After a panel discussion on Ukraine, Russia, and the West hosted by the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies (CERES) at Georgetown University, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Mr. James Sherr, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, to discuss the current situation in Ukraine and Russia’s role in the conflict.
GJIA: What factors threaten the shaky ceasefire that exists in eastern Ukraine? Do you believe it will hold?
JS: The fundamental factor threatening the ceasefire is that Russia has yet to achieve its desired status quo, which is to dismember Ukraine and enfeeble what remains of it. Some believe that if Ukraine simply agreed to rid itself of the one part of the country that is problematic, then the rest could “go West.” Yet Russia has no interest in that happening, and it will only continue to use areas under separatist control as a platform for creating fresh instability. Russia has, for the most part, abided by the Minsk Agreement, which was signed in September 2014,and put pressure on the European Union (EU) to revise the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. Its minimal objective is to achieve a de facto partition of Ukraine and veto the Association Agreement by holding it hostage to a wider EU-Eurasian Economic Union trading regime, which it knows is not on the horizon. It will not stop until we accept these conditions and impose them on Ukraine.
GJIA: What explains Western nations’ relative inability to prevent Russia from exerting direct influence in the conflict? What might this portend for the future of relations between Russia and Western states?
JS: Western perceptions and Russian perceptions of ‘direct influence’ are very different. The Kremlin and a good many others genuinely believe that the first Maidan situation (the Orange Revolution of 2004), and the second Euro-Maidan situation were U.S.-instigated projects aimed at regime change in Russia. Weakening, isolating, and destabilizing Russia are seen as the fundamental aims of U.S. policy. Given this enormous gap in perception (and other misperceptions, such as the conviction that Ukraine is an ‘artificial state’ and that Russians and Ukrainians are ‘one people’), we are unlikely to find a common language with Russia’s current leaders and their supporters.Even many of Putin’s critics believe that Russia is entitled to a ‘sphere of privileged interest’ in its neighborhood.In my view, this means we have a complex and protracted struggle ahead of us.
GJIA: President Vladimir Putin’s use of Russian troops in Crimea has been received relatively positively in Russia. However, it has also provoked international sanctions and limited domestic unrest. What factors might derail Putin’s newfound domestic approval? Could Russian action in Ukraine potentially backfire against President Putin?
JS: In 2012, Putin decided to reconstitute the basis of his own support. He engineered a kind of regime change. He accepted that he was losing and would not easily regain the support of a fair part of Russia’s urbane, well-traveled middle class, and instead concentrated on winning over the majority base of voters. The impolite Russian word for this demographic is the boloto/болото or the “swamp.” This is a conservative and nationalistic majority. They fully buy the narrative that all of the problems of the 1990s were engineered by the West to weaken and destroy Russia. These people have an enormous sense of pride in the fact that Russia is respected again. The problem is that this kind of support is very volatile. It is similar in a way to Adolf Hitler’s support in 1938, which was based on economic recovery, territorial expansion, and international respect—in other words, it was success without sacrifice or war. So as long as these people think Russia is winning, they will accept sacrifices. Once they perceive that they are losing, however, they could judge their leaders harshly and no longer be willing to accept these sacrifices. A lot is at stake for Putin. He will do a lot to ensure that he does not lose.
GJIA: What factors inhibit reform and rehabilitation in Ukraine? Which of these factors predate the crisis and which are the direct results of it?
JS: What we inadequately call ‘reform’—the transformation of Ukraine’s economic and political institutions—is now a matter of survival. Yet the larger and immediate task is to not be defeated in the current war. Neither Ukraine’s government nor any government on Earth would have an easy time addressing both of these imperatives at once. However, it still has to be done. That demands consistent, well-conceived and resolute action. If the country’s leaders do not address these challenges now, itwill lose the support of the people they presently rely on. The question then becomes what can the West do to provide effective help and real incentives for Ukrainians who believe in change. What can they do to help persuade those who persist in subordinating reform to personal, clan or sectoral interests? These are the key questions. Financial and economic help is essential, but it’s not enough. We need to find an algorithm that will underwrite reform without deferring it.But however effective our response, Ukraine’s sustainability as a sovereign and integrated state depends first and foremost on Ukrainians.War and aggression reinforce and do not diminish this truth.
James Sherr is an Associate Fellow and former head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House. From 1993-2012, he served as a member of the social studies faculty of Oxford University. He was previously a fellow at the Conflict Studies Research Center of the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (1995-2008) and the Director of Studies of the Royal United Services Institute (1983-1985). His latest book is Hard Diplomacy and Soft Coercion: Russia’s Influence Abroad (Chatham House, 2013).
Mr. Sherr was interviewed by Ian Philbrick on 10 November 2014 in Washington, D.C. Mr. Sherr provided additional comments via email on 3 April 2015. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.