The West continues to suggest that Russia is engaged in a furtive “hybrid war” in Ukraine in an attempt to destabilize the country. But Russia has no interest in creating a new frozen conflict.
Pro-Russian rebels in Maryinka, Eastern Ukraine. Photo: RIA Novosti.
For a very different take read: "Russia's non-linear approach to war in Ukraine"
Russia’s strategy in Ukraine is the focus of attention in the West and in Russia itself. A common assertion in the United States and the European Union is that Russia is engaged in "hybrid warfare" in Ukraine.
At the same time, Russian public opinion increasingly blames the Kremlin for being "indecisive" in relation to Kiev and, even more so, Washington. There is a feeling that Moscow's Ukraine strategy is not fully understood in either the West or in Russia.
Endless arguments can be had about whether or not Russian troops are involved in the conflict in the Donbas. That is not the main issue. The main issue is how Russia views Ukraine as part of the broader concept of European security.
To date, the Kremlin’s strategy in Ukraine is twofold. First, far from trying to dismember Ukraine, Russia is trying to preserve the country’s territorial integrity within the boundaries as of February 12, 2015. Second, Russia is seeking to revitalize the "Norman format" and to secure an agreement with France and Germany.
Four key questions to ask about the Ukraine crisis
The Ukraine crisis raises more questions than answers. However, a moment’s reflection is sufficient to spot the cracks in the Western concept of “hybrid warfare” in Ukraine.
Question one: Why did the Kremlin not deliver a knockout blow to Ukraine when the country’s very statehood was threatened back in April 2014? In the period between Russia’s annexation of Crimea (March 21) and the brutal suppression of protests in Odessa (May 2), the entire southeastern part of Ukraine was seized by unrest. The Ukrainian army at that time was in the deployment phase.
If Russia had been engaged in hybrid warfare against its neighbor, it would have sufficed to recognize the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, before dispatching the “little green men” to Kharkov and Odessa. Nor has Russia ever tried to exploit the mood of protest in western Ukraine among the Hungarian, Rusyn and Hutsul minorities.
Question two: Why has Russia not employed the real mechanism of counter-sanctions against the West? Russia’s limited response was a food embargo against the United States and the EU, but instead it could have threatened to undermine the entire system of arms control and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The Kremlin could have withdrawn from the Strategic Arms Reduction (New START, 2010), the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF, 1987) and the Comprehensive Test Ban (CTBT, 1996) treaties, and then blocked the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and dismantled the international regime of control over uranium and plutonium trade.
Another measure could have been to withdraw from the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, thereby paralyzing the whole process of chemical weapons disarmament. Russia’s refusal to cooperate in space and nuclear energy would have hit the United States hard. Would the West have been willing to pay such a price for economic sanctions?
Meanwhile, post-Crimea the Kremlin never once vowed to exact revenge on the West. Calls for "retribution at any price" were absent from the rhetoric. Russia continued to stress the importance of maintaining cooperation in the area of security, and did not even close off NATO transits of military cargo into and out of Afghanistan.
Question three: Why has Russia not sent troops to Ukraine? On March 1, 2014, the Federation Council [the upper house of the Russian parliament] authorized the president to send troops to Ukraine. A condition for that was genocide or mass violation of Russian speakers’ rights in the Donbas region. The option was not exercised.
After the establishment of the Norman format, the Kremlin completely revised its position. On June 28, 2014, the Federation Council overturned its own ruling. Despite the ongoing hostilities in the Donbas, Moscow has never considered its restitution. Given the real leverage of retribution the Kremlin had over the United States, economic blackmail could hardly have been the reason for Moscow’s sudden change of heart.
Question four: Why has Russia never tried to exert economic pressure on Ukraine? True, Gazprom stopped gas supplies to Ukraine on June 16, 2014, but in December they resumed. Gazprom has been willing to make concessions on price by introducing, for instance, different tariffs for summer and winter.
Moscow has not severed all ties with Ukrainian enterprises and is not trying to prevent seasonal workers from coming to Russia (which would strike a significant blow to Ukraine’s economy). Neither is Russia demanding immediate repayment of Ukraine’s debt, which would be a major problem for Kiev.
Russia’s earlier attempts to change the debate on European security
The situation becomes clearer if one examines the Ukraine crisis in the context of European security. Over the past 50 years there have been two competing approaches to security in the Euro-Atlantic area. The Atlantic approach has been to focus on maintaining U.S. security assurances for its NATO allies.
The Euro-Atlantic approach recognized U.S. leadership in Europe, but sought to limit Washington’s scope for action through the signing of mutually binding agreements. The United States, Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway were advocates of Atlanticism, while the countries of continental Western Europe (primarily France and Germany) backed the Euro-Atlantic approach.
Starting in the mid-1960s, Soviet diplomacy favored dialogue with the Euro-Atlanticists. Russian diplomacy continued this trend. Since the mid-1990s Moscow has been trying to strengthen the role of the OSCE and to build a preferential dialogue with the Euro-Atlantic powers, i.e. France and Germany.
The Kosovo conflict in 1999 exposed the limits of this strategy, and demonstrated that neither Paris nor Berlin was willing to quarrel with Washington for Moscow’s sake. However, it reaffirmed their willingness to act as mediators between Russia and the United States.
Russia has been vocal on the crisis in European security since 2004, expressing concern over the increasing bureaucratization and inefficiency of the OSCE. However, all of Russia’s proposals on reforming Europe’s security system — from the European Security Treaty (2009) to the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative (2011) — were rejected. The de facto failure of the Munich conference in February 2012 deprived Russia of its last chance to reform the system of European security.
The Ukraine crisis has presented Moscow with an opportunity to revisit the issue. On the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke of the need to initiate a peace process in Ukraine.
There arose the notion of the "Norman format of negotiations," envisaging a non-regular forum between Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine. On July 2, 2014, Russia, France and Germany signed the Berlin memorandum on the establishment of a Contact Group in Ukraine. It was a bid by Russia and the leading countries of the EU to hold talks on European matters without the United States.
The limits of dialogue on Ukraine
For Russia-NATO relations, Franco-German mediation would be the best option, but at present, the chances of it happening are low. As a matter of principle, Angela Merkel’s cabinet stubbornly supports Washington, not Moscow. The administration of Francois Hollande has adopted a more flexible approach, but supports Kiev on the important issues.
For Russia, the Ukraine crisis has reconfirmed the unpleasant fact that the United States and continental Europe are still doing business. Without Franco-German mediation the West is showing a united, unfriendly (if not hostile) front. No country has yet to break ranks.
An international conference on Ukraine could hypothetically create a frozen conflict on the model of Transnistria or Nagorno-Karabakh. But Russia’s relations with the United States and the EU would not benefit. If the "Balkanization" of Ukraine becomes inevitable, NATO will try to push its line of influence as far as east as it can.
One consequence will be the collapse of the Russian-German partnership, which over the past 20 years has brought Moscow considerable dividends. Russia is currently trying to square the circle of standing firm while maintaining dialogue with France and Germany.
Russia’s goal is not to dismember Ukraine, but to hold an international conference on Ukraine while preserving the model of the Russian-German partnership. The talk is essentially about reviving the European security reforms blocked by the United States and Britain back in 2012.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.