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What Happens Next in the Rising Violence Between Ukraine and Russia

6 minute read
Ian Bremmer is a foreign affairs columnist and editor-at-large at TIME. He is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy, and GZERO Media, a company dedicated to providing intelligent and engaging coverage of international affairs. He teaches applied geopolitics at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and his most recent book is The Power of Crisis.

After a lull in fighting since last July, the last few weeks have seen an outbreak of violence along the ceasefire line separating the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine with the rest of the country… prompting Moscow to start massing troops along Ukraine’s border. Is it a prelude to war? Not likely.

Here’s what happens next in the long-running standoff between Kiev and Moscow.

Why It Matters:

Last summer, Russia and Ukraine agreed to better enforce a shaky ceasefire over the fighting that has gripped eastern Ukraine—specifically the separatist enclaves in parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions—since 2014. Russia has been supporting the secessionists movements in Donetsk and Luhansk, where 14,000-plus people have died in the fighting to date. Why? Because Ukraine is a strategically critical country that Moscow believes it needs to keep under its influence. Back in 2014, Ukraine was setting its sights westwards toward the E.U. and NATO, which Russian President Vladimir Putin regarded as an existential threat to Moscow. Hence the occupation of Crimea, and the fueling of independence movements in Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine still isn’t a member of either the E.U. or NATO, so Russia’s gambits have worked in that regard, but that success has come at a cost—Russia has been under onerous energy, defense and financial sanctions from the West ever since.

So what is Russia actually gunning for? For Moscow, the intention is to have the two separatist regions hold local elections and govern themselves, but not break away from Ukraine completely; Moscow wants the territories to remain semi-independent so they can be used by Russia to influence political developments within Ukraine, such as potentially blocking any moves to join NATO. Russia’s ultimate goal is that this quasi-independent status gets enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution.

Unsurprisingly, that’s a non-starter for many of Ukraine’s most prominent political leaders, including former comedian and current president Volodymyr Zelensky. In 2019, Zelensky used an aggressive anti-establishment platform to win the country’s presidency, but he also made ending the war in eastern Ukraine a central campaign pledge. Earlier in his administration, he insisted that Russia pull its troops from within Ukraine’s borders before moving forward with any longer-term political solution. That was smart politics—there’s not much appetite in Ukraine for appeasing Russian aggression—but Zelenskiy has been unable to deliver on his promise of ending the violence.

What Happens Next:

There have been five Ukrainian soldier casualties over the last week according to the White House, and Russian troop movements of late signals that the July 2020 ceasefire deal will be tested in the coming few weeks.

What changed? Things had been quiet in recent months, a short-term reprieve for Zelensky given the lack of casualties… but a long-term problem since no progress was being made towards ending the conflict. With President Joe Biden’s move into the White House, Zelensky began making overtures to get the Biden administration more directly involved in the stalemate, but, given all the other crises the Biden Administration inherited, that was a longshot. Still, more U.S. involvement is the last thing Putin wants; Putin likely decided a show of force would dissuade the U.S. from interfering too much, while at the same time hoping the pressure would get Ukraine’s leadership moving towards negotiating a political settlement to the conflict even without Russia withdrawing its forces. Russia claims it’s the Ukrainians who provoked them with aggressive actions, and has warned NATO from interfering. And while Zelensky asked NATO just this week for an action plan that would allow Ukraine to join NATO down the line—a move sure to aggravate Putin even more—for the time being, NATO is staying out of the fray.

NATO officials are calculating that Russia is unlikely to escalate matters too dramatically vis-a-vis Ukraine. Moscow is worried about getting bogged down in (yet) another costly conflict with no clear exit strategy, especially one which has the potential to rally Western countries already frustrated with Russia’s actions across a host of other areas (election interference, cyberattacks, the arrest of Alexei Navalny, to name just a few) to Ukraine’s side, at least in the form of sharper sanctions. Factor in that military intervention on behalf of Donetsk and Luhansk doesn’t have the same political appeal to the Russian public as past forays into Georgia and Crimea did, and the risk-reward calculus is too unbalanced for Putin. Ukraine, meanwhile, wants no part of an extended war with its much larger neighbor if it can avoid it; Kiev also knows that if it takes any aggressive offensive action against Russia, it risks losing the Western backing it currently has.

Given all that, we’ll surely see more violence in limited areas along the ceasefire line, but not much beyond that; and so long as the violence is contained, it’s unlikely to lead to more sanctions against Russia (though it certainly does no favors to Moscow’s broader relationship with the West). Of course, you never know what you get with Putin; former U.S. President Donald Trump liked to talk a big game about keeping his enemies guessing, Putin has the track record to prove it. While plenty in the Kremlin have been making threats of varying degrees, for the moment we haven’t heard much from Putin himself on the situation (except for accusations of “dangerous provocative actions”); if he decides to weigh in and starts making specific demands, then it’s time to start worrying.

The One Major Misconception About It:

That a maximally aggressive Putin is eyeing Donetsk and Luhansk for occupation the same way he did Crimea. The reality is that occupying any territory, let alone as hotly contested as these, requires serious resources—from personnel to military equipment to straight financing—and all that is before additional sanctions get factored in. Oh, and don’t forget the recent economic hit from the pandemic.

Putin is many things (even a “killer,” according to Biden)… but he isn’t crazy.

The One Thing to Read About It:

Over at GZERO Media, Willis Sparks lays out the case for why NATO should—and shouldn’t—welcome Ukraine into its fold.

The One Thing to Say About It on a Zoom Call:

Neither side is currently happy with the situation in Donetsk and Luhansk, as both Ukraine and Russia want to see progress toward their preferred outcomes. But the longer the conflict gets drawn out, the more the enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk are treated as de facto separate entities that need to be negotiated with in an official diplomatic capacity. That puts Putin in the position of strength. And Zelensky knows it.

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