Coups in the Kremlin
What the History of Russia’s Power Struggles Says About Putin’s Future
Viewed from Washington, the conflict in Ukraine's east seems to have reached a plateau. Despite several cease-fire agreements, fighting along the frontlines has never ceased completely. Yet the intensity of the violence has markedly decreased, and the Russian military and its separatist allies have not launched a major offensive in over six months. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin seems unwilling to withdraw his forces from the east, some now hope that the conflict will freeze—that is, that the bloodshed will come to an end even in the absence of a formal political settlement—allowing Kiev to move on with reforms, economic recovery, and European integration. Such an outcome, the German Bundestag member Rolf Mützenich argued in a February essay for Foreign Affairs, should satisfy the West.
It is easy to see how a frozen conflict scenario might appeal to the current government in Kiev.
This hope has induced a potentially dangerous complacency about the crisis. A frozen conflict is actually the least likely medium-term outcome for Ukraine. Far more likely is that Russia will use force to achieve a settlement on its terms, involving a reincorporation of rebel-held Donbas into Ukraine that would endow the country’s Russophile regions with a disproportionate influence over national politics. Rather than pushing for a frozen conflict scenario that will likely never materialize, then, the United States, the European Union, and Ukraine should do all they can to minimize the economic and human costs of this more probable outcome.
It is easy to see how a frozen conflict scenario might appeal to the current government in Kiev. Such a scenario would effectively separate rebel-held Donbas from the rest of the country, turning the conflict's current frontlines into a de facto border. As a result of this separation, the Donbas would lose its influence in Ukraine's national politics, thus drastically reducing Moscow’s sway over Kiev. Russia, meanwhile, would be forced to foot the bill for the massive reconstruction effort needed to prevent the socioeconomic collapse of its new protectorate.
This scenario is unlikely, however, because a frozen conflict is unacceptable to Moscow. Russia’s objective is to empower the Russophile regions of Ukraine in a new constitutional structure in order to institutionalize its influence in Kiev; severing those regions from the rest of the country would thus be tantamount to accepting defeat.
Indeed, Moscow has taken a number of steps to avoid that outcome. Russia’s late January offensive in the Donbas, for example, led not to a land grab but instead to the so-called Minsk II agreement, which put the Ukrainian political transformation desired by Moscow at the center of the conflict resolution process. The accord called for local elections in the Donbas; for the restoration of economic ties between rebel-held areas and the rest of Ukraine; and for constitutional reform, negotiated with the separatists, that would grant rebel-held territories wide-ranging autonomy inside Ukraine. According to the terms of the agreement, the most significant Russian concession—Moscow's return of control over the Ukrainian-Russian border to Kiev—is conditioned on Kiev’s implementation of this constitutional change.
Thus far, the political process called for in Minsk II has not progressed as Moscow had planned. Local elections, for example, have not been held; instead, Kiev passed a provision on March 17 that effectively made such elections impossible to conduct. The new measure conditioned greater local autonomy and elections on the removal of illegal armed groups (presumably including the separatists themselves, along with Russian regular forces) from Ukraine.
Moreover, Kiev did not consult with the separatists on local elections, as stipulated in Minsk II, and it defined the area of enhanced local autonomy along lines that did not reflect separatist gains made this winter, notably around Debaltsevo. Although Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called for nationwide local elections on October 25, he has said they will not be held in the separatist regions. The separatists, meanwhile, have announced plans to hold their own elections a week before.
Nor have the economic concessions Kiev made in Minsk II materialized. Ukraine has instituted an economic blockade on rebel-held areas and refuses to provide pensions and other social services to those living there; on June 11, Poroshenko announced that economic ties with separatist-held areas would not be restored until Ukraine regained full control over its external borders. And on June 17, Kiev went further, tightening the blockade of rebel-held Donbas so that only humanitarian supplies could enter.
The political process called for in Minsk II has not progressed as Moscow had planned.
Constitutional reform has likewise failed to proceed as Moscow wished. The reforms Poroshenko announced on July 1 included provisions for nationwide decentralization, including the devolution of a range of powers—such as budgetary oversight and economic development planning—to local officials. Yet the proposed reforms’ only reference to rebel-held Donbas was that enhanced autonomy there would be determined by a separate law, which had been passed in September 2014. Furthermore, the Ukrainian authorities did not consult with the separatists on the reforms. The bill passed an initial vote on August 31, amid a nationalist backlash; a final vote will be held later this year.
The United States and the EU have supported the Ukrainian government’s position that it cannot negotiate with the separatists until legitimate elections are held and the cease-fire is fully observed. And both Washington and Brussels have lauded Ukraine's proposed constitutional reforms as a demonstration of Kiev's commitment to Minsk II. Yet the West's appraisal means little. Russia’s assessment of Ukraine’s policies is the most important factor in determining the future of the crisis. By all accounts, that assessment has been negative: the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has denounced the proposed constitutional amendments, and Putin has demanded that Kiev hold direct talks with the separatists even in the absence of recognized elections and a full cease-fire.
Given Moscow’s evident discontent with the outcome of the Minsk II process, it will likely take action to change the status quo. The only question is the form this action will take. Two broad possibilities exist, both of which involve the use of force and would come at a significant economic and human cost to the Ukrainian people.
The first scenario is a prolongation or moderate intensification of the violence: neither war nor peace, but a calibrated, simmering conflict without major escalation. Under such a scenario, fighting would absorb much of the Ukrainian government’s political capital, leaving Kiev unable to proceed with crucial economic and political reforms. Moscow would use economic measures such as sanctions and gas cutoffs to ensure that the Ukrainian economy would remain in disarray, and few investors would venture back into the country. In this scenario, Russia would calibrate its military activities so as not to trigger a more forceful Western response, in the form of either additional sanctions or military assistance to Kiev, and would likely count on the EU sanctions breaking down over time. In short, this would be a war of attrition—one that Moscow would eventually win.
Escalation has proven a successful tactic for Russia twice since the crisis began.
That scenario assumes Moscow's confidence that time is on its side and that Russia has the strategic patience required to wait for an eventual victory. But observers should not count on cooler heads prevailing in Moscow—the Kremlin's track record since the start of the crisis has been marked by rash behavior, as in its invasion of Crimea only a few days after the ouster of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. A major escalation of military activity should therefore be considered as a second possible scenario.
Escalation has proven a successful tactic for Russia twice since the crisis began: in late August 2014 and again in late January 2015, Moscow heavily increased its support for separatists in the Donbas, and both times Poroshenko was forced to sue for peace, resulting first in the Minsk I agreement and then in Minsk II. To be sure, escalation has its risks: the West, for example, could strengthen its sanctions regime or provide lethal military assistance to Ukraine. But Moscow has paid little heed to such risks since the crisis began, and it is certainly plausible that it would act similarly in the future.
The long-term outcomes of these two scenarios are quite similar. Should either materialize, Ukraine would be forced to reintegrate the Donbas on Russia’s terms. Kiev, in other words, would have to make concessions, such as granting autonomy to the separatist regions and ending the blockade up front, and Russia would withdraw only after becoming confident in the durability of the settlement. The key difference between the two scenarios is time: in the first scenario, the endgame could take months or even years to materialize; in the second, it would happen as soon as Putin gives the order. In either case, Ukrainians will suffer: there will be further death and destruction in the east; the Ukrainian economy will continue its downward spiral; and Kiev’s pledges to reform and clean governance will increasingly seem like empty words.
Because Moscow's endgame in either case is the implementation of Minsk II on Russian terms, and because it seems willing and able to achieve this outcome by force, it would be prudent to consider negotiating that outcome now in order to avoid additional suffering and destruction. In practice, this would entail Kiev lifting its blockade of rebel-held territory; agreeing to terms for local elections; and implementing enhanced autonomy for rebel-held regions. And government representatives would have to hold direct talks with the separatists.
This would be a difficult pill for any government to swallow. Moreover, the riots in Kiev at the end of August, which came in response to the first-round vote on Poroshenko's proposed constitutional reforms in parliament, were a reminder that such a policy could undermine the government and perhaps even lead to a nationalist coup d’état. Yet this need not be the case. Poroshenko and Western officials could limit the potential for a domestic backlash by adopting a different public discourse about the conflict.
Ever since Yanukovych was ousted, U.S. and European officials have emphasized legitimate but nonetheless maximalist objectives for Ukraine's future by, for example, calling for the complete restoration of Ukraine's territorial integrity and vigorously condemning Russian aggression. Poroshenko and senior Ukrainian government officials tend to be even more extreme, referring to the separatists as terrorists and even comparing separatist territories with Mordor, the seat of evil in J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels. It’s no wonder that many politically active Ukrainians believe that they do not need to compromise; no major public figure has yet made the case for it. Yet a majority of Ukrainians still favor a negotiated settlement of some sort, and both the West and Ukraine can be confident that the pursuit of such a settlement, although a concession in the short term, would help preserve their long-term advantages. Indeed, Russia’s relative strength is exclusively on the battlefield, so once the fighting is over and the competition moves to the political and financial realms, the relative soft-power advantages of Ukraine and of Europe will become evident. A change in rhetoric might not completely remove roadblocks to such a compromise, but without it, such a compromise would be impossible.
Even so, far more than Western military assistance or Ukrainian reforms, the factor that will determine the immediate future of the conflict in Ukraine's east is Russia’s behavior. That behavior, in turn, will be determined by the extent to which Moscow believes the situation on the ground is moving toward its desired outcome. With this in mind, the United States and its European partners should focus on finding common ground between Kiev and Moscow. Should they fail to do so, the consequences for Ukraine could be devastating.