The Future of Ukraine: Quietly into the Day

Michael Liu is a third-year undergraduate in the war studies and history departments with strong interests in war, strategy, and history. He is currently serving as the editor-in-chief of King’s Geopolitical Risk Society.

            The annexation of Crimea and conflict in Eastern Ukraine dominated headlines seven years ago. The rapidity with which events unfolded was matched by their long-term reverberating effects: deteriorating relations between the West and Russia leading to an entrenched perception of Russia as an aggressor in Europe, and Western sanctions on the other hand pushing Russia into a deeper embrace with China. Ukraine was undoubtedly a victim of aggression, but also (if in a somewhat ironic way) found itself elevated to the status of a highly relevant frontline state within international rivalries. Aid, some of which was lethal, was provided to Ukraine, while the country’s experiences have become synonymous with 21st Century politics and ‘hybrid warfare’.[1]

          Recently, however, there have been signs that Ukraine may no longer feature in the highest ranks of geopolitical agendas amidst ongoing great power competition. Developments – namely, the inability and unwillingness of the West to truly change the situation on the ground in Eastern Ukraine; Russia’s satisfaction with the status quo; and a mutual desire to stabilize if not improve relations by both the West and Russia – can render Ukraine more a regional sideshow than an issue of international proportions.

          The West has generally stood by Ukraine’s side in refusing to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the self-proclaimed territories that it supports in Eastern Ukraine. Sanctions have been imposed, while the Trump Administration offered lethal aid to Kiev. Yet in recent months there have been signs that the West is consciously limiting the degree of its support to Ukraine to avoid antagonizing Russia. In June, the Biden Administration temporarily halted $100 million aid package that would have provided Ukraine with lethal weapons, in exchange for Russia drawing down its troop numbers at the border before the Putin Summit. Major Western countries have also effectively snubbed Ukraine’s request to join NATO while avoiding any pledges, guarantees and roadmaps that could otherwise support the formal political alignment with the West that Ukraine strongly desires. To add insult to injury, despite its strong proclamations to counter potential Russian energy dominance while protecting or compensating Ukraine where appropriate, the recent deal between Germany and the US on Nord Stream 2 has all but given the greenlight for the pipeline’s completion. (Ukraine stands to lose at least US$1bn in transit fees, and shares concerns with its neighbors regarding the added geopolitical leverage that the pipeline offers Moscow, since the new pipeline bypasses former routes that went through Ukraine.) Unsurprisingly, the reaction in Kiev to recent events has been one of disappointment, outrage, and a sense of abandonment. Both the press and officials in Kiev have described the West’s current policies with an alarmist tone in a hardly concealed effort to garner greater support for Ukraine and a harder stance against Russia.[2]  

          It is unlikely, however, that Kiev’s vocalness will truly compel its Western allies to offer any decisive help in aligning Ukraine closer to the West, be it through NATO/EU membership or abandoning Nord Stream 2. The West fundamentally lacks the ability and willingness to project hard power at a capacity sufficient to enable Ukraine’s joining the West – the limits of the West’s support to Kiev are a recognition of this reality. It was the West’s (or the EU’s) inability to militarily defend Ukraine’s Eastern borders that enabled Russia’s 2014 incursions in the first place, under the failed bid to bring Ukraine under the EU’s fold. For Western states, such a bid is simply too escalatory to justify the costs. Though there is no denying that Russia’s incursions are plain and simple acts of aggression, preventing Ukraine’s assimilation into the West is a core, if not severely essential interest for Kremlin since part of its domestic legitimacy stems from claims to a Slavic civilizational heritage (the Kievan Rus) originally based around modern day Ukraine. The recent article penned by Putin claiming that Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are essentially one and the same people through shared heritage and history no doubt contains gross historical oversimplifications, but that is beside the point. Its publication strongly attests to the deep genuineness of such a belief as held by the Kremlin, regardless of whatever one may think about the validity of such a worldview. Above all, Putin’s personal authorship, a rarity, should express quite clearly that Ukraine’s political alignment is for Moscow no less than a red line as an actual interest and not just propaganda.

          What this means, notwithstanding the situation on the ground, is that Russia has already achieved its core objectives in Ukraine. Moscow’s goal was never territorial expansionism or some conquest of Ukraine per se, but simply forestalling Ukraine’s political assimilation into the liberal West. The status quo is by and large acceptable to the Kremlin. Russia may engage in the occasional show of force to project strength and underscore what it considers to be red lines, for instance with military maneuvers on the border with Ukraine. Nonetheless it is unlikely to seek a battlefield escalation if the West continues to shy away from drawing Ukraine closer to itself. The situation in Ukraine is likely to stabilize since Russia has sufficiently achieved its core interest, while the West lacks the means and will to truly alter the strategic balance.

          Under such circumstances, the Ukraine issue will not constitute an insurmountable obstacle to engagement or even a reset of ties between the West and Russia. There is no true marginal benefit to be gained from further provocations for both sides. More broadly, both Russia and the West consider mutual engagement a superseding interest. Russia, as both a nuclear and a great power, is simply too important to ignore for the West. Engaging Russia has also become of interest as the West increasingly perceives China rather than Russia to be the true challenge to global order. On the other side, the antagonistic rhetoric that Russia often wields should not obscure a nonetheless genuine interest in engaging with the West, albeit on its own terms. Russia’s motivations are myriad and complex. However, it is safe to say that Russia desires engagement with the West as a potential counterbalance against overdependence on China, on top of a muddied sense of cultural affinity that undergirds its love-hate obsessions with the West.[3] The recent overtures at the Biden-Putin Summit may only be the beginning of mutual engagement and cooperation in areas of common interest in the longer run, as Ukraine’s Zelensky himself decries.

This does not mean relations between the West and Russia will necessarily and inevitably improve, since engagement is by no means agreement. But a mutual clarification of key interests between Russia and the West will likely take shape, above all with the understanding that Ukraine will not be offered formal ascension into the West, in line with the status quo. The West may no doubt continue providing aid and defending Ukraine’s existing territorial sovereignty as a matter of principle. There may even be the occasional event with accompanying pomp and fanfare, as seen during the eventful passage of the HMS Defender through the waters off Crimea. These individual gestures are not entirely unhelpful given their limited value – aid strengthens Ukraine’s ability to defend against future armed aggression while the Defender’s passage was a morale booster if a temporary one.  Still, they cannot override the broader strategic picture where the Kiev government’s hopes of formal alignment with the West are simply unfeasible.

          Under such circumstances, one may of course be forgiven for speculating if Ukraine may desire to escalate the situation out of disappointment with its current situation, with the hope of keeping Western attention on itself and encouraging a more dogmatic stance towards Russia. Nonetheless, there does not appear to be any meaningful way for Kiev to pursue this objective, assuming if at all that it desires so in the first place. Unilateral escalation will simply drain Kiev’s limited resources to deal with pressing issues of governance, and may very well dent its relations with its valuable Western allies whose existing level of support is simply too indispensable, even if considered inadequate. Ultimately, a unilateral escalation would be suicidal without the backing and consultation of Western allies given Russia’s local hard power superiority on the frontier and how Russia considers Ukraine a red line. The animated expressions of frustration and disappointment with Kiev’s Western allies by the Ukrainian press and officials are also really reluctant admissions of Kiev’s heavy dependence on its Western partners and limited ability to act alone.

          Conflict in Ukraine has gripped international attention much longer than the previous Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, memories of which dissipated more quickly. Russia’s presence in and around Ukraine will not cease to be an issue especially for European states, given its geographical position compared to Georgia. Still, while the world will not forget about Ukraine, a preference by the major powers for the status quo and the lack of any strong imperative on their part to change it may translate into Ukraine becoming a second-order issue. Ukraine may not disappear into the night, but even in the day it may now struggle to retain the prime relevance in international affairs that it desires.  

[1] The use of the specific term ‘hybrid warfare’ is not without its ambiguities. See for instance Ofer Fridman, Russian “Hybrid Warfare”: Resurgence and Politicisation (London: C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd, 2018). Fridman highlights the term’s conceptual vagueness as well as its politicized usage, which clouds a proper contextualization of Russian conduct. ‘Hybrid warfare’ here is simply used in a very general sense to refer to current discourse without an evaluation of the term’s actual utility.

[2] For more examples, see for instance;

[3] Chris Cheang, Life and Work in Post-Soviet Russia (Singapore: World Scientific, 2020).

“Risk” here is understood as a potential resurgence in hostilities
in Eastern Ukraine.  

What is the probability that the risk will materialise? (1/3)

Softening of tone towards Russia by major Western states is all but an acknowledgement of hard power realities on the ground. Control by Russia or its affiliate separatist regimes has been and will continue to be assured. An outbreak of hostilities is not impossible but will likely be accidental rather than deliberate. The ‘flashpoints’ of competition between the West and Russia may shift to other areas such as the Arctic.

What is the predicted size of impact? (2/3)

Recent developments affirm the status quo, with disruptions or escalation from the current trajectory of events improbable. That is not to say that the Ukraine issue is insignificant, as all major parties involved do have core security interests in maintaining the status quo. The emphasis here is on how the Ukraine issue likely will not dramatically change the policies of current actors involved.

What is the expected speed of onset? (1/3)

Hostilities are unlikely to break out for aforementioned reasons. On the US-Russia relationship, it may improve but only gradually since significant mistrust and divergences in strategic outlook remain.

Will regional or non-state actors be involved? (3/3)

There are a plethora of actors involved on the ground in Eastern Ukraine, especially on the Russian/separatist side where there is a blurring of regular and irregular forces on the ground with Russian troops mixed heavily with separatists. The situation in Ukraine is also of key consideration to many
other neighbouring Western-aligned countries with strong concerns regarding Russian influence and behaviour. That said, the extent to which these actors can shape the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, in a manner independent of the great power interests, remains limited.

What is the probability of spill-over? (1/3)

While the Ukraine issue resides under the general umbrella of relations between Russia and the West, conflict in Eastern Ukraine is unlikely to spill over as the primary belligerents are either heavily localised (the separatist movement) or concerned with unique local interests (Russia and its self-defined heritage with relation to Ukraine). Neighbouring countries sympathetic to Ukraine may provide aid and cooperate where relevant, though it is unlikely that they will pursue hostile relations with Moscow on par with that between Ukraine and Russia.

Total score: 8/15 (notable to medium risk)

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