulia Tyshchenko and Maria Diachuk,
Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research
23 July 2016