Ukraine-Russia: Scenarios for the Development of Bilateral Relations

01:39 PM 2-9-2015

Policy paper was prepared under the joint project of the Institute of World Policy and Caucasian House “Ukraine: out of the crisis through dialogue”, supported by the British Embassy in Ukraine.To download the full publication, please, click here.

Scenarios of development with regard to the relations between Ukraine and Russia on the one hand, and between Russia and the West on the other, are currently in demand on the analytical market. In this report, the authors would like to complete a traditional scenario pertaining to these interstate relations with the analysis of the inter-public relations because we are sure that societies of both states can take the position different from an official one, and are able to demonstrate flexibly while responding to the changes in a political environment. We consider the inter-societal relations to be an important independent factor or variable in the given circumstances.

Development of a political situation
Renewal of military operations in eastern Ukraine is certainly the worst of the possible scenarios. The open participation of the Russian Federation in fighting on the side of the LPR-DPR, as well as large-scale offensive, remains an improbable scenario, considering the price which Russia will pay from political, economic and reputational point of view. However, even limited military operations with the purpose of broadening the territory under control of the separatists, will significantly aggravate an economic and political situation in the Ukraine that will in turn lead to the radicalization of Ukrainian society, and the strengthening of confrontational rhetoric at the level of officials and in the mass media. Russia’s support to fostering viability to the separatist republics in Donbass will become a main target of this rhetoric.
Although combat capacity and level of supply of the Ukrainian army significantly improved during the last year, the military and economic capacity of both Ukraine and Russia which is supporting insurgents of DPR and LPR are disparate. The further increase in military expenses, decrease in business activity and destruction of infrastructure, an inevitable consequence of renewal of military operations, and a new flow of internally displaced persons will put the weakened economy of Ukraine on a brink of collapse. At the same time, the events of 2014 showed that during moments of crisis, Ukrainian society was ready to unite and mobilize all available resources to fight back the disintegration of the Ukrainian state. Current level of patriotism, and the consolidation of Ukrainian society allow Ukrainian authorities to be able to mobilize considerable human and financial resources for the needs of army if combat operations are to resume. In case of implementation of the escalation scenario, radicalization and militarization of political discourse in Ukraine will become inevitable. In light of escalated confrontation, Ukrainian citizens, presumably, will expect more determined actions from their leader, including official recognition of the fact that Ukraine is in a situation of war, and its main opponent is the Russian Federation. In such conditions, the Ukrainian government, seeking to maintain legitimacy in the minds of its citizens, will be forced to replace the reconciliatory rhetoric with something more aggressive. Thus, a possible change of government in Ukraine, which cannot be excluded in case of prolonged confrontation, will only bring more radical politicians to leading positions.

Development of a situation at the level of societies
The dynamics of the public mood of Ukraine’s population show that the continuation of confrontation leads to the growing number of supporters to Ukraine’s independent foreign policy, European course and, what is especially indicative, Euro-Atlantic integration. Russia turns from “strategic partner” to “strategic enemy”, and for a survival in the neighborhood with Russia, Ukraine has, by an example of Israel, to constantly strengthen the army and intelligence services and, perhaps, even to build walls. The tendency of decreasing of the Ukrainian-Russian relations observed today (from culture to trade) will only amplify which in turn will lead to even bigger reorientation to the strengthening of ties with EU member states, and first and foremost, with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Currently the negative feelings of Ukrainians are directed towards the Russian authorities and Russia as a state. However, the continuation of the military confrontation, along with a misunderstanding between representatives of the two nations, which will only deepen due to the radical differences in perceptions and analysis of the conflict, could lead to the isolation and alienation of Ukrainians in relation to Russians. As a result, aggression and hatred will prevail. Similar developments in the long term can lead to the breakup of relations between the two countries, and the emergence of a sharp inter-ethnic hostility at the household level. Such a scenario is the most probable with the aggressive promotion of nationalism in the media from both sides.

Development of a political situation
Incomplete compliance to the Minsk agreements of February 2015, with unwillingness of one of the parties or all parties to hold further negotiations can lead to the actual freezing of the conflict and, in the long term, transformation of part of the territory of Donbass into an analogue of the unrecognized Transnistrian Moldavian Republic. Currently even in light of compliance to a ceasefire regime (that, however, doesn’t exclude possibility of incidental clashes on the front line), realization of a political part of the plan for peaceful settlement of the conflict is causing serious doubts both in expert community, and in political circles. It is possible to assume that leaders of the self-proclaimed republics will want to remain in power which cannot be automatically guaranteed by carrying out the procedure of elections provided in the Minsk agreements. Procedure of elections and control of their legitimacy will become the main subject of dispute with the Ukrainian authorities. In its turn, Kiev possesses such powerful tool of influence on Donbass as an economic blockade. As well as in a case of other frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union, economic blockade as a reaction to the preservation of current leaders of DPR-LPR in power will mean, probably, further economic decline and a devastation of Donbass, its transformation into the center of constant instability and threats to the safety of the region as a whole. At the same time, in case of such a scenario Donbass, presumably, can count on a certain economic support from Russia. However, this potential support probably will be rather limited, considering deterioration of a macroeconomic situation in Russia caused by low prices of energy resources and economic sanctions introduced by the western countries against Russia.

We should note that potential UN peacekeeping operation on the line of separation in Donbass will rather lead to freezing of the conflict than to its settlement because presence of the peacekeeping contingent will mean that there are two recognized parties of the conflict – the central power and separatist units. In that case Kiev will have to rather replace the discourse of anti-terrorist operation with a discourse about the internal conflict, which is politically unacceptable for the Ukrainian authorities.
The Russian-Ukrainian relations in the scenario of frozen conflict can be described as “cold peace”. Unlike the confrontational scenario described above Kiev will abstain from radical steps, and support cooperation in a number of directions which are important for Kiev authorities. Actually, such approach is supported by Russia which has been offering to separate problems in bilateral relations from the rest of the spectrum of interaction. However, for Ukraine it will be the forced and unreliable cooperation, and therefore, in parallel with maintaining dialogue, Kiev will make efforts to minimize dependence on Russia, first of all in economic and energy fields. Without having enough resources for resolution of problems and disputes in a bilateral format, Kiev will seek an expansion of a role of the western states in joint talks with Moscow (as a mediator, an arbitrator and a source of moral support).
Freezing of the conflict instead of its settling means for Ukraine that it will have to live in conditions of continuous threat of renewed military operations or possible terrorist attacks, thus, strengthening the defensive sector as well as its eastern borders will remain among the main priorities of the Ukrainian government. The parties, each with its own motives, will try to keep the existing uncertainty in the Russian-Ukrainian relations at the official level. However, there is no doubt that the Ukrainian leadership will consider the Russian Federation as a major foreign policy threat and formulate a new military and political doctrine accordingly to the circumstances. In general, the dynamics of the Ukrainian-Russian relations will largely depend on conjectural factors and the situation in the conflict zone.

For Russia, the scenario of conflict freezing, to some extent, can be considered as a more favourable one than for Ukraine. Russia’s goal is to support the aspiration of the Donbass to achieve autonomy from Kiev. If autonomy is not possible within the framework of an all-Ukrainian political process of decentralization, Moscow will choose to freeze the conflict to ensure that Donbass will have if not official legitimate autonomy, but at least de facto illegitimate autonomy.

Development of a situation at the level of societies
In the Russian society conflict freezing will be perceived rather as the positive decision because it will allow to stop full-scale military operations. Surely, in case of economic blockade of Donbass from Ukraine it is probable that the number of separatist regions’ residents who want to relocate to Russia temporarily or permanently for economic or safety reasons, will increase. Such situation will create certain tensions in the borderline of Russian regions, which have been accepting immigrants from a conflict zone. Nevertheless, if the armed conflict, was deemed by Russians as temporary, freezing of the conflict creates conditions in which residents of Donbass can relocate to Russia for longer terms for economic reasons. At the same time, the irritation of Russians will be rather localized in border regions and the Russian society in general will rather gradually and positively change the attitude to Ukraine considering that the termination of armed conflict is a positive result.
The attitude of Ukrainians towards freezing will be rather negative because the risk of economic and political destabilization will remain. Existence of unresolved territorial conflict will significantly complicate European and Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine, and also hinder its economic development. In this regard it is possible to assume that growth of discontent of Ukrainians with the authorities which allowed freezing, and Russia which opposes rapprochement of Ukraine with the West will be observed. Freezing will be perceived by Ukrainians not as a way to provide a political autonomy of the eastern Ukraine but as a tool for Russia to achieve its geopolitical objectives. However, it should be noted that in condition of relative stabilization in a conflict zone attention of the Ukrainian society will be completely concentrated on achievements of the authorities in the sphere of fighting against corruption, carrying out internal reforms according to the European model. Hesitation of the Ukrainian leadership and a delay in keeping these same promises will definitely lead to the growth of protest moods among the population, and as a result, the aggravation of the political situation in the country. However, the progress in the path of reforms will increase the number of supporters of Ukraine’s European integration, both within the country and in the EU.

Development of a political situation
In case of the most optimistic long-term forecasts, resumption of cooperation and partnership between Russia and Ukraine after the turmoil in 2014 is only possible in the long run. Even with the change of power in Russia and in Ukraine (in Ukrainian public discourse personally Vladimir Putin appears to be as the main cause of the crisis, in Russian one – respectively, Poroshenko personally), the restoration of confidence will be a difficult and lengthy process for both states. Even if the settlement of the conflict in Donbass will take a course acceptable both for Russia, and Ukraine, particularly, in case of full implementation of the Minsk arrangements, Crimea will remain the factor which will set a tone, define contents and character of the Ukrainian- Russian relations for many years to come. Strong support among the population of the Russian Federation to the “reunion with the Crimea” (as it is represented in an official Russian discourse), the emotional component of this step and an extensive use of historical argumentation make the return of the peninsula to Ukraine extremely improbable, regardless of who will be president of Russia in future.
Restoration of cooperation will require not only overcoming differences, but also identifying what uniting factors are. While elaborating scenarios of development of the Russian-Ukrainian relations in 2010-2020, the Ukrainian expert Katerina Shinkaruk came to a conclusion that the leading role in determination of nature of development of the Russian-Ukrainian relations will be played by strategy (rivalry or cooperation) to be chosen by Russia in the relations with the West. Events of 2014 confirmed this thesis. In Ukraine dominating perception, both at the level of the elites, and at the level of society, is that Russia has been forcing Ukraine to choose between rapprochement with the EU and partnership with Russia. Wider problem of compatibility of formats of regional cooperation for the countries of the former Soviet Union in case of Ukraine and Russia leads to deterioration of the bilateral relations. In a situation whereby it was impossible to solve a problem of simultaneous participation of Ukraine in the Russian-centered formats and the EU-focused formats at the bilateral Russian-Ukrainian level, Ukraine, after events of 2014, made a choice in favor of a European path. Thus, regional integration at the former Soviet Union is being discredited more and more in Ukraine both at the official level, and at the level of public perception, as a form of interaction based on shadow communications between political elites and business elites of the different countries. Therefore, European experience seems to Ukraine as opportunity to get out of an economic crisis and to create a more effective system of government. Respectively, Ukrainian’s demand for Russia to respect the European choice of Ukraine will get stronger. In turn, the attitude of Russia to the European choice of Ukraine will be defined by the relations of Russia with the European Union and by the policy of EU regarding sanctions and energy cooperation.

Development of a situation at the level of societies
Polls show that the attitude of Russians and Ukrainians towards each other still remains rather positive. It should also be noted that in the previous years, percentage of the surveyed Ukrainians who treated Russians kindly exceeded the percentage of the Russians who had positive opinion about their neighbors. At the same time the attitude towards the authorities of the neighboring country both in Ukraine, and in Russia is rather negative. The bilateral relations have also been evaluated by respondents as bad for many years. The Level of mutual goodwill of the two societies, at the same time, needs to be reinforced. The official bilateral relations will apparently remain cool at least in mid-term perspective. Respectively, improvement of the relations at the level of different societies remains the responsibility of Ukrainians and Russians who, judging by polls, are able to distinguish between personal and kinship ties from the interstate relations.
For realization of the third favorable scenario it is necessary to develop contacts on the level of public diplomacy and to provide venues for societies to interact directly with each other without participation of governmental institutions. So, mutual rapprochement is promoted not only through bilateral relations but also by joint educational programs with issuance of double-degree diplomas, exchanges at the level of students and the lecturers, joint scientific projects of the research centers. Exchange of experience among volunteers of the two states can become the new direction of interaction: both in Ukraine, and in Russia the volunteer movements are rather recent tendency which needs to be supported. The main achievement that the Ukrainian and Russian societies can attain today is to take the responsibility for the mutual relations through overcoming a fear to be perceived “unpatriotic” in their respective countries.