Forecast: U.S. Elections To Influence Ukraine Conflict

America's elections are heating up - and the entire world is watching. How will the race to the top shift the balance of power, and will the situation in Ukraine escalate?



The U.S. elections are moderately likely to contribute to short-term spikes in conflict in Ukraine though they may play a small role in Washington’s and Moscow’s calculus about resolution through late 2016. The trend toward a hawkish approach to Russia among major candidates in both the Democratic and Republican parties will contribute to aggressive national rhetoric; Kiev is incentivized to capitalize on any domestic U.S. discussion on Ukraine and to mobilize the Ukrainian diaspora. Overall, the Kremlin is likely to take American rhetoric in stride, but the outcome of the elections may contribute to a desire to resolve the crisis prior to a new administration taking office.


A Variety of Hawkish Platforms

The majority of U.S. presidential candidates from both the Republican and Democratic parties have presented a foreign policy platform that is more aggressive than the current administration’s strategy. While Ukraine has not featured heavily in campaign issues thus far, a flare-up in violence may elicit a reaction by candidates as the primaries shift to the general election and detailed policy positions are stated. Support for strong national defense and public debate on foreign intervention in this election will likely shift the national sentiment toward a more assertive role internationally.

Republican candidates, including Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Scott Walker, have all taken harsh lines against Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine Crisis and the Obama administration’s reaction. Most interesting is the position taken by Donald Trump—he supports negotiating directly with President Putin and questions European allies’ commitment to ending the crisis.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who served in the first Obama administration, is more conciliatory toward the current approach though she will likely pursue a more aggressive U.S. foreign policy than President Obama. The other major candidate in the Democratic camp, Senator Sanders, has traditionally stressed a more cooperative foreign policy but has backed sanctions and voiced support for Ukraine.


The Politics of Increasing Violence

For Kiev especially, violence in eastern Ukraine during the elections provides an opportunity to raise awareness of the conflict among the American public and to force the political debate to consider the conflict in an anti-Russian light.

While hostilities are likely to play into pro-Kiev rhetoric in US elections, this may shift Russian and separatist tactics toward minimizing open conflict and seeking to cast their positions as peaceful in the face of government aggression. However, recent flare-ups show that the conflict is not eliciting a reaction in the U.S., encouraging moderate levels of conflict so long as it does not attract strong international attention.


Kiev Capitalizes on Publicity

It is likely that President Poroshenko will provide commentary on candidates’ levels of support for Ukraine to both raise the issue and to activate the Ukrainian diaspora, which stands at nearly one million in the United States. In neighboring Canada, which hosts the largest Ukrainian population outside Russia, political activism among Ukrainian-Canadians has contributed to PM Harper’s position on the crisis and Ottawa’s recent trade deal with Kiev.

Not unlike Israeli PM Netanyahu’s vocal commentary on US policy in the Middle East, it is reasonable to expect that Poroshenko will at weigh in on domestic developments and try to tie the conflict to a wider confrontation between Russia and the West.


Moscow-Washington Calculus

Both Moscow and Washington may shift their overall calculus regarding Ukraine over the next year and a half as a result of the U.S. elections. Low probability events, like the downing of MH17, significantly raise the Ukraine Conflict’s profile internationally. Moscow will seek to minimize such events or the escalation of conflict to the extent that US interest rises. That current polls suggest a more hardline approach will come from the next president may nudge the Kremlin toward deescalating the confrontation with the West and supporting a genuine ceasefire in Ukraine. 

Concurrently, the Obama administration is concerned with shaping its legacy during the time left in office. This translates into minimizing the United States’ embroilment in Ukraine’s conflict directly and countering Russia in the NATO format. Should events on the ground improve or a harsh anti-Russian candidate prompts Moscow to take a conciliatory tone, the U.S. elections may contribute to a resolution of the crisis prior to a new administration taking office. However, this possibility is less likely than the elections contributing to publicity-driven violence and an overall rise in anti-Russia or anti-separatist positioning in the national debate.


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