Scenarios on Moscow-Kyiv ties
JOHN HERBST*What lies in the future in Ukraine-Russian ties? What are the possible scenarios?
In the near and medium term the question of Ukraine-Russia relations is essentially a question about the hybrid war Moscow is waging in Ukraine. Moscow seized Crimea by force and launched its not quite covert war in Ukraine’s East last year with a maximum and minimum objective. The maximum objective was to somehow put in place a government in Kyiv subordinate to the Kremlin. This objective is simply not going to happen. The lesser goal was to destabilize the government in Kyiv so that it could not implement serious reform and move decisively towards the West. Moscow hoped to do this “secretly” in order to prevent the U.S. and the EU from sanctioning it for aggression. Moscow’s efforts to destabilize Ukraine have thus far not been successful. The Ukrainians fought so well that the Kremlin had to send in regular troops in August of 2014 to prevent a complete rout of its proxies in the Donbass. This intervention ensured that he sectoral sanctions that the U.S. and the EU had levied would be renewed, as they were this year. Coupled with the sharp decline in oil and gas prices, the sanctions have put the Russian economy into recession.
There are several possible scenarios for the development of relations between Moscow and Kyiv over the next two years; but they depend principally on decisions in Moscow. In response to its failing policy, the Kremlin has for the first time sharply reduced the violence in Ukraine’s East. It is hoping that the reduction in violence will persuade the EU to ease sanctions in January. This will not happen. The EU will insist that Moscow meet all its obligations under the Minsk ceasefire. At that point, President Putin will pursue one of three options. He could return to the policy of limited, hybrid war, which has led to the current impasse. He could escalate sharply, involve either Russian air power or twenty thousand or more armored troops to push deeply into Ukraine to destabilize the country or he could establish a “frozen conflict” in Ukraine’s East where there is little or no fighting, but no settlement either. His proxies remain in control of part of the Donbass.
This is the most likely outcome for the next year or two. Moscow could also move to settle the conflict by meeting its Minsk commitments; but that would mean Ukraine gets back all of the Donbass, control of its border with Russia and retains the right to choose its own political and economic systems and national security policy. Moscow may eventually move in this direction – because the problems created by its efforts to control or destabilize Ukraine have been so costly – but it will likely take some time to do so.
*Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council