Russia Cannot Let Ukraine Go

by Benjamin Studebaker

A deal was reached just yesterday for current Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to relinquish some presidential powers and schedule elections in May. The Russians already appear to believe that deal to be in tatters, as Ukraine’s parliament voted today to dismiss the president from office. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, says:

The opposition not only has failed to fulfill a single one of its obligations but is already presenting new demands all the time, following the lead of armed extremists and pogromists whose actions pose a direct threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and constitutional order.

If the Russians believe the opposition is not following through, that’s what matters. Russia cannot abide the defection of Ukraine to the European Union. It will take all necessary measures to prevent that outcome. Why does Russia care so much and what might Russia do next?

Not unlike Georgia, which Russia invaded in 2008, Ukraine has a sizable Russian ethnic majority (8.3 million, or roughly 17% of Ukraine’s population). The Russians in Ukraine dominate the eastern portion of the country:

In the 2010 election, which was won by the pro-Russian Yanukovych, Ukraine neatly divided along linguistic and ethnic lines:

Tymoshenko, whose districts are in yellow, was the pro-EU candidate in 2010. These two parts of Ukraine desire irreconcilably different futures for the country. It is not a matter of allowing the Ukrainians to decide for themselves whether to choose the EU or Russia–in either case, one region of the country feels subjugated by the other. We should also be clear that, counter to what many people in the United States and Europe now believe, the 2010 election in which Yanukovych was elected president was deemed free and fair by international observers. This is not another case of some authoritarian despot fighting his own people. Yanukovych was duly elected and the Ukrainian people are not at all unified. This is not to say that the pro-EU aspirations of the western portion of the country are not legitimate, but it is to say that they are no more legitimate than the pro-Russian aspirations of the eastern portion.

Indeed, a meeting of governors and mayors from eastern Ukraine jointly proclaimed today that:

The decisions taken by the Ukrainian parliament in such circumstances cause doubts about their … legitimacy and legality.

The central state organs are paralyzed. Until the constitutional order and lawfulness are restored … we have decided to take responsibility for safeguarding the constitutional order, legality, citizens’ rights and their security on our territories.

Now, add to this that there is a major city in Ukraine, Sevastopol, with a 70% majority ethnic Russian population. For years, Ukraine has leased Sevastopol to Russia, and Russia uses Sevastopol to house its Black Sea Fleet. Yanukovych signed an agreement in 2010 to extend Russia’s lease in Sevastopol through to 2042 with an option for a 5-year renewal to 2047. In exchange, Russia offered Ukraine a discount on natural gas. Tymoshenko, who has just now been released from prison and intends to run for president again in May, believes that this deal is unconstitutional on the grounds that Ukraine’s constitution forbids the hosting of foreign bases after 2017.

This gives Russia several justifications for caring deeply about what happens in Ukraine:

  1. Russia needs Ukraine to maintain the integrity of its Black Sea fleet.
  2. Russia has duties to protect the interests ethnic Russians and Russian nationals living in Ukraine.
  3. Russia can legitimately claim to be defending the freely elected Ukrainian government.
  4. Ukraine is a critical pivot point in the European balance of power.

On that last point, we recall that if Ukraine becomes part of the European Union, the EU will control every European country that shares a border with Russia aside from Norway and Belarus. The European Union is dominated by the core European economies, chief among them Germany. From a Russian perspective, losing Ukraine to the EU is not all that different from losing Ukraine to Germany. For Russia, Ukraine is not so much a Cold War battlefield as it is World War II.

So what can the Russians do to prevent Ukraine from defecting, an outcome that would clearly be disastrous for Russia? To date, Russia has used a series of carrots and sticks to great effect–despite the Orange Revolution in 2004, Russia was able to restore Yanukovych’s pro-Russian faction to power in 2010 by shutting off natural gas supplies to Ukraine in the dead of winter, raising gas prices, threatening sanctions, and offering subsidies, gas discounts, loans, and other bonuses. The agreement Yanukovych signed with Russia that sparked off this crisis prevented Russia from using sanctions to dent Ukraine’s economy by around $16 billion and instead bought the Ukrainians a financial bailout from Moscow. In exchange, Yanukovych dropped negotiations with the EU.

Russia expected Yanukovych to be able to successfully make the case for that agreement to his people, or, at the very least, to use the police to put an end to the Euromaidan demonstrations that have followed. If someone could have pulled that off, that someone was not Yanukovych. Because of his historical allegiance to Moscow, pro-EU Ukrainians did not buy what he was selling. So what is Vladimir Putin to do? He can’t lose Sevastopol, he can’t lose Ukraine to the EU. How can Russia influence what happens in Ukraine if the western portion of the country cares more about partnering with the EU than it does about the financial integrity of the country and the supply of natural gas?

Russia still has two key things to work with:

  1. Half of Ukraine is pro-Russian.
  2. Russia’s military dwarfs Ukraine’s.

Russia’s efforts to prevent the toppling of Yanukovych in Kiev appear to have failed. Instead of trying to quell the disorder, it could instead inflame it in order to spark a civil war between the east and the west. Then, on the pretext of defending ethnic Russians and Russian nationals in Ukraine and of defending the legitimate government, Putin can invade Ukraine, cleaving the country in two. The western half goes to the EU, the eastern half, which is wealthier and contains Sevastopol, becomes one with Russia. In such a scenario, Russia might or might not annex the east–it may decide to maintain nominal independence to legitimate its intervention internationally.

If Russia were to militarily intervene in Ukraine, no country would be in a position to resist it. Ukraine is not part of NATO and it is highly doubtful that the United States would be inclined to involve itself in a war with Russia, however limited, due to the risk of escalation–Russia remains a nuclear power. Additionally, Russian occupation of east Ukraine would not substantively shift the balance of power in Europe. While Ukraine has been independent since the end of the Cold War, it has been consistently within the Russian sphere of influence since that time. Russian intervention would uphold the status quo; it would not be revisionist. The revisionism in this case comes from the west, which has sought over the last 25 years to turn former Soviet republics into EU member states and NATO allies.

This would mirror what happened in Georgia in 2008–the US attempted to form an alliance with President Mikheil Saakashvili and bring Georgia into NATO.  Georgia began trying to join NATO in earnest in 2005, and the Bush administration began supplying Saakashvili’s government with weapons. Saakashvili attempted to use those weapons to retake South Ossetia, a pro-Russian region of Georgia that was semi-autonomous and under Russia’s protection. Saakashvili believed that his partnering with the west would prevent Russia from taking action. He was wrong–Russia repelled Georgia’s army and then proceeded to invade the country. It declared South Ossetia and Abkhazia (another pro-Russian region) independent states. The new Georgian president has announced his intention to get a NATO membership action plan for Georgia in 2014. Perhaps Russian intervention in Ukraine will prove necessary if Russia wants to make it clear that it will not permit any additional former Soviet republics to join NATO. The US and EU did not risk military engagement with Russia to defend Georgia in 2008. Putin likely suspects that they would be no more willing to come to Ukraine’s defense in 2014, and he’s probably right.