According to a new report by Princeton University’s Andrew Moravcsik, ‘Western policy to block Russian assertiveness in Ukraine has been surprisingly successful.’
The report, entitled Lessons from Ukraine: Why a Europe-led Economic Strategy is Succeeding, is published by the Transatlantic Academy, which describes itself as ‘a research institution devoted to creating common approaches to the long-term challenges facing Europe and North America.’ In a chapter entitled ‘Ukraine as a Western Policy Success’, the report says that ‘the current outcome in Ukraine, a “frozen conflict”, is in many respects a failure rather than a victory for Moscow, and a positive outcome for the West. … It is essential to remember that just two years ago, most observers … expected Russia to prevail easily.’ But, ‘Putin did not succeed’, and Russia ‘reversed its military advances, trimmed its ambitions, and eventually reverted to economic and diplomatic haggling with the West.’
‘Western policy success’ is thus measured not in terms of any positive gains by the West, but in terms of alleged ‘Russian failure’. This takes three forms, Moravcsik writes: 1) ‘Russia’s military was stalemated in the eastern Ukraine’; 2) ‘the Kremlin achieved few major political objectives in eastern Ukraine’; and 3) ‘with the insurgency in eastern Ukraine essentially over … Moscow’s only remaining alternative has been to negotiate with Ukraine and Europe using energy, trade, finance, domestic political influence, propaganda, and diplomacy.’
I can agree with number 2 of these: Russia certainly hasn’t gained anything out of the war in Donbass. But the other two propositions don’t match the facts. Russia’s military wasn’t stalemated – Ukraine’s was. It began the war against the insurgency in Donbass with a massive military advantage over its opponents, but in the end it failed to defeat them. Direct Russian military intervention in Donbass was brief, and was certainly not halted because of the efforts of the Ukrainian military. The Russians halted because they chose to halt, a fact which demonstrates the very limited nature of Russian objectives.
As I pointed out in an article in the journal European Politics and Society, ‘Moscow has largely been reacting to events and trying to gain some control of a process which was originally almost entirely outside of its control. Its primary aim has been to get the Ukrainian government to negotiate directly with the rebels, in order to produce a permanent peace settlement’. In that, the Kremlin has not succeeded. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense to talk about Moscow’s failure to ‘prevail’, when it wasn’t ever actually pursuing some broader objective of destroying Ukraine or the like. Moreover, since what Russia did want was precisely a return to negotiation, Moravcsik’s point 3 can hardly be said to constitute a failure.
In any case, it isn’t sensible to define Western ‘success’ purely in terms of Russian ‘failure’, as if international politics is entirely a zero-sum game. We must define success instead in terms of achieving some positive results for Western countries. It is hard to see what those might be. Moravcsik says that, ‘For Western governments, the ideal outcome would be for states of the former Soviet Union to evolve into prosperous market-oriented, democratic regimes able to control their own territorial sovereignty and cooperate with the West.’ In those terms, European policy towards Ukraine, from the time it pressed an EU association agreement on Ukraine, through its support of the Maidan revolution to today, has been entirely unsuccessful. Ukraine is now less prosperous, not obviously any more democratic, certainly not able to control its territory, and still divided about its relationship with the West, as shown by recent opinion polls indicating that support for NATO membership among Ukrainians has once again fallen below 50%.
The only real success Moravcsik can point to is that the Ukrainian economy has not completely collapsed because of the financial aid European countries have given, and indeed it is true that the provision of financial aid has had a more positive effect on the situation in Ukraine than anything else Western states have done. The one strong point of this report is that it makes this clear. Moravcsik pours some welcome cold water on NATO hawks who see Russia as a military threat which requires a firm military response. Commenting on the very limited extent of Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine, he writes:
The obvious lesson from Ukraine is that Putin lacks the political will to fight a major war even under the most propitious of circumstances. … If the Kremlin was unwilling to tolerate even modest expenditures of blood, treasure, and prestige to sustain a modest military advance in support of a majority Russian-speaking population in a small corner of Ukraine for a few weeks, why should we expect that it would attack even a weak NATO ally like Latvia or Estonia, let alone a heavily armed, strongly anti-Russian country without a substantial Russian minority, such as Poland?
Given that the answer to this question is that Russia wouldn’t do such a thing, Moravcsik concludes that Europe should focus on supporting Ukraine economically, rather than on resisting or deterring Russia militarily. This is a sound conclusion – a flourishing Ukrainian economy is in everybody’s interests (including Russia’s), and helping that economy would be far more productive than wasting yet more money on defence. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that Ukraine, whose GDP per capita is a third of that of Gabon, is suddenly going to turn into Switzerland. Nor we should kid ourselves that Western policy in Ukraine has been anything other than a failure.