A complete break in diplomatic relations between Kiev and Moscow could be imminent, further complicating any chance of resolving the Ukraine crisis.


Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko during a news conference in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo: AP

For a very different take read the view from Russia: "Will Russia-Ukraine relations spiral out of control?"

After a recent cooling off period, Ukrainian-Russian relations once again are showing signs of becoming inflamed. In this case, the official reason for the worsening in relations is a diplomatic controversy concerning the next appointee for Russian Ambassador to Ukraine.

At the end of July, Russian President Vladimir Putin released ambassador Mikhail Zurabov from his post and replaced him with Mikhail Babich, the former representative of the Russian president in the Volga Federal District. Ukraine refused to accept this change, and did not receive the new ambassador.

According to diplomatic protocol, Ukraine — just like any other state — is under no obligation to reveal the reasons for not accepting a certain person to the post. However, according to public statements, the reason for the refusal was not only Russia’s political stance towards Ukraine but also the personal history of Mikhail Babich, who allegedly had ties with the Federal Security Service (FSB, formerly known as the KGB during the Soviet era), and has no prior experience in the diplomatic service.

As a result, both sides are now debating over the problem. The Russian side has been playing up comments by Ukraine’s deputy minister of information, Elena Zerkal, about the appointment of the new ambassador. At the same time, Moscow announced that Russia should not continue diplomatic relations with Ukraine since Kiev remains a “puppet” of the United States.

Later, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Pavel Klimkin, announced that Ukraine could not consider the candidacy of a new ambassador until Moscow fulfills the Minsk Agreements and stops supporting the Donbas separatists.

The appointment of an ambassador is ultimately the decision of the country where the diplomat is going. This appointment typically happens without much publicity. Ukraine called back its ambassador from Russia in Spring 2014 as a response to the events in Crimea. At this moment, there are almost no diplomatic relations between Russia and Ukraine. A temporarily appointed representative now expresses Ukraine’s interests with regard to Russia.

Given the media attention that this scandal has galvanized, it can be supposed that the Russian side wishes to emphasize that Ukraine is not looking to re-establish constructive diplomatic relations with Russia.

It seems to be relevant for the Russian information agenda, especially given some recent successful initiatives with Ukraine’s domestic policy, including stabilization of the economic situation and the nation's reinvigorated anti-corruption campaign. At first glance it is not related to Russia at all; yet if one looks deeper, there will be some hints about potential links with Moscow.

As the result of a recent investigation, a series of high-profile officials, who worked as part of the team of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (ousted as a result of the 2014 Euromaidan protests), were accused of corruption and taken into custody. Those arrested might reveal some inconvenient facts about the Kremlin’s probable interference in Ukraine’s domestic affairs during the period of Yanukovych’s tenure. And Moscow could be well aware of this. So, it cannot be ruled out that the diplomatic scandal is a hint from Russia not to cross the red line.       

Also read: "Why Ukraine doesn't need a new Russian ambassador"

Another aspect of the problem is the relatively successful implementation of Ukraine’s economic reforms and its economic independence from Russia. It means that, despite the conflict with Russia, Kiev keeps developing and implementing its economic reforms without relying on Russia. The idea here is that the Kremlin might not be interested in Ukraine’s economic success because it will have to account for it before its own domestic audience and work hard to present Ukraine in an unfavorable way.

This is especially true for the Russian media, which is directed both at the nation’s public and at the West. With these methods, the Russian government is attempting to discredit Ukraine in the eyes of Crimea's citizens as well as those living in Russia. It is also worthy to note that these developments are taking place right before the upcoming parliamentary elections in Russia, which are planned for Sept. 18.

It is also possible that the Kremlin seeks to draw the attention of its citizens away from internal political problems as well as ongoing economic challenges. This is accomplished by finding a common foe in its Ukrainian neighbor.

How do the events in Crimea affect diplomatic relations?

In the current context, it is worth mentioning that a few days after the decision by Kiev not to receive the new ambassador, Moscow officials spoke about breaking off relations completely following an incident in Crimea. According to the unconfirmed information of the FSB, released in early August, Ukrainian saboteurs were preparing terrorist acts on the territory of Crimea.

However, the Ukrainian side denies any involvement in the Crimean events, referring to the FSB claims as “fantasies.” Naturally, the alleged incidents have led to a worsening of relations between Russia and Ukraine. With such claims, the Russian side is attempting to create the impression for the world that Ukraine is engaged in terrorist actions.

Recommeded: "Did a Ukrainian sabotage operation in Crimea really happen?"

In response, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that Russian accusations about Ukrainian terrorist activity sound just as empty and cynical as the Kremlin’s statements that there are no Russian troops fighting in the Donbas. In addition, the Ukrainian side insists that Russia is conducting a further information attack in order to justify its actions in Ukraine.

The dubiousness of claims concerning the Crimean incident can be confirmed through contradictions that were found in the analysis of different Russian news sources. On Aug. 11 alone, Russian media sources reported five distinct versions of the supposed plans, everything from the Ukrainians trying to ruin the tourism season in Crimea, to them attempting to sabotage Russia's 2016 parliamentary elections, scheduled for September.

What is more, on the same day, there was a meeting of the UN Security Council, which discussed the increased tensions between Russia and Ukraine, and reaffirmed the territorial integrity of Ukraine. NATO also declared that Russia did not provide sufficient evidence in its accusations against Ukraine about this recent incident.

What can be the result of a complete break in relations?

The timing of the Summer Olympics in Rio, which coincided with the U.S. presidential race as well as the post-Brexit atmosphere in Europe, is evidently seen in Russia as a time to strengthen its strategic positions. Just a day before the Crimean incident, Moscow refused to meet within the Normandy Four format (it includes France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine), which could have occurred at the upcoming G20 summit.

Also read: "Rio Olympics open, controversy continues over Russia’s new ambassador to Ukraine"

In this sense, one can view all these events as being connected: the failed appointment of a new ambassador to Ukraine, probable provocations in Crimea, the refusal to meet within the Normandy Format, and rumors about a complete break in relations. They could prepare the groundwork for an escalation in the conflict. Perhaps this is how Russia is trying to discredit Ukraine and turn Kiev into an object of world political attention.

But most importantly, a complete break in diplomatic relations with Ukraine would first and foremost negatively affect Russia. An escalation in the conflict — either politically or militarily — almost completely eliminates any chance of the reduction or removal of U.S. or EU economic sanctions.

One must remember that a break in diplomatic relations is the most visible sign that relations between countries are no longer friendly. During such a time, the respective countries do not accept each other’s ambassadors, but the embassies and consulates keep working.  Such steps do not affect Ukrainians living in Russia. The other functions of the consulates continue operating normally.

In the case of a complete break of diplomatic relations, Ukraine would not suffer serious economic losses. When it comes to the supply of natural gas from Russia, blocking the transit of fuel goes against all international norms and laws. But even if things become this dire, the two countries will seek to find a way to cooperate and solve these specific problems, even if this has to be done informally.

In a broader context, it can be assumed that a threat of a complete break in relations is a ploy that is meant to work within Russia, on its domestic audience, as an instrument of influence on the Russian voter. It also reveals Russia’s reluctance to negotiate with the current Ukrainian ruling elite.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.