Recently, I have discussed a couple of British and Canadian reports about Russia. But what are Russian commentators saying, in particular about Russian policy towards Ukraine? In August, the Russian International Affairs Council held a roundtable discussion, an account of which you can read in English here. Particularly interesting was a paper by Andrei Sushentsov, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. As this is available only in Russian, here is a summary of what he had to say.
Sushentsov starts from the fact that in Soviet times the Russian and Ukrainian economies were interdependent. To some degree this remains true today. However, the past 25 years have taught Russia that even supposedly ‘pro-Russian’ governments in Kiev are in fact nothing of the sort, and that ‘constructive partnership with Ukraine is impossible.’ Far from trying to pull Ukraine back into its orbit, therefore, Moscow has decided that its best policy is divorce. This means, for instance, reducing the dependency of the Russian military on Ukrainian goods and bypassing Ukraine to sell gas to the European Union. The aim is ‘to limit the losses which [internal] Ukrainian processes might bring to Russia’.
Cutting ties with Ukraine cannot, however, be done overnight. While the process is ongoing, ‘the fundamental bases of mutual economic dependency make Russia interested in Ukraine’s stability.’ For instance, Russia wants Ukraine to be economically successful so that it can pay its debts (to both the Russian state and private Russian creditors). So, despite the war in Donbass, Russia has not sought to destabilize Ukraine economically. On the contrary, in December 2014 Russia agreed to provide subsidised coal to enable its neighbour to survive the winter.
The same logic means that, ‘Russia, contrary to all suspicions, is really striving to settle [the conflict in] Donbass.’ The stable Ukraine which Russia desires is impossible in the long term if Donbass’s aspirations remain unmet. This is why Moscow demands the fulfilment of those parts of the Minsk agreements which require special status for Donbass on terms agreed with that region’s representatives. Russia, says Sushentsov, ‘is insisting on a deep settlement, and so seeks a guarantee of the rights of Donbass and [other] potentially unstable regions in a renewed Ukrainian constitution.’ In this way, ‘Russia’s aim is not Ukraine’s defeat and Donbass’s victory, but an equitable political settlement between them.’ ‘Paradoxically’, Sushentsov notes, this means that ‘Russia, by defending the rights of the Russian community, is a bigger supporter of Ukraine’s territorial integrity than the authorities in Kiev. … Moscow’s support for the Donbass militia has a single goal – to show Kiev that a military resolution of the conflict is impossible, and to induce it to sit down with Donbass at the negotiating table.’
I find this logic convincing. It is a more realistic explanation of Moscow’s behaviour than that provided either by Western analysts who see Russia as hell bent on destabilizing Ukraine, or by nationalist Russians who claim that the Kremlin would happily throw Donbass under the bus at the first opportunity if only public opinion would let it. But I am not convinced that this policy will work, for the very simple reason that success requires Kiev’s cooperation. Not only has Kiev made it very clear that it doesn’t want to cooperate, but its Western allies don’t seem to be overly keen to persuade it to do so. Sushentsov says that, ‘A frozen conflict in Donbass will harm the interests of Russia, which is striving to normalize its relations with Ukraine.’ That is true, but Russia may well end up with a frozen conflict anyway. If so, at some point Russian policy will have to change.