Why Kyiv Must Break The Stalemate

Is there a way through?

Is there a way through?

So it looks as if Putin is, I’m glad to say, not a raving and unreasoning imperialist after all. OK, so he may be a careful and calculating imperialist of sorts, but his performance at his press conference on the Ukrainian crisis, while not closing out any options, clearly indicated that Russia was not eagerly after the annexation of Crimea. I’m reassured that my early instincts, which I confess I did begin to question (not least under a heavy barrage of Russoskeptics, ably assisted by lunatic Kremlin I-hope-not-always-mouthpiece Sergei Markov) seem to have been right. Moscow’s aim is to influence Ukrainian policy, not territorial conquest (yes, I know Crimea’s parliament just voted to hold a referendum on this; I’ll take this as serious when it’s the Russian Duma saying this, instead). To be sure, I suspect that the first instinct was a combination of anger, outrage and over-reaction after Yanukovych fell, but there has been time for some consideration. And, even if Angela Merkel does believe that Putin is “in another world” (not something that unusual for leaders, especially those who have been in office long enough to surround themselves with yes-men), his Kremlin still seems able to shape this one, too.

But now that the Crimea is firmly and unquestionably under Russian control (we can safely dismiss those bizarre claims that it is “volunteer self-defence forces” who are wandering around in Russian uniforms, with Russian guns, in Russian vehicles), the conflict seems to have settled into a stalemate. Russia has actually stood down some of its forces along the Ukrainian border; it is clear there will be no imminent blitzkrieg. The West hints at sanctions, talks of consequences, suspends the kind of cooperation that has some political but no practical impact (so NATO won’t let the Russian navy help escort Syrian chemical weapons to destruction; I doubt Putin will lose any sleep over that). So how to break the stalemate?

This is not something that is going to be thrashed out by Kerry and Lavrov. Not even that world-bestriding colossus William Hague will sort this one. The terrible, unfair, difficult but inescapable answer is that it is now down to Kyiv actively to find some way to move things forward. Prime Minister Yatsenyuk has made encouraging noises about the need for a “win-win game where both Ukrainian and Russian interests are considered” and further autonomy for Crimea. However, beyond that, I feel that at the very least Kyiv needs to make certain other commitments:

1. To maintain the current status and agreement of the Black Sea Fleet Did Tymoshenka call for it to be withdrawn? I’ve only so far seen that claimed on Russian news sites and it would be a very unhelpful populist demand if so, but given provenance, I’m willing for the moment to assume the agreement isn’t being challenged.

2. Conclusively to rule out any change to the dual-language status. Trying to impose Ukrainian on the Russian-speaking areas is an obvious and unnecessary irritant.

3. To extend the autonomy status offer to other parts of Ukraine, notably the east. I can understand why Kyiv does not want to grant greater powers to areas questioning its writ and legitimacy, but it needs to take the long view. Ultimately, Ukraine’s future lies westward and eventually ethnic Russians (who even now are not in the main seeking to become part of Russia) will become reconciled to the nation’s tectonic shift. But as a measure to reassure Moscow that it will have allies and agents within the Ukrainian body politic (as well as to provide implicit protection for dirty local elites who may fear a with-hunt), this would be invaluable.

4. Formally ruling out NATO membership. Seriously, it wouldn’t happen for the foreseeable future anyway, so just explicitly take it off the table, even if only to deprive alarmists in Russia of this card.

5. Either ruling out signing the EU Trade Agreement or committing to trying to join that and Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union. OK, Ukraine would largely like the former, and combining the two might be impossible. But all things change and in any case Ukraine would not be able to join the EU any time soon. There are other ways of allowing closer EU-Ukrainian economic ties that don’t hit Putin’s sore spots and Ukraine has to trade with Russia anyway. (Edit: yes, I know you can’t actually, formally join both, I mean trying to find some way of bridging the gap rather than letting it be an either/or “who’s my bestest friend?” choice.)

Is it fair to ask Kyiv to make concessions to a country which has invaded part of its country on specious grounds? Of course not. But sadly fairness is not an especially powerful geopolitical force.

It’s a time for pragmatism, for a deal that provides enough reassurance that Putin can feel he has not “lost” Ukraine just because of Yanukovych’s ouster and can claim “peace with honour”–but without undermining the territorial and political integrity of Ukraine. This is not “letting Putin” win, not least because issues such as autonomy for the east and language rights are being pushed also by Ukrainians. Russia’s efforts to assert and maintain regional hegemony may look successful, but are ultimately doomed. History is not marching that way. It would behove Kyiv, in my opinion, to accept that long-term comfort and for the moment to do what it can to de-escalate the conflict.

Of course, that presupposes that the new government feels it can make concessions, that it does not fear the Maidan more than the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade. My greatest fear is that Moscow, the West and Kyiv alike are locked into positions from which they cannot reach far enough to find common ground.

Leave a comment


  1. Russia will also want people like Paruiby and Yarosh to be removed from Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council. Can they achieve that?

    • Yarosh declined the offer of a position on the NSDC. Russia can certainly make demands in this direction, but ultimately I doubt the composition of the provisional government is going to change much until there are new parliamentary elections – presumably after a new president is elected. So far Svoboda doesn’t seem to be attracting much popular support if SOCIS polling is to be believed, but a Russian invasion seems to be the kind of thing that would benefit far-right nationalists.

      I’m also not entirely certain what purpose it serves in the Ukrainian government. It seemed to be basically a counter-cabinet, to balance against Tymoshenko during Yushchenko’s presidency. Is this just a jobs for the boys thing at this point?

  2. Hi Mark – don’t use Twitter but thought should clarify on your ‘Cthulhu’ post. The NYT is not David Brooks. David Brooks is David Brooks – he’s also an idiot of long-standing. Doesn’t mean US media is starting to mirror image RT/VOR.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  March 6, 2014

      Ultimately, though, the NYT decides what goes into its op.ed pages

      • True, but guys like Brooks get X number of pages a week to publish basically whatever they want with almost no editorial oversight. If the editor actually spiked a Brooks column it would be a very big deal – and amazingly his Putin column was not his worst. The only hard and fast rule seems to be that you can’t openly criticise other Times columnists, which makes reading Krugman and Brooks Aesopian jousts at one another rather amusing.

  3. Heidi McCormack

     /  March 6, 2014

    Agree entirely w/your points concerning what Kyiv needs to do for long term stability – but what from the Russian side? Don’t believe there is anyway Kyiv can “give” all this w/out some give from the Russians – and Russian “give” needs to be more than eventually w/drawing its troops from Crimea.

  4. Gracie Bird

     /  March 6, 2014

    Reblogged this on Blonde Thoughts and commented:
    Okay, so most of the time I don’t blog about politics. I DO have very strong political opinions, but most of the time I don’t try and bother to explain my political theories and opinions to people who fervently partake in a two-party mentality here in America.
    That being said, the events going on in the Ukraine pique my interest, and unlike most of my other conservative friends, I’m not going to jump on the hate-on-Putin-and-compare-him-to-Hitler bandwagon. Grow up, America. The conflict in the Ukraine is a lot more complicated than Russia simply being a “bully.”
    If you want to formulate a deeper opinion than the current headlines in the news about Russia and the Ukraine offer, then read this well-thought out post from a more knowledgable and researched writer than most other political bloggers who are offering their laughable opinions on this situation.

  5. I don’t really understand what you’re suggesting when you say that Ukraine should try to talk and chew gum at the same time (i.e., be open to both the EU and Putin’s Eurasian Union). This is not really possible in practice, as you point out; and any attempt at “looking like I’m going here but then I’m also going there but then I’m going here again” is going to sound sooo Yanukovych that I don’t think they’ll be able to get away with that. Anything solid in the EU direction will make Russia (and its puppets in Eastern Ukraine) start blabbering about “Western influence”; and anything equally solid in Russia’s direction is going to make the Western Ukrainians wonder why it is their children died on Independence Square. And both sides will criticize such movements by pointing out, rather biblically, that it is ultimately impossible to serve two masters.

    So, even though I understand that conning their way around the issue may be pragmatically good, I really don’t see how the government can pull this off in a way that sounds both logical (‘we’re doing something real here!’) and still pleases both masters (or either alternatively). What course of action would you specifically suggest? How can Yatsenyuk, for instance, reaffirm a European commitment (which he’ll have to do, with all this “ocuppy Crimea” brouhaha on his back), and yet ultimately try to avoid signing an agreement with the EU? How can make overtures to the Eurasian Union (and what kind of overtures? if it’s not something “solid” like what Armenia is doing, Putin won’t be convinced) without angering the Maidanovsty? I.e., I see your point “in theory”, but I can’t think of a single real practical step the government could take that would actually achieve this result. It seems to me that, whether or not they like it, they will have to put most of their eggs in one basket — probably the EU basket.

  6. Reblogged this on james23616.

  7. Mark, did you write this after yesterday’s rescheduling of the referendum (and Crimea’s bid to join Russia)? If no, does that development change much? Because we were all freaking out yesterday, and then today I was thinking maybe everything’s going to be ok…

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  March 7, 2014

      It was written before, but the referendum need not mean anything more than a further ratcheting up of the pressure on Kyiv to offer and reach a deal fast, before things go too far. It’s honestly hard to be sure what’s going on inside the Kremlin black box, but at this stage I don’t think we can take the decision to move forward the referendum as conclusive proof of anything.

  1. Why Kyiv Must Break the Stalemate
  2. RUSSIA & UKRAINE: Johnson’s Russia List table of contents :: 2014-#52 :: Monday, 10 March 2014 | Johnson's Russia List

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: