The Center on Global Interests spoke to Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow and editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, about Russia’s strategy in Ukraine after the May 25 presidential elections.
CGI: How was the Ukrainian presidential election perceived in Russia? Here in the U.S., politicians including President Obama have said the election was a success, thanks in part to American influence. We imagine some experts in Russia may have a different view.
Fyodor Lukyanov: The Russian reaction is a bit ambivalent. On the one hand, there was a feeling that Russia would bluntly reject the election as a farce during a de-facto civil war, especially considering expectations from several weeks ago. The rhetoric of the Foreign Ministry and members of parliament was extremely negative at that time. But the final decision was not to reject the results of the election completely, and at the same time not to accept it officially; not to congratulate Poroshenko, not to say—as American and European leaders did—that Ukraine now had a fully legitimate president. So Russia de-facto accepted the results and is not going to block or sabotage contacts with members of the Ukrainian leadership because of the election. At the same time, the lack of an official reaction from the Russian side leaves room for maneuvering.
As [Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly] Churkin said at the United Nations yesterday, quoting Putin, the election was “a step in the right direction” but it cannot be seen as fully democratic and fair. The Russian position is one of, “let’s wait and see what this guy will do next.”
CGI: Do you think that phrase, “wait-and-see,” could be used to describe the entire Russian approach to the Ukrainian crisis? Some American experts are saying there is no strategy behind the Russian government’s actions, and that Putin is simply taking advantage of opportunities as they arise.
FL: In general, this is a correct description. It seems that Russia, or rather President Putin, has a picture of what he would like to achieve in Ukraine but doesn’t have a roadmap for how to do it. It’s more of a spontaneous reaction to changes there, while taking into account the final picture of this “desirable” Ukraine. On the other hand, he of course takes into account the international reaction, and he is not at all interested in provoking a further deterioration in the relationship between Russia and the West, especially the United States.
In fact, we’ve seen a reversal in tone between the United States and Russia. In the beginning, Putin was quite assertive when talking about U.S. actions, and Obama was more conciliatory and peaceful. Now it’s the opposite. Obama’s statements about Russia are pretty negative and he tries to look tough, while Putin is mostly calm and even relaxed toward the United States, and especially toward Obama personally. Maybe he feels confident and believes the U.S. reaction will be more rhetorical, or maybe he understands that Ukraine will never provide any good news for anybody, so he doesn’t need to escalate tensions further because Ukraine will do that by itself.
CGI: In one of your most recent articles, you said the best outcome for Ukraine would be a Dayton-like agreement reached by all participating sides that would guarantee Ukraine’s neutrality. Is this Putin’s ultimate goal? How can it be achieved?
FL: I think this is the format that would be best for Russia. I don’t know which Ukraine Putin would prefer—maybe no Ukraine at all, because he sincerely believes, like many here in Russia, that Ukrainian statehood, however it ends up looking, will be based on an anti-Russian idea, because Ukraine needs to emphasize its difference from Russia in order to build a national identity. So Ukraine is seen as a strategic problem, and in the current situation this view has become even more relevant.
A decentralized and neutral Ukraine would not be a permanent solution, because a situation like that couldn’t last forever. But it would be a serious effort to postpone the next crisis—which, from Russia’s point of view, is inevitable. The protection of Russian interests in Ukraine might be guaranteed by a model of Ukrainian statehood that would include a political force representing sentiments in the east that would have the power to block the country from moving Westward, from inside of Ukraine. This can’t be achieved by domestic politics alone. It should be achieved, first of all, by building a new political force based on the rebels in the east; they must transform themselves into a political party or a movement that would become part of domestic politics. Second, there should be a process of national reconciliation—a real one, not an imitation as it has been until now—that would include these newly established pro-Russian movements. Thirdly, there should be joint work on a new Ukrainian constitution that includes all groups, including the pro-Russian ones. And finally, this new constitution should be designed under the supervision of powers that have a stake in the Ukrainian issue: Russia, the EU and the U.S.
I fully understand that this construction might be a utopian wish, but that’s how the situation might become stable. This is the key dilemma with Ukraine: the issue cannot be settled without a combination of domestic and external processes, and the two must be coordinated. However colonial it may sound, Ukrainian statehood should include elements that would guarantee the interests of outside forces—Russia on one side, and the U.S. and Europe on the other side. The Dayton agreement was not an ideal solution, but it’s a model for how external forces can work intensively with domestic groups.
CGI: As you said, there’s a good chance this kind of framework may not work out, especially as Ukraine’s new President-elect Petro Poroshenko has begun to ask the U.S. for military assistance. What’s your estimation of what might happen in Ukraine over the next few months?
FL: First, we have seen that the civil war is escalating. It seems Kiev is trying to remove and neutralize the eastern rebellion by force as soon as possible, preferably before the presidential inauguration, so that Poroshenko can come off as a peace-loving person. The dirty work will be done formally by the interim government, and then Poroshenko can come in and fire [Interior Minister Arsen] Avakov and others, apologize, and launch the “real” process of political settlement.
Secondly, the Russian approach to the so-called People’s Republics has certainly changed. At the end of April, Russia was very assertive in demonstrating that the counterterrorism operation by Kiev, if continued, might provoke a real Russian invasion. Russia moved its troops closer to the Ukrainian border and launched military drills. Now, when the fighting has become much more intense, the Russian position is unusually calm and relaxed. If you compare media coverage that you had then and now in Russia, there is much less energy in the appeals to protect our “Russian brothers” in Ukraine. It seems Putin has decided not to get fully involved in this crisis. Of course, Russia helps the rebellion by different means—morally, politically, economically, and maybe by other means as well, although so far no one can confirm it—but there is a clear desire to be distanced from the process and to portray it as an internal Ukrainian conflict. That means that for now, Putin’s agenda for Russia in Ukraine has been completed.
We might see more intra-Ukrainian developments, with Russia telling Western partners how important it is to stop them, but without any significant Russian engagement. That might continue for a long time, because it seems the more military action on Kiev’s side, the broader the support for the rebellion in Donetsk and the eastern regions. It’s unfortunately typical of the violent spiral that we saw in places like Yugoslavia 20 years ago.
Russia will watch what Poroshenko will do after the inauguration. If he demonstrates a readiness and willingness to bargain with Russia and the eastern regions of his country, then all statements by Russian officials show that they’re open to that option. If he will emphasize the current course of military action, and puts goals like NATO membership or U.S. military aid on the agenda, then Russia will use its leverage to boost support for the rebellion in the east. So it might be quite a long game, waiting for Ukraine to sink deeper and deeper into economic and political crisis.
The basic assumption in Moscow—both in the Kremlin and among experts—is that this election demonstrated that nothing changed in Ukraine after the revolution: nothing that could produce a new political model, a new course, a new hope for the future. It’s incredible that the Maidan revolution destroyed the political system and nearly destroyed the Ukrainian state as it was, but didn’t produce anything new in terms of political forces. And the oligarchs who were largely responsible for the collapse of the previous Ukrainian system are still in place. That’s a new phenomenon: a revolution that destroys everything, but doesn’t produce change.
CGI: Switching gears a bit, let’s discuss the latest U.S. development. President Obama recently gave a much-anticipated speech on his new foreign policy vision at West Point. How was the speech received in Russia?
FL: My feeling is that Russia didn’t pay much attention. And that is strange, because we are in a Cold-War like situation with the United States, and it would be natural to listen carefully to what the U.S. president is saying about strategy. But his West Point speech didn’t attract too much attention, and those who listened and read it—I don’t think they were very impressed.
From Moscow’s point of view, Obama is trying too hard to convince everyone how successful his foreign policy is, and it doesn’t sound credible or convincing because he’s too energetic in pushing his argument. His statement that the U.S. doesn’t need to use much force because it’s already influential and effective at building consensus doesn’t sound serious to many people here. So the image of Obama as a person who doesn’t have a lot to say about foreign policy—despite the fact that he says a lot—has become even stronger after that speech.