20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Ukrainian government announced on June 9 that it had reached a “mutual understanding” with Moscow on parts of a plan proposed by newly elected Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko for ending violence in the volatile eastern part of the country. Donald Jensen, resident fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Studies, argues that despite conciliatory gestures from Moscow, the crisis is hardly headed for a prompt resolution.


World leaders met in Brussels as the Group of 7 for the first time since 1997


According to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, the Ukraine crisis talks, mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Brussels in early June, reached an understanding on key stages of a plan that will help de-escalate tensions in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk regions. On the eve of talks, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier welcomed signs of progress in Ukraine. There is “light at the end of the tunnel,” Steinmeier said before he departed for St. Petersburg. Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski said Russian president Vladimir Putin’s recent promise to respect the results of Ukraine’s May presidential election was “a step in the right direction” and that Ukrainian membership in NATO—something Moscow opposes—is “not on the agenda.”

After half a year of crisis that has brought, in addition to separatist violence, mass street protests, the fall of the Yanukovych government, a Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, and the most significant East-West confrontation since the Cold War, Ukraine seemed by mid-May to be on the verge of collapse or civil war. But, having encouraged pro-Russian sentiment in the east and south, and threatened by a full-scale military invasion, the Kremlin paused. It offered only lukewarm support for illegal and rigged independence referenda in Donetsk and Lugansk provinces; it withdrew Russian troops from the Ukrainian border; and it recognized, though guardedly, the legitimacy of Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko’s election. Excluded from attending the June session of the G-8 summit (whose venue was moved from Sochi to Brussels when it was decided Russia would not participate), Putin met informally with the new Ukrainian president during D-Day anniversary festivities in Normandy.

Despite such conciliatory gestures from Moscow, though, it is doubtful that the crisis is headed for a resolution anytime soon. The current calm is likely only a temporary pause as the Kremlin recalibrates its strategy. The situation remains unstable, and, in light of the likelihood of constitutional reform and new parliamentary elections, the crisis is entering a new phase.

Moscow’s strategic goals in Ukraine have not fundamentally changed since the Orange Revolution a decade ago: first, keep the country out of Western security and economic structures, leaving it at best a neutral state; and second, prevent any democratic contagion inside Ukraine from spreading into Russia. In practice, this has meant retaining strong economic levers to exert pressure against Kiev, and maintaining an effective veto over Ukraine’s political development, be it by installing a Kremlin-backed candidate (Viktor Yanukovych) as president or by using its influence over ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s east and south as a check on central government policies the Kremlin disliked. Nevertheless, a perennial shortcoming of Moscow’s approach has been the extent to which it has misread the vitality of Ukraine’s civil society.

In retrospect, Russia’s invasion of Crimea seems an angry, ad hoc response to Yanukovych’s political demise, rather than a brilliant, farsighted strategic play, as it is often viewed from abroad. Sensing a political vacuum unable to be filled by the feeble interim government in Kiev, the Kremlin used a mix of military, paramilitary, and armed criminal elements to probe for Ukrainian vulnerabilities. The mix of these fighters shifted with Moscow’s demands—ranging from outright independence for Ukraine’s east to federalization, union with Russia, or, according to some Russian officials, dividing the country. Moscow’s meddling was backed by economic pressure on Kiev and a sophisticated, high-tech propaganda campaign. Following the initial shock of the Russian-sponsored violence, Ukraine’s security forces finally rallied. However, while there was considerable unhappiness with Kiev in Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Lugansk, there was relatively little popular support for formal secession. Finally, Western counter-pressure has increased in recent weeks (albeit lumbering, divided, and late), causing the Kremlin to shift gears.

In retrospect, Russia’s invasion of Crimea seems an angry, ad hoc response to Yanukovych’s political demise, rather than a brilliant, farsighted strategic play, as it is often viewed from abroad.

In his West Point speech on May 28, U.S. president Barack Obama boasted of the success of the U.S. and its allies in isolating Russia in the crisis. Indeed, Russia has incurred some costs for its aggression. It has been slapped with relatively modest economic sanctions that are slowing its economy, and it’s succeeded in galvanizing anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine, alienating the West, and making its Eurasian partners nervous (at least those with substantial ethnic Russian minorities). What’s more, to counter its dependence on Western customers, Russia has signed an arguably disadvantageous energy deal with China. Perhaps more dangerously for Putin, his whipping up of war hysteria at home has both narrowed his political room to negotiate a settlement and possibly strained relations with his oligarch cronies who have been targeted by Western sanctions.

On balance, though, so far Russia has come out ahead. In a Foreign Policy article, Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt observed that Putin’s maneuverings only look like a failure if you believe his goal was to dismember Ukraine completely or re-create the old Soviet Union. If his primary objective was to keep Ukraine from joining a U.S.-led bloc in Europe, though, then his handling of the crisis looks “adroit, ruthless, and skillful.” Europe remains divided about Ukraine’s future and dependent on Russian energy. It is doubtful whether NATO’s new vigor can be sustained, and Western rhetoric already seems to have consigned Crimea to permanent Russian occupation. Russia’s isolation is also far from complete, a fact perhaps best illustrated by the French government’s determination to complete the $1.6 billion sale of Mistral amphibious assault ships to Moscow.

At the G-7 summit meeting on June 5, President Obama stated that Russia had about a month to reverse its intervention in Ukraine and rein in the pro-Moscow separatist uprising there or face broader sanctions aimed at entire sectors of the Russian economy. This was the first time Obama had laid out a specific timeframe, saying that the process could not drag out. It was left unclear, however, what Obama and other Western leaders will do if the Kremlin leaves matters as they are, especially since Western consensus for stronger measures is fragile. Putin also no doubt recalls Western reluctance to enforce “red lines” in the past. Despite the improved atmosphere, therefore, the situation in Ukraine remains volatile and vulnerable to Kremlin manipulation.

On the big issues of decentralization of Ukraine’s political power and the status of Crimea, Russia and the West diverge significantly, and Putin is unlikely to agree to any settlement that would not protect Russia’s core interests. As Russia expert Leon Aron recently pointed out, unlike Obama, Putin does not draw lines: “He almost never says what he will do—and when he does, the public version is often the opposite of what ends up occurring.”