At a panel discussion in Moscow, Russian experts discussed the odds of the fragile Minsk Agreements holding together and mulled over possible scenarios of how the Ukraine crisis might develop.

A Donetsk People's Republic militia at the destroyed market in a village in Donbas. Photo: RIA Novosti

Amidst the ongoing escalation in Eastern Ukraine and this week’s Berlin meeting of French, German and Ukrainian leaders, a group of Russian foreign policy experts came together at a panel discussion hosted by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) in Moscow to discuss the future of the increasingly fragile Minsk Agreements.

The experts made an attempt to understand the origins, implications and prospects of the conflict in Ukraine. In particular, several well-known experts presented their reports on the Minsk Agreements: Andrey Sushentsov, a political expert from Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), and Sergey Markedonov and Alexander Gushchin, both experts from Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH). 

According to Sushentsov, what is going on in Ukraine today is the continuation of the collapse of the Soviet Union. He sees the events in Donbas as the delayed civil war that didn’t happen after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. All this indicates that the Ukraine conflict resulted from the structural flaws in the international system after 1991.

And today one of the important challenges for Russia and Ukraine is to decrease their deep interdependence that formed during the Soviet era in order to reach a new balance. An asset during times of friendly cooperation between Kiev and Moscow, this interdependence is a liability during a crisis. And so the Kremlin is trying to get rid of this asset today.

Because of this multilayer interdependence — which includes the energy sector, finance, trade, industry and the labor market— the relations between Russia and Ukraine “cannot be dissolved very fast” and this process will take a great deal of time, according to Sushentsov. And economic interdependency exacerbates the situation. For example, in 2013 Ukraine received 85 percent of its gas and 100 percent of the fuel for its nuclear power stations from Russia. This type of economic activity cannot be curtailed quickly unless there are extraordinary circumstances.

“Never ever had Ukraine been an easy and loyal partner for Russia,” he said, pointing to the lack of certainty in Kiev’s policy toward Moscow. “More often, Moscow has dealt with an unfriendly Ukraine.”

As a result, this has forced Russia and Ukraine to often divide what’s happening in the political realm from what’s happening in the economic realm. Each country has strived to protect its economic relationship. Yet recently it has become more difficult to draw the boundary between economics and politics.  That’s why Russia now seeks to loosen its ties with Ukraine.

Political relations between the two countries have meanwhile deteriorated. In the latest National Security Strategy of Ukraine, Russia is considered to be a long-term threat to the country’s security. At the same time, Ukraine is described as a Western outpost to counter Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space. This bears long-term effects on Ukraine’s military planning and creates an inability for Russia to treat the country as its partner.

At the same time, Moscow prefer to see Kiev as a bridge between the West and Russia, which means that Ukraine should be neutral, as seen by the Kremlin. And Sushentsov doesn’t rule out this scenario.

Identity crisis in Ukraine

One of the factors that spurred the conflict in Ukraine is the country’s identity crisis, which resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union and was given greater impetus by the votes of Ukrainians on the country’s integration into Europe and its accession to NATO.

In particular, Sushentsov identifies three main groups in the division of the population.

One “mainstream” group includes the patriots, or the Nationalists, who believe that Ukraine is for Ukrainians. The second group includes Russians, who now want Russia to play a greater role in Ukrainian politics, pushing the situation to the brink of open warfare between the two countries. The third group, a minority that Sushentsov refers to as the “statists,” include those who acknowledge that Ukraine needs to embrace a spirit of integration and the diversity that it inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union

This third group speaks for geopolitical and economic balance when it comes to cooperation with the West and with Russia. Yet, they are marginalized and their opinions are often sidelined as pro-Russian sycophancy.

Likewise, Markedonov believes that the identity crisis is a very serious challenge, because it reveals to what extent ordinary Ukrainians are loyal to the project of the Ukrainian state as an outpost of the West to counterbalance Russia’s clout in the post-Soviet world.  

At the same time, Sushentsov admits that Russia was wrong in its estimates that Ukraine was an unimportant problem for the last 20 years. When asked about the Kremlin’s negligent attitude toward Ukraine as an object of international relations, the expert said that the problem stems not from Russia, but from Kiev’s difficulties in coming up with its own identity. Instead of becoming a subject of international relations, Ukraine remained an object of international relations. Markedonov echoes this view: It is easy to announce a country independent, but it is much more difficult to form identity.  

Russia’s foreign policy in Ukraine

Sushentsov sees Russia’s policy toward Ukraine in last two years as a case of "force majeure." He argues that the Kremlin’s goal in Donbas is not to defeat Ukraine, and not to ensure victory for the rebels, but to put all participants of the conflict at the negotiation table.

“Russia is for reintegration of the Donbas into Ukraine,” he said, adding that the Minsk Agreements are futile because Kiev is not ready to incorporate Donbas under the terms of the Minsk Agreements.

Sushentsov argues that Russia only started to “energetically support” the resistance in the middle of summer 2014 when force was implemented. He believes that the conflict could remain in a “frozen state” until the next Ukrainian elections in 2018.

Meanwhile, it is almost certain that until the next electoral cycle, Russia will also face a lack of cooperation from Ukrainian leaders, forcing it to diminish its century-long connection to the country.

Ukraine: “Big Bosnia” or “Big Croatia”?

Experts agree that on a more global scale, what the international community can do now is cooperate to create a unified approach to Ukraine and the conflict. The question now remains whether an anti-Russian sentiment will become a permanent feature of Russian-Ukrainian relations and whether Ukraine will be able to solve its structural problems and create an identity.

Over a longer period of time, such as the next twenty years, Sushentsov sees the most likely development as Ukraine and Russia becoming ordinary neighbors. He dismisses the two extreme scenarios — Russia-West cooperation or their extensive confrontation over Ukraine — as highly unlikely. He takes a more realistic approach. Ukraine is problem for all, he said, and nobody will resolve this challenge together. Instead,stakeholders will try to minimize the consequences of the problem and at least prevent it from escalation.   

Also read: "What are the Kremlin’s new red lines in the post-Soviet space?"

According to Markedonov, the problem is the conflict of interests of the major stakeholders. Moscow prefers to see Ukraine as “a Big Bosnia” with its numerous factions and diversity. Certain parties see themselves as outposts of the West, while others identify themselves as pro-Russia, which creates a sort of balance and a sort of safety net against Ukraine’s membership in NATO.Meanwhile, Kiev is more interested in creating “a Big Croatia,” a homogeneous Ukraine that has much higher chances to enter NATO.

So, this is the reason why everybody should be concerned. Most experts at the RIAC panel discussion agree that while a frozen conflict is a good scenario, it also has it nuances. To quote Gushchin, freezing the Ukrainian conflict is the lesser of two evils. He points out that “this is also an evil,” because the Donbas rebels will further depend on Russia, which could increase the risks of toughening sanctions from the West. So, the expert is very pessimistic, because freezing the conflict is not beneficial for Russia strategically.    

Meanwhile, Markedonov warns against what he calls the “total unfreezing” of the Ukrainian crisis, which means an absolute disregard of the Minsk Agreements. What brings more optimism in today’s highly charged atmosphere is the fact that all sides admit the urgent need to observe the Minsk Agreements. However, this compromise doesn’t resolve the impending challenges amidst the ongoing escalation in Eastern Ukraine. Gushchin is very skeptical about a “total unfreezing,” but doesn’t rule it out, because from both sides of the barricades there are enough players who are very interested in a thawing and escalation of the Donbas war.