Deep settlement

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.


11 thoughts on “Deep settlement”

  1. It seems to me that the resolution of this conflict might at least partially depend on internal economic developments in Russia. Right now, there’s a narrative in the West according to which Russia is just a step away from an economic collapse, due to sanctions and the low oil price. Although this is overblown, it’s true that Russia is experiencing some significant difficulties. As long as this is true, it’s possible for governments in the West to keep hoping that Russia’s economic collapse, and by extension its capitulation on the Ukraine issue, is just around the corner. But, if Russia’s economy starts to rebound, I think we’ll start to see some Western countries (especially Germany) either put serious pressure on Ukraine or just drop out of the sanctions regime altogether.


  2. “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.”

    Well, Kiev itself is not really an actor. Not a ‘subyekt’ as they say on Russian TV. But then, Russian common wisdom goes, “its Western allies” are not of the same mind.

    The US benefits from war, destruction, and chaos, but the EU wants it to end.

    Exploiting this conflict is the essence of the Russian game here. Or such is their analysts’ conventional wisdom anyway…


  3. Frozen conflict and “deep” constitutional settlement are not mutually exclusive. Ivan Krastev made this point a year ago. Putin’s wants Donbass to become a kind of Republika Srpska, which would stop the bloodshed as well as put Ukraine into an institutional straitjacket that prevents any movement towards NATO and the EU. PS. Love this blog, and am now expecting a post on the politics of Russia’s military intervention of Syria, perhaps with special reference to Cossack interventions in this part of the world from (exactly) a century ago. 🙂


    1. Great to have you comment here, Srdjan. I suppose that it depends on one’s definition of a ‘frozen conflict’. I tend to use the phrase as meaning that the two sides remain armed and ready to go to war again, and the underlying issues between them are unsettled, but they aren’t actually shooting at one another. In the case of Republika Srpska (correct me if I am wrong), the Serb militia were disarmed and there was a settlement (albeit an unsatisfactory one), so I`m not sure that it classifies as a ‘frozen conflict’. But I guess that you could define that term differently and fit Bosnia within it.

      As for Syria, it`s hard to know what the truth is, so I am holding my fire for now. But I will contemplate writing something on it. (Cossacks did indeed get as far as Basra in 1916 after failing to relieve the British at Kut.)


  4. Actually, Republika Srpska seems like a very good analogy. Moscow wants Donbas to be an equivalent of Republika Srpska. And their opponents want the Serbian Krajina solution.

    The Dark Lord Putin makes the Serbian Krajina scenario unachievable, thus all the hysteria. Simple as that.

    The only difference is that there’s probably still far less hostility towards Russia and Russians (especially east of Dnieper) than between Bosnian Muslims and Serbs. Ideally, Novorossia would have to be much bigger than DNR+LNR, and this probably is going to be the source of future conflicts anyway, Kharkov, Odessa, etc.


  5. You’re right, Paul: the textbook definition of frozen conflict doesn’t apply to Bosnia today, but it’s probably one Europe-wide crisis away from hot conflict. I would add that the constitutional settlement there created a monster state that legitimizes itself as “that which is better than renewed conflict.” As such, it offers great rent-seeking opportunities for the ruling few at the expense of everyone else. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ukrainian elites on both sides of the Dnieper (so to speak) go for something like that in a few years from now—again, at the expenses of everyone else.

    And I think Mao is right about Kiev’s Krajina strategy: it was attempted once, it spectacularly failed, and it is likely to keep failing for as long as Putin runs the show in Moscow.

    Finally, on Russians in Syria, great links, thanks. I’d like to contribute another for your consideration: Yes, it’s short but has some great historical analogies/reminders.


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