Russia Prevents Ukraine from Joining West

Sean Para, Columnist

The calm that has settled over eastern Ukraine in the past two months has been billed by many as a victory for the West. Russia, as the narrative goes, has failed to take over the territory as it had originally intended. The Russian economy has been battered by sanctions and the drop in oil prices, a staunch juxtaposition to Ukraine’s economic outlook, which includes state reform and a potential political recovery. “Ukraine has turned toward the West and is lost to Russia forever,” experts say. While this is a convenient narrative for Western governments, it is patently false.

The “Russia lost in Ukraine” narrative does rely on facts and evidence. It is certainly true that the Ukraine crisis has isolated Russia internationally, that the sanctions have had a dire effect on its economy and that everything did not go as Putin might have hoped. Nonetheless, the war in the Donbass and Russia’s larger hybrid war against Ukraine have achieved their core objectives — Ukraine has lost crucial parts of its country and will never become a serious threat to Moscow as long as Crimea and Donbass remain outside of its control.

The seizure of Crimea and the creation of the rebel People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk follow a longstanding trend in Russian foreign policy that emerged just after the fall of the Soviet Union. An obscure example was the self-rule of Transnistria in 1990. This largely Russian-speaking region declared its independence from Moldova in an attempt to remain part of the Soviet Union before its 1991 collapse. The conflict remains unresolved, with a working relationship between the rebel region and the Moldovan government. Russian troops remain ensconced in the Transnistria, theoretically as guarantors of the 1992 ceasefire but effectively as an occupation force. This “frozen conflict” has become an effective tool for Russia to project influence across the post-Soviet space. Its military dominance among its neighbors allows Russia to follow through with small, effective military campaigns that do not escalate into major wars, since the outcome of one would be obvious. The rebel republics act as levers for Moscow to influence these various former Soviet republics. Trouble will arise should they draw too close to the U.S.-led alliance system. Most importantly, they have worked. Moldova, Georgia and Armenia — which have pro-Russian separatist statelets — have not been able to embrace NATO the way that the Baltic states have. Moldova continues to stay somewhere in between committing to either side. The 2008 Russo-Georgian War effectively shelved Georgia’s accession to NATO as well. In Ukraine, the same thing has happened yet again. Russia has been able to bully its neighbors time and time again due to its preponderant power in the post-Soviet space.

The creation of a frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine is now all but assured. The only other option is more bloodshed. The Minsk II agreement reached in February has slowly come into effect. After nine months, an actual ceasefire has taken hold. The Donetsk and Luhansk Republics are, for the first time, accepting the idea of staying part of Ukraine in some form, and the government in Kiev is not attempting to destroy the rebel republics. As long as this situation holds, it is impossible that Ukraine will ever join NATO, as countries with outstanding territorial conflicts cannot join the alliance system.

War could break out at any time in the east should Ukraine do anything too dissatisfying to Moscow. While Putin did not succeed in adding Ukraine to his Eurasian Economic Union or turning it into a subordinate ally like Belarus or Kazakhstan, he was able to prevent the total loss of Ukraine; Ukraine will be unable to reform and become a Western-style liberal democracy in the foreseeable future. This outcome is not surprising given the asymmetry of Russia and the West’s respective relationships with Ukraine.

Ukraine and Russia have only been separate countries for 24 years. Ukraine has always been central to the Russian national myth, Russia’s economy and its security. Putin is willing to do absolutely anything to prevent it from coming under Washington’s sway.

On the other hand, Ukraine is simply not as important to the West. Therefore, Western foreign policy should seek to further the present situation, as it represents the best possible compromise between the interests of Russia and the West. Further attempts at incorporating Ukraine into the NATO alliance system will only inflame tensions.