Why Russia is Going to Win in Ukraine, For Now

by Benjamin Studebaker


I’ve noticed a handful of people each day are searching for information on the Ukraine crisis and finding this piece. While I think it’s certainly interesting and you’re welcome to read it for information on the Ukraine-Russia relationship during the 00’s and in the months running up to the start of the Euromaidan protests, I wrote it in December of 2013–you might be more interested in my more recent writings on the crisis. Here are two such pieces:

February 22–this piece covers the various reasons Russia considers Ukraine a core strategic interest.

March 5–this piece covers the role the United States has played in pushing the Russians into intervening in Ukraine.

I have a certain fascination with the way that Russia conducts its foreign policy, particularly under Putin. It has an old fashioned, 20th century feel to it. It is bereft of the idealism that so often accompanies American and European policy and is consequently less prone to naïve mistakes. The Russians play hard, they play to win, and they often outplay their western counterparts despite economic and military inferiority. The recent series of events culminating in the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine is a tour de force of Russian foreign policy acumen, and is worth examining the way an art student would a Picasso.

Our story begins in 2004 with a rigged election between the pro-European candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, and the pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. The Ukrainian voting population, which had to this point been ruled by a pro-Russian government, was largely divided between the two on geographic lines, with the west aspiring to EU membership and the east wishing to maintain ties with Russia. The pro-Russian faction anticipated a narrow defeat and panicked; it poisoned, but did not kill, Yushchenko, leaving him scarred, and it recklessly and openly rigged the elections. This sparked off the Orange Revolution, in which vast numbers of Ukrainians took to the streets and forced the legitimate results of the election to be enforced (which were 52% to 44% in favor of Yushchenko).

At the time, the press in America and Europe were giddy–the Orange Revolution, in combination with the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, was meant to be the beginning of a series of “color revolutions” in which former Soviet satellites would reject Russia in favor of NATO, democracy, and free market capitalism. This fantasy of spreading democracy was not unlike the one neoconservatives were simultaneously entertaining in Iraq. Their belief was that Iraqi democracy would serve as a beacon of freedom and inspire other Middle Eastern peoples. Some of them maintain to this day that the Arab Spring is the product of the Iraqi example, though the recent collapse of Egyptian democracy, the anarchy in Libya, and the violent repression of revolutionaries in Syria and Bahrain undercut that claim. In the same way, they believed that Ukraine would kick off a series of pro-western moves in the former USSR.

This did not happen–indeed, Ukraine found itself, like Egypt, backpedaling on its revolution very swiftly. The Russians managed to head off not merely a spread of Ukrainian revolutionary fervor, but they are now once again assimilating Ukraine back into their sphere of influence over the loud objections of half of Ukraine, the EU, and the United States.

At first, things seemed to go well for Yushchenko. He announced a plan to kick Russia out of its crucial naval base in Sevastopol when its lease expired in 2012 along with a pro-democracy partnership with Georgia to encourage other ex-Soviet satellites to shift westward. The Russians responded by discovering and inventing pretexts to reduce natural gas supplies to Ukraine.  Perhaps Ukraine refused to agree to the “new” price, or perhaps it was short on its debts, or perhaps it was refusing to pay Gazprom in advance. In any case, when the Russian supply reductions came, they came mercilessly in the dead of Ukrainian winters. There were brief reductions in 2006 and 2008. In 2009, Russia shut off gas to Ukraine completely for three weeks. Other European countries who received their gas from pipelines that ran through Ukraine also experienced shortages. The Russians demanded that if Ukraine wished to be in the European sphere of influence, it agree to pay European prices.

Yushchenko’s support divided and diminished in the face of unstable gas supplies and higher gas prices. In 2010, he was handily defeated in the first round of the presidential election by his rival, Yulia Tymoshenko. Yushchenko only received 5% of the vote. Tymoshenko ran in the second round against the old pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, and Yanukovych won 49% to 45%. Six years later, the Russians got their desired electoral result, and according to international observers, the 2010 election was not even rigged.

Since then, Yanukovych has steadily reversed the turn toward Europe. He threw Tymoshenko in prison for abuse of power and corruption, and his former rival Yushchenko was so embittered by her submarining of his presidency that he testified against her. He negotiated a new gas treaty with the Russians, in which Putin agreed to a 30% discount in exchange for a 25-year renewal on the lease for Russia’s Sevastopol naval base. The Russians now have the legal authority to remain there through 2042, with an option for a 5-year extension to 2047.

The spark for the Euromaidan protests is the scuttling of Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU. That agreement would have brought an additional $670 million in Ukraine-EU trade. So why did Yanukovych reject it? Because Putin decided to threaten Ukraine with sanctions that would cost it $16 billion. When the Russians have the power to hurt you 24 times more than the Europeans are willing to help you, who are you going to choose? The westerners didn’t help things by making the usual ideological blunders–demanding that Yanukovych release Tymoshenko from prison and offering Ukraine harsh conditions in exchange for an IMF loan, but when push comes to shove, Putin made certain that the Russian sticks were far more lethal than Europe’s carrots.

Now the very same Ukrainians who wished to reject Russia in favor of Europe in 2004 are back on the streets a decade later.  These Ukrainians do not comprehend the sheer misery Vladimir Putin is prepared to inflict upon them if they succeed in replacing Yanukovych with someone who will sign the treaty. Even should they succeed in the short term, the Russians are capable of projecting much more power in Ukraine than the Europeans are, and, more importantly, they are willing to actually project that power. As the gas disputes of the last decade and the 2008 war with Georgia show, the Russians do not make idle threats.

The Russians account for 66% of Ukraine’s gas supply, buy 21% of its exports, and supply it with 28% of its imports.  The EU is no slouch–it collectively accounts for 27% of Ukraine’s exports and 33% of its imports. The difference is that Russia is willing to use its trading relationship with Ukraine as leverage, to offer it not merely incentives but to threaten it with poverty. The Europeans are not willing to go as far. They are more concerned with their economic health than they are with a power conflict over territories and sphere of influence. It is unthinkable to imagine Angela Merkel telling Yanukovych that the EU would sanction it for refusing to agree to the association agreement–European countries are unwilling to harm their growth figures in the short run to gain vassals in the long run. They are short-term political tacticians; Putin is a long-term strategist. He expects to be doing this job until he dies, and he plans for Russia to be what he envisions not in 3 years or 5 years, but in 10 or 20. He can and will put Russian hegemony in Ukraine over Russia’s GDP figures for next year.

What can the Ukrainians do in the face of a Russia that has made a long term commitment to use vast resources and incur occasional short-term losses to keep it vassalized? The first move for Ukraine would need to be energy independence, and indeed Yanukovych (who is pro-Russian for pragmatic reasons rather than any ideological fealty) has a plan to achieve energy independence for Ukraine by 2020. How? By signing agreements with Shell and Chevron to frack Ukraine. Perhaps in another ten years, Ukraine will be in a strategic position to resist Russian pressure. But not today. Today, sooner or later, Putin wins.

The interesting question, going forward, will be how Putin handles the big surprise that was fracking. Many countries, the United States included, are trying to use fracking to liberate themselves from energy fealty to foreign powers.  Russia has been an oil and gas king for years, and this has been its primary economic tool for exerting pressure on European states. Can Putin adapt Russian strategy in the face of a new energy reality? Will he be forced to use military force in place of economic pressure? If so, how far is he willing to go, and how much push back from the United States will he face?

In the meantime, however, we have seen the Russians slowly, over the course of a decade, turn what looked like the thin end of the wedge for Russian hegemony in the former USSR into a consolidation of its allies and influence. That it has been able to do this despite large disadvantages vis-à-vis the US and the EU and seemingly without at any point taking rash actions or otherwise panicking is impressive, regardless of one’s personal allegiances or viewpoints.