“Do nothing.” That the advice of former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev regarding Russia’s relations with Ukraine. In a piece published today by RT (here) I discuss an article by Medvedev in the newspaper Kommersant. In this, the author attacks the leadership of Ukraine in quite uncompromising language, saying that they have betrayed their own identity and are acting like “representatives of the Jewish intelligentsia in Nazi Germany being asked to serve in the SS.” Subtle, Medvedev certainly isn’t!
Medvedev concludes that Ukraine’s leadership is utterly incapable of reaching agreement with Russia or the rebels of Donbass. Consequently, he says, there is absolutely no point in talking to them. Instead Russia should wait until a more congenial leadership comes along. “Russia can wait. We are patient people.” Until then, his advice is that Russia sit back and do precisely “nothing.”
In my article, I argue doing nothing isn’t a solution for Russia. For the odds that a more friendly Ukrainian government will emerge at any point in the foreseeable future are very, very low. The Maidan revolution and subsequent events have had a drastic impact on the Ukrainian governing elite, so that anybody who comes to power there will be necessarily restrained and pushed into pursuing an anti-Russian policy, even if he or she originally does not intend to. Waiting won’t achieve anything for Russia.
If Russia wants to move events in Ukraine in a favourable direction, it needs to take a more active line. But that begs the question of what that line could be. And that’s a difficult question to answer, for the options are limited and not very good.
Moscow’s preferred outcome has always been the reintegration of the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR & LPR) back into Ukraine by the granting to them of some form of extensive local autonomy. This is what the Minsk 2 Agreement of February 2015 envisages. Kiev, however, is dead set against this, and that seems most unlikely to change.
Russia’s problem is that it lacks the means to change Kiev’s incentives to prompt it to alter its position regarding autonomy for Donbass. It also has next to no influence on domestic Ukrainian politics, and any attempt to exert such influence is likely to backfire. As it is, Viktor Medvedchuk, one of the leaders of the main opposition party, Opposition Platform – for Life, is under house arrest facing charges of treason. There is almost no conduit through which Russia could exert influence on Ukraine.
Military force is one possible solution, but we must hope that it would be considered very much a last resort. Not only would it comes with a great human cost, but it would shatter Russia’s relations with the West for a very long time. I see no enthusiasm for it, and one imagines that it could only be deployed in response to Ukraine starting major military operations against the DPR and LPR.
So what’s left?
As far as I can see, recognizing that Ukraine will not strike an acceptable deal over Donbass (i.e. one that gives the region extensive autonomy) requires admitting that the DPR and LPR are here to stay for the indefinite future. So what next?
The primary issue has to be how to improve the lives of the people living there, lest the rebel republics become the sources of serious instability, organized crime, and so on. That means first of all trying to get a proper ceasefire. Again, though, that runs into the problem that the Ukrainian side seems quite happy with the current situation of “neither war nor peace” in which military operations continue at a very low tempo. The only way I can see that changing is through pressure from Ukraine’s Western allies, but that appears very unlikely.
Beyond that, one logical step would be to annex the DPR and LPR. Certainly, from the point of view of restoring economic life to Donbass, this would be the best option. Continued existence in the limbo of unrecognized status is utterly unconducive to investment or to any sort of economic progress.
Again, however, this runs into the problem of the likely Western reaction, which one can imagine would be extremely hostile and result in severe sanctions being levied against the Russian Federation. While some Russians might say “So what?”, the fact is that it’s worth Russia’s while to maintain as good relations with the West as possible. For instance, Russia has to date being able to sustain trade with Germany, as seen in the recent completion of the North Stream 2 pipeline. It’s not worth rupturing this for the sake of Donbass. The economic interests of Russia’s own citizens come first.
All this leaves, therefore, is some sort of creeping annexation, whereby the process of integration between Russia and the rebel republics moves ever forward. This, though, has the effect of separating those republics ever further from Ukraine and making the achievement of the goal of their eventual reintegration into Ukraine ever more unlikely.
In essence, pursuing this option means abandoning in practice what has to date, at least in public, been the preferred objective. It is, however, probably the only practical option open to Russia at this moment in time.
Perhaps there are some other possibilities for the Russian government out there, and if so I’d be glad to hear what they are. But for now, it seems to me that its options are limited and the path laid out above seems the most likely for the immediate future. So, if I’m right, expect Moscow to publicly retain a commitment to the Minsk agreement, but in private accept that they are a dead letter and continue on the slow process of creeping annexation.