20 years under Putin: a timeline

On April 17, at the talks in Geneva, officials from the United States, Russia, the European Union, and Ukraine agreed on a framework to reduce tensions in Ukraine, including demobilizing armed groups and giving their members amnesty; vacating seized government buildings; and establishing a program of political reform. However, as Donald N. Jensen, resident fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, notes, the tensions will likely be eased only temporarily.



After more than six hours of negotiations involving diplomats from the United States, Russia, the European Union, and Ukraine, an agreement was reached at the April 17 Geneva talks. It could mark the first concrete step toward defusing Ukraine’s political and security crisis since Russia illegally annexed Crimea last month and then whipped up tensions in Ukraine’s south and east. “All sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation, or provocative actions,” said the participants’ joint statement. The sides also agreed that monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) would oversee implementation of the agreement.

But any reduction in tensions following the agreement will likely be temporary. The Geneva agreement was reached the same day that Russian President Vladimir Putin used aggressive language to assert Russia’s dubious historical claims to eastern Ukraine in his annual telephone call-in show. Putin claimed he had the authority to invade Ukraine but hoped it would not be necessary. Moreover, the Kiev government’s weak legitimacy, uncertain popular support, and institutional frailty—evident this week in the humiliating inability of its security forces to retake buildings seized by armed pro-Russian fighters in several eastern cities—raises questions about whether it is capable of carrying out its promises to reform.

Even the symbolism of the talks’ locale contribute to doubts about prospects for a durable settlement of the Ukraine crisis: they were held at the same luxury hotel where, five years ago, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a red “reset” button (mistranslated in Russian) that was supposed to signal a fresh start in relations between Moscow and Washington. Those days now seem long ago.

The overarching diplomatic problem the U.S. faces in negotiating a satisfactory end to the Ukraine crisis is the asymmetry of power between the West and Russia. Although politically, militarily, and economically far weaker than the West, Russia feels more intensely about the future of Ukraine, has longstanding political and cultural ties to the country, and is situated right next door. The U.S. and Russia also pursued incompatible goals leading up to the Geneva meeting.

For Washington, the purpose of negotiations is to prevent a Russian invasion or partition of Ukraine. It wants Moscow to withdraw the estimated 40,000 battle-ready troops menacing on Ukraine’s frontier and pull back from Crimea (though administration rhetoric often seems to concede that there is little hope of reversing Russia’s takeover of the peninsula). The U.S. also hopes to give the interim Ukrainian government the political and economic space to hold presidential elections on May 25 and begin to reform its ailing economy.

For Moscow, the negotiations are about consolidating Russia’s position in the region over the long term. Russia wants “deep constitutional reform” in Ukraine to make the country’s ethnic Russians more “secure” (though there has been little evidence, according to a recent United Nations report, that their rights are under threat). This is misleading Kremlin euphemism for establishing a federation of autonomous regions that would give Moscow the predominant influence in the eastern half of Ukraine and a decisive say in its domestic and foreign policies—including, above all, the power to keep Ukraine out of NATO and the European Union. The Kremlin sees sabotaging the May 25 Ukrainian presidential elections as a major step toward this goal.

Given such diametrically opposed objectives, the negotiations will only produce results if one of the participants offers fundamental concessions. The Kremlin must know that its demands are unacceptable to the U.S. and that Washington cannot be seen formally accepting the military seizure of Crimea, nor negotiating the contents of Ukraine’s future constitution above the heads of the Ukrainians themselves. But while the U.S. verbally denounces Russian interference in eastern and southern Ukraine and threatens additional, tougher, sanctions, it is Washington, not Moscow, that sometimes seems to be seeking an “off ramp” from the crisis.

The Obama Administration would also do well to abandon its simplistic—and somewhat arrogant—depiction of the Kremlin as being “on the wrong side of history,” no matter how morally indefensible Russia’s meddling in Ukraine might be.

The Obama Administration has sought to avoid provoking Moscow and gives the impression that pursuing negotiations, and little else, will produce positive results. The Obama Administration resisted Ukraine’s request for nonlethal military aid, for example, to avoid antagonizing Russia. It is also internally divided about how hard a line to take and has had difficulty organizing the support of those European allies who are heavily dependent on Russian energy imports.

The fact that the U.S. and Russia are discussing such matters as the status of ethnic Russians in Ukraine strengthens Moscow’s position, since as long as the talks continue, the West is unlikely to impose further sanctions on Russia. Although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry claims that “the U.S. is consulting with Ukraine at every stage of this process,” Washington has also helped the Kremlin by accepting its view that the status of Ukraine’s ethnic minorities is a legitimate subject of discussion. Kerry says he believes the U.S. has given nothing away by engaging in a dialogue with Russia on such questions of internal Ukrainian politics. But in this he is likely misguided. The U.S.’s approach to negotiations is based on the assumption that, above all, a Russian invasion of Ukraine must be avoided (and Russia’s troop concentrations are indeed threatening); but there are number of compelling reasons why, for the time being, Putin is unlikely to send in troops and abandon his policy of managed chaos.

President Barack Obama displayed cautious optimism about the framework agreement on Thursday and warned that the U.S. is ready to move forward with additional penalties if the situation on the ground does not improve. But the administration’s track record raises doubts about whether this threat should be taken seriously. The Obama Administration is right to pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but diplomacy cannot succeed when the underlying balance of forces is “lopsidedly in favor of a U.S. adversary”—and the administration declines to take the strong steps that might create incentives for compromise.

In the interests of better cross-cultural understanding and more effective diplomatic policy, the Obama Administration would also do well to abandon its simplistic—and somewhat arrogant—depiction of the Kremlin as being “on the wrong side of history” or mired in a nineteenth-century mindset, no matter how morally indefensible Russia’s meddling in Ukraine might be. Rather than reflecting a mentality akin to that of the major powers on the eve of World War I, Russia’s annexation of Crimea is, rather, a sign that Russian is so confident (justifiably or not) of its position in a globalized world that it believes no one will dare act against it—in particular, that the U.S. and the E.U. cannot afford to impose meaningful penalties on it.

As British commentator Peter Pemerantsev has pointed out, the Kremlin takes a paranoid view of globalization—allusions to international conspiracies, hidden powers manipulating the world, are one of the main ways it is selling at home its very twenty-first-century war against Ukraine. Many Russians—even among the liberal opposition and the urban middle classes skeptical of Putin—have been convinced by the fairy tale that shadowy, fascist forces are behind the revolution in Ukraine. The Kremlin’s political technologists have spun the cynicism that Russians understandably feel about the Soviet and post-Soviet world order into a conspiracy-driven vision of everything that happens in the world.