Russia’s use of force in Donbas and Crimea consolidated Ukrainian public opinion in opposition and will cloud future relations.
By Volodymyr Dubovyk*
Russia relations with Ukraine in the post-Soviet era may certainly be divided into two periods uneven in length. The first one was a period of relative peace between 1991 and 2014. The second one is ongoing, a time of war, since the end of February 2014. Hopefully, the second period will end up much shorter one than the first. However, there are many reasons to expect that the next period – the post-war one – will differ from the first. It might yet be another period of peace, but a very different kind of peace.
Vladimir Putin’s gamble of using military force in Crimea and Donbas has changed the relationship drastically. Ukraine has achieved levels of consolidation previously unseen. One indicator of the change in public attitudes is a dramatic increase of support for Ukraine’s membership in NATO. For years, the public was divided on this issue more or less evenly. Today Ukrainians recognize that to deal with the Russian threat Ukraine needs a collective security arrangement. Talk of a Budapest memorandum being a sufficient safeguard of Ukraine’s security, former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma’s “multi-dimensional foreign policy” or former President Viktor Yanukovich’s “active neutrality” have proved irrelevant. A referendum on NATO membership in Ukraine could count on a comfortable win.
Consolidation of the Ukrainian public on opposition to Russian aggression is not indefinite, though. First, the longer the conflict lasts, the bigger toll it claims – in lives and resources. This conflict is very much observable in Ukraine, unlike in Russia. On the one hand, this only strengthens the resolve. But on the other, people cannot help but ask: How more lives should be sacrificed? A de-facto stalemate at the front in Donbas reinforces this sentiment somewhat. For many, the very fact that defenders of Ukraine prevent aggression from spreading is good in itself. For others, perhaps, that is not enough. For one side in the conflict, the tactics of “we are not there,” the convenient plausible deniability, is working. The other is aware and knows the ultimate price Ukrainians are paying. In terms of resources, funding the war effort means that money is underinvested in infrastructure, social sphere, creating new jobs and more.
For Ukraine, one front is a very real one in Donbas, and another one is a “front” of advancing reforms. There is an essential axis between the two. The public asks the question: Is the government of our country doing enough on that domestic “front” while the opportunity to do so is bought with the blood of the patriots at the actual front? There have been numerous advances in reforms since Euromaidan in 2013. But for some, it appears that the chance for a breakthrough is being squandered. This becomes, it seems, a major tool for Putin: “Just wait ‘til there is enough discord among Ukrainians, to wear them down.”
At the moment, it looks like the public could remain a main roadblock for such a compromise. In previous years Ukraine’s relations with Moscow were insulated from the public, but not anymore. The ideology or unforgiving stance towards Russian aggression has become a material force. And this is not something manifested exclusively by a small bunch of ultranationalists, but something involving most of the public. Take the case of the controversial idea for a blockade of Donbas, for instance, initially supported by certain hard nationalists and war veterans. The government was critical, even supporting punishment for the initiators. However, it was soon discovered that this idea enjoyed public support. So, the government flipped on this issue, and the blockade has become an official policy. Another highly controversial idea: Kyiv providing the so-called DPR/LPR – the two Russian-backed and self-proclaimed republics of Luhansk and Donetsk – with some sort of a special status. If implementation was solely up to the government, or even parliament, it would have been possible to expect this policy to be delivered. But with the public antagonistic to the idea, the government is limited in what it could do. The response is not from nationalists in the government or on the streets, but the nationalistic mindset of the public, the hardened collective psyche of many Ukrainians.
One outcome of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian conflict is that the Ukrainian political spectrum is currently lacking a pro-Russian force. For the most part, opposition is limited to what any opposition does – criticizing the post-Euromaidan authorities. The realm of criticism is limited to social and economic issues and policies. The most ardent supporters of such a “Norosossiya” idea within Ukraine are dispersed, politically underrepresented. A key factor in shaping their views is the shocking images of the obliteration and destruction of Donbas. For many, those willing to entertain the idea of some sort of autonomy from Kyiv for their towns and regions or even a full secession, the price is visibly too high, not to mention that Russia shows no sign, at least presently, of willingness to annex parts of Donbas in the same way it did with Crimea. Of course, the whole idea of “Nororossiya” was met with fierce resistance by many in Ukraine’s East and South.
It is with the more moderate pro-Russian segment of Ukraine’s population where Russian aggression has led to a dramatic decrease in support. Many once believed that Ukraine should be close to Russia instead of focusing on European and Euroatlantic integration. When Putin opted in favor of “hard power” in dealing with Ukraine at the expense of “soft power,” he lost this segment. The image of Russia as a benevolent friend, a “big brother” has been shattered.
Another major implication of the current Russo-Ukrainian conflict is almost complete disappearance of the language issue, a major concerns in the years prior to Euromaidan, from the agenda of core issues. Massive participation of Russian speakers in fighting Russian aggression has been a major factor behind this development, and the issue could yet make a comeback in Ukrainian political life.
The fighting in Donbas continues, and the Minsk agreement is not working in the sense that it is not preventing the continuation of hostilities. Some might say that the agreement does work to prevent an escalation into larger-scale conflict. But there are reasons to believe that other considerations, strategies and limitations of warring sides may actually prevent escalation. There is no formal alternative to “Minsk,” however, and it clearly could not be seen as a foundation to peace. The nature, the very character, of Ukraine-Russia relations has undergone profound changes during the last four years, some described above. These must be taken into account when thinking about the future format of post-war relations between these countries.
*Volodymyr Dubovyk is associate professor with the Department of International Relations and director of the Center for International Studies, Odessa Mechnikov National University. This article is based on a longer paper he presented at a conference on Regime Evolution, Institutional Change, and Social Transformation in Russia: Lessons for Political Science, April 27, 2018, at the MacMillan Center, Yale University.