On destabilization of Ukraine

As we are witnessing the escalation  in the East Ukraine we could wonder if Russia is now totally betting on the destabilization of Ukraine.  E.g. Latvia’s FM Rinkevics tweeted: Russia is responsible for the escalation of violence and separatism in the Eastern Ukraine, hope my EU colleagues see it that way. In your opinion, is this they way how we should see it?

Taras KuzioResearch Associate, Centre for Political and Regional Studies, Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta

There are many factors at work. Russia (with the support of the ousted regime in exile in Russia) seeks to postpone and make the 25 May elections illegitimate in eastern Ukraine. If the elections go ahead and a new president is legitimately elected in Ukraine and recognised by the EU, US, and OSCE then Russia’s objectives fail. Putin can no longer claim Yanukovych is the legitimate president. Hence the ex-regimes treacherous backing for Putin’s actions.

Moscow has chosen to first test Ukraine thinking the eastern regions will be taken quickly and peacefully like the Crimea (flowing from its lack of knowledge of the country), with east-south Ukraine becoming a new Transdniestr enclave under Russian control. They have focused on the Donbas (Donetsk-Luhansk) because this region is the closes in identity to the Crimea (more Soviet than Russian, very little Ukrainian) and because it like the Crimea are the main support bases of the Party of Regions.

Ukrainian leaders have a difficult balancing act. They have to respond forcefully otherwise Russia will change its strategy to aiming to take all of Ukraine. At the same time, there cannot be high bloodshed as this would reduce the legitimacy of Kyiv in those regions and give Russia the excuse to invade to “protect” Russians. Another factor is the low level of professionalism of Russian and Ukrainian security forces – as seen in Chechnya. The Ukrainian military has been reformed with 20 years of cooperation in NATO’s PfP but the police, SBU, border guards and prosecutors office are overmanned, incompetent, corrupt and still neo-Soviet.

Igor Merheim-EyreProgramme Coordinator, Global Europe Centre, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent

There are increasing signs that Russia is behind the escalation in the east of Ukraine; the reporting and relatively high level of organisation by the militants suggests that they are far more than a pro-Russian version of the Maidan – and, indeed, more violent and aim-specific.

However, I do not think that Kremlin is betting completely on the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine. Putin is not a dogmatist; he is a pragmatist and Russian involvement in the east of the country will continue for as long as it benefits his foreign policy aims, in particular, before the Geneva talks. Any increased hold on the eastern Ukraine or perhaps even annexation may come as a welcome addition from a lack of Ukrainian or western response, but I do not think it’s the overall aim – that seems to be simply to try and gain as much as possible from the inaction of others. At the moment, the Russians are the only ones dealing with the situation by the use of hard power which strengthens its overall position.

In this case, diplomacy alone is no match for the Russian military. In the short-term, therefore, escalation in the east may prove to be reaping benefits for Russia, especially with a slow western response – that the NATO Secretary-General on Sunday was only ‘concerned’ by the situation is, in itself, concerning. We have now passed the stage of modest press statements and visa bans.

However, in the long-term, Russia cannot benefit from the crisis. For one, it is ironic that whilst the Kremlin spent last few years complaining about the US anti-missile system in Central Europe, Russia is now likely to be faced with an increased NATO troop presence in the region which, overall, makes the Russian position on its western borders more precarious than before the crisis. Geopolitically speaking, Russian will not be left off any better than before the crisis.

Economically, Russia will be affected in the next few months; we should also watch domestic discontent – short-term gains may prove politically successful, but a prolonged involvement is likely to question that. Russia, after all, may be very soon reaching the limits of its own strength, and of international patience. The crisis in eastern Ukraine may prove to be Putin’s last desperate measure in regaining whatever he can of the former Soviet Union. But there is always a price when kings and emperors dwell on past glories.

Sean RobertsSenior Research Fellow, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs

The point about Russia destabilizing Ukraine is not in any doubt. Unfortunately, the Ukraine crisis did not end with the ouster of Yanukovych – it simply entered a second, equally volatile phase, as all sides try to influence the shape of future constitutional reform and the composition of the country’s leadership ahead of the presidential election in May. By stirring up unrest in Ukraine’s eastern regions, Russia is trying to de-legitimize the current Ukrainian power-holders by showing how little control they actually has over the country. At the same time, this unrest is a way for Russia to push its own agenda for a federal solution to the crisis, whereby Ukraine’s eastern regions have enough autonomy to veto any future, possible NATO/ EU membership – scenarios that seem highly unlikely today, but which must be taken into account by Moscow. However, the idea that Russia is alone in interfering in Ukraine’s domestic politics is erroneous. The US and certain EU countries played a key role in destabilizing Ukraine by backing the overthrow of the democratically elected government. By signing part of the Association Agreement in March with an illegitimate, un-elected Ukrainian leadership, the ‘West’ has also continued to destabilize the situation and ensure that the fight for influence in Ukraine remains a zero sum game.

Sławomir DębskiDirector, Director, Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding

Yes, I very much share this view. Russia strives for isolating and making Ukraine ungovernable. Moscow aims at destabilizing Ukraine while presents as a grey zone of instability, chaos and anarchy with Moscow as indispensable guarantor of stability. Kremlin sees talks to Western countries as leverage to accomplish so called federalization of Ukraine, which would ease future takeover of its Eastern provinces. Putin insists on military and economic neutrality of Ukraine to put an end to any European aspirations of Ukrainian citizens, which sees as potentially challenge to his model of governance. His main preoccupation is maintaining power and introduced by him rules of the game in Russia. I realized however, that model of governance he is backing, appeared to be unattractive for the Ukrainians. So he decided to impose to the West new, convenient from the point of view of his logic of political survival, rules of the game. He tries to force the West to accept, doesn’t matter willingly or unwillingly, that Russia must have an ultimate say as far as direction and path of development of ex-Soviet states is concerned.

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