Following an event at Georgetown University hosted by the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies (CERES), the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Dr. Andreas Umland, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev, Ukraine, to discuss the currently unfolding state of affairs between Russia and its eastern European neighbor. GJIA: What factors threaten the shaky ceasefire in eastern Ukraine?
AU: The continuation of the ceasefire agreement is contingent upon decisions made in Moscow. However, one must realize that it may be a “ceasefire” only in a limited sense, as thousands of soldiers were killed in the duration of the first ceasefire that (allegedly) started in September 2014. I do not think that the main issue is whether or not this shaky ceasefire will result in a warlike situation. Rather, the concern revolves around the territory in eastern and southern Ukraine that is currently occupied by the separatists. President Vladmir Putin is not interested in letting these territories go, especially Crimea, because that would not be popular among the Russian people. This tension creates a political deadlock between Russia and the West.
GJIA: Why are various European countries, the United States, and other NATO members unwilling to prevent Russia from directly exerting its influence in the conflict? What might this predict for Russia’s future behavior toward other states in the region as well as toward international actors?
AU: There are a number of factors that explain Western behavior, the most obvious one being the economic involvement of European companies with Russia. The EU accounts for around seventy five percent of all foreign direct investment (FDI) in Russia, and many European companies operate within the country itself. These organizations have and will continue to lobby for close economic relations with and the withdrawal of sanctions against Russia. There is also a political fear in the West of escalating antagonism with Russia. Many Westerners are willing to trade Ukrainian territory for a seeming peace and stable relations with Russia, reflecting a general misunderstanding of the situation in the Ukraine.
GJIA: How do Moscow’s strategic calculations about Russian involvement in Ukraine reflect Putin’s domestic goals?
AU: The entire situation in Eastern Europe is primarily driven by Russian domestic politics. To understand this, one must realize that the system Putin created after he came to power in 1999 is no longer functional: the economy is stagnating, and world prices of raw materials, especially for oil, have gone down. The regime has to find modes of legitimization other than the sale of raw materials to the West and the distribution of a part of the revenues from this trade to the population. Now, Putin is trying to reestablish his legitimacy by annexing Crimea and posing as the savior of Eastern Ukrainians. The main discourse now in the Kremlin-controlled media is that Russians have to help their brethren living in other countries, whether they are in the Donets Basin, Transnistria, Crimea, Abkhazia, or South Ossetia.
GJIA: What threat do separatist groups, including the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk, pose to Ukraine and its citizens? What is the humanitarian situation in the country?
AU: It is often forgotten that the territory controlled by the separatists is relatively small. They do not control all of eastern Ukraine; they do not even control the whole Donets Basin region. Indeed, only a small part of Ukraine is under their control. However, that area includes two main cities in the Donbass: Luhansk and Donetsk. There we have a sort of semi-criminal state where these regimes are functioning as small tyrannies that exert violence in an uncontrolled way and do not adhere to the rule of law. A major strategic threat that this whole development poses for Ukraine is that it is hurting the investment and business climate. Many investors are leaving Ukraine, as they fear similar scenarios in other parts of the country. Indeed, there have been expropriations where separatist groups in Crimea and the Donets Basin simply robbed Ukrainian banks, companies, and private citizens and were not subsequently punished. This poses a threat to the entire state of Ukraine. The state needs to collect taxes in order to pay rents, salaries and stipends, but is not able to do so as many companies are destroyed, closed, inactive, or relocating.
GJIA: How much of Russia’s true involvement in the crisis is known by the international community? What effect has this climate of uncertainty had on the way that both the international community and Russia have approached the crisis?
AU: Local constituencies that support separation and annexation have apparently benefited from multifarious Russian support in terms of training, finances, equipment, and personnel, in some cases long before the conflict started. From the onset of the conflict, this assistance occurred covertly. By late summer 2014, this had turned into more open and direct Russian military involvement and assistance to the separatist groups. Numerous Russian military vehicles, for example, have been videotaped and photographed in Ukraine. Since then, the notion that Russia acts as a third party in this conflict has lost any remaining legitimacy. There is still some argument among academics regarding Russia’s role in the outbreak of violence in spring 2014. This is something that needs to be researched more. We need to establish to which degree exactly the initial incidents were caused or supported by covert Russian action rather than solely instigated by independent local actors within Ukraine. I assume that most of the escalation would not have happened without some sort of Russian involvement. I would not exclude from the realm of possibility that some of the crucial events might even have been entirely masterminded in Moscow.
Dr. Andreas Umland is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev, Ukraine, and an editor of the book series entitled Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society.
Dr. Umland was interviewed by Nicholas Sardi on 10 November 2014 in Washington D.C. Dr. Umland provided additional comments via email on 1 March 2015. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.