Freezing Ukraine: Пан или Пропал

Title Translation: "Freezing Ukraine: All or Nothing" (Literal: "To Become a Master or a Deadman")

Ukraine's conflict is falling out of the international spotlight, and is headed for a protracted status similar to that of other frozen conflicts in the region. For now, Russia's foreign policy strategy appears to be succeeding.


The war in Eastern Ukraine is showing every indicator of becoming the latest “frozen conflict.” Russian foreign policy on former-Soviet bloc countries continues to evolve to the changing geopolitical environment, however its strategic goals remain largely unchanged. Historically, Russia counters western ideals in its sphere of influence by destabilizing and imposing economic hardship on a region. In the context of Eastern Ukraine, favorable conditions for the rebels indicate that the region may become autonomous, loyal to Russia, and a thorn in Ukraine’s side over the long term.


Historical Comparisons

The most prominent indication of Eastern Ukraine’s fate is the annexation of Crimea. Despite U.S. sanctions and international condemnation against Putin, Russian strategic goals in the region have not changed. The annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine are the results of the Euromaidan protests in 2014, after pro-Western rallies deposed President Viktor Yanukovych for backing out of a European Union (EU) association agreement. Today, the conflict between pro-Western and pro-Eastern interest groups persists, Ukraine continues to seek EU support, and Russia continues to wield its gas exports as soft power over Poroshenko’s government.

Crimea is not the only example of Russia’s foreign policy in action. In mid-2008, a war erupted between Russian-backed separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the Georgian government. The most significant root cause of the conflict was Georgia’s moves towards joining NATO, prompting Russia to destabilize the country so as to simultaneously prevent its membership and warn NATO against drawing too close to Russian borders. Today, Georgia’s bid to join has still not been fully approved, despite enormous strides made by the government. South Ossetia and Abkhazia are now Russia’s bargaining chips, influencing Georgian domestic policy and reducing the possibility of any substantial western influence in the region. The lesson learned in Georgia highlights the evolution of Russian tactics in Crimea.

The autonomous region of Gagauzia, a semi-autonomous zone in Moldova, displays another contention point between the west and east, but more importantly plays a potential role in destabilizing Ukraine as a whole. Regional Gagauz authorities proposed two referendums in early 2014: the first would allow citizens to seek support from the European Union (EU) or Russia’s Customs Union (CU), and the second would allow Gagauzia to become an autonomous region should Moldova lose sovereignty. Both referendums had approximately 98 percent support from the people, indicating enormous support for a pro-Russian agenda. Moldova is thus caught between a rock and a hard place; if the country allies with the west, Russia will likely intervene through Gagauzia and plunge the region into chaos. Conversely, an alliance with the east risks economic stagnation. Regardless of Moldova’s course of action, both decisions negatively impact Ukraine.

Farther south, Azerbaijan and Armenia have been in conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region since 1988. The conflict is responsible for yearly casualties in the double digits and enduring hostility between the countries’ populations, and is not likely to resolve any time soon. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan moved in polar opposite directions: Armenia drew closer to Russia, while Azerbaijan reached out for Western support. The West never fully supported Azerbaijan for fear of provoking Russia, restarting the war with Armenia, and because of the ongoing humanitarian issues under the Aliyev government. Meanwhile, Armenia accepted a large garrison of Russian troops, ensuring its continued protection should its less-capable military fail to stop an Azeri invasion. This protection comes at a price, however; the alliance also allows Moscow to maintain a strong hold over the region. Russia threatened to withdraw support from Armenia if the government signed an association agreement with the EU in early 2015. With both countries refusing to concede over Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia has the freedom to repel any western influence in the region.  

Russia’s Strategic Goals

Russia is attempting to re-establish itself as a dominant world power with a focus on soft power and criticizing US and NATO activities in Eastern Europe. During the 2012 elections, President Putin openly stated the west is a threat to Russia:

It seems that NATO countries, and especially the United States, have developed a peculiar understanding of security which is fundamentally different from our view. The Americans are obsessed with the idea of securing absolute invulnerability for themselves, which, incidentally, is a utopia, for both technological and geopolitical reasons. But that is exactly where the root of the problem lies. Absolute invulnerability for one nation would mean absolute vulnerability for everybody else. We cannot agree to this.

In the context of opposing western influence, Russian foreign policy is based on controlling its former satellites. If Russia is unable to wield soft influence over these nations, it employs its infamous hybrid warfare strategy to destabilize, disjoin, and exert long-term control over local political groups that ensure further discord when Russia demands. Observed hybrid tactics include: supporting rebel groups, spreading disinformation and propaganda, using sympathetic local leaders to manipulate votes, and covert and overt conventional military intervention.

To NATO’s despair, Russia continues to put pressure on the organization through the Baltic nations, and has been deploying conventional military forces in the area. In September 2014, President Putin boasted that he could occupy any Eastern European capital within two days. Since the announcement, NATO has been building up troops in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland due to Russian airborne military operations near the Baltic countries. Poland also announced it would increase the size of its ground forces by half. In response, the U.S. undertook its European Reassurance Initiative, increasing its military presence in the Baltic region and reinforcing NATO positions. For 2016, the U.S. DoD requested USD 789 million funding for the initiative; this will amount to USD 195.7 million less funding than in 2015, the main difference being the elimination of direct funding support for Ukraine and the Baltic nations. Growing tension between the East and West has developed into a hot topic in U.S. politics; former House Speaker John Boehner reassured Lithuania the US will counter Russian influence and continue supporting Ukraine.

While NATO moves to bolster its defenses in the Baltic region, Russia is developing alliances with former satellites in Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The alliances are an attempt to expand its influence in the region in order to preemptively counter any Western influence while easing pressure on its own economy. These alliances only recently expanded into close military cooperation; Russia and Tajikistan just recently agreed on a military deal that will extend into the next three decades. The agreement assures Tajikistan will receive Russian military support through Base 201, Russia’s largest international military deployment. Earlier in 2015, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) held a meeting in Kazakhstan to discuss military agreements with Russia. Experts on the region agreed that Russia is expanding its influence not only to combat terrorism in the region, but also to solidify its power.


Returning back to Eastern Ukraine, historical evidence provides strong support for its development into a long-term conflict, lasting for what could be decades. Pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine are mobilizing, seemingly eager to renew offensive operations in what will likely be the end of the latest two-month ceasefire. The cease-fire coincided with Russia’s intervention in Syria, and reaffirmed Moscow’s long-term goal of opposing western influence. With the world focused on Russia’s policies towards ISIS and Syria, and the recent downing of a Russian SU-24M Bomber by Turkey, the Russian peoples' support for Putin and anti-west sentiment will almost certainly increase in the next few months, exacerbating the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and decreasing the chance of a peaceful, enduring settlement.


Argument mapping methodology was used to develop this analysis.


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons