Sadly for Ukraine, The West Does Not Have Important Interests There

25 April 2014, 1657 EDT

Editor’s note: this is a guest post by Anna O. Pechenkina, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Dept of Social and Decision Sciences, Carnegie Mellon University. It is primarily a response to an essay Branislav Slantchev recently posted on his personal website.

Branislav Slantchev advocates for NATO troops to be stationed in Eastern Ukraine to preserve western strategic interests in the region. The logic is that if NATO troops establish a “tripwire” in Ukraine,  Russia will face a choice of whether to attack western troops and will (most likely) back down. While this describes the world in which I personally would like to live (full disclosure: having grown up in the region, I hope for its western integration), I suggest the West would not want to risk a war with Russia to preserve Ukraine’s current territory because in the long run, secession of Ukraine’s Eastern provinces will be damaging to Russian, not Western, interests.

Important side note: Slantchev acknowledges that NATO troops are unlikely to find themselves in Eastern Ukraine anytime soon due to a complete absence of domestic support in the west for that sort of risk, so the disagreement here is not about the probability of NATO troops being sent to Ukraine but instead about how much danger Ukraine’s splintering presents to the west.

If the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk secede, Slantchev argues, Putin’s regime will be strengthened; Russia’s smaller neighbors will forever abandon the hopes of Western integration, and Russia will be encouraged to perform similar revisionist stunts elsewhere. Let’s review each of these points.

1. Putin will be strengthened domestically in the short-term. Yes, but he’s already enjoying a 72% approval rating (some outlets suggest 80% approval). Let’s say his approval declines to 60% after backing down to NATO troops: so what? The government in Russia has been increasing the salaries, pensions, and other social payments for the past few years, faster than the economy was growing (which is a terrible idea in the long-term – as the former finance minister Kudrin had been warning since 2011 – but is madly popular with the country’s majority). These short-term improvements in federal employees’ well-being contribute more to the regime’s immediate legitimacy than any situation in Ukraine.

In addition, Slantchev misses the important point that NATO troops would not be welcomed in Eastern Ukraine (see p. 20 of this presentation). If Russia backs down because of Western troops, Putin will have a narrative to tell about aggressive western expansionism with even more “evidence” and Russia could sponsor an insurgency among Russian speakers to combat the Western “occupiers”.

Finally, Slantchev argues that Putin’s regime is illegitimate unless it finds an outside threat to protect from. I disagree. This graph (and this one) explains why Russians view Putin as legitimate. But given the long-term economic prospects, Russia will not be growing as fast or at all in 5-10 years window. And if growth slows, then we’ll see a chance at reform. After all, let us not forget that Soviet Union collapsed due to economic reasons.

One more side note: in another essay, Slantchev argues that Putin annexed Crimea only for the purpose of legitimizing his corrupt regime at home. The reality in Russia is that Putin was popular before the Crimean adventure (again, see Putin’s approval rating that shows a considerable upward movement due to the Sochi Olympics; and the baseline of 60% is nothing to sneeze at).  Putin would have been elected even if the elections were free and fair (again, above 60 approval in 2012). And, Russia is still slightly growing (the data show slowing growth until 2012, Russia grew app. 1.6% in 2013 so the downward trend is sustained). It’ll take an economic stagnation or contraction for a real opposition to emerge (which may very well happen soon, given the numbers above). Given the high popularity of the regime to begin with, Slantchev’s story of an authoritarian regime using diversionary conflicts to increase its grip on power is less consistent  with the situation, than the commitment problem explanation proposed by Scott Wolford. If one assumes that Putin was thinking 20 years ahead, then the fear of losing the military base explains the annexation.

2. Russia’s small neighbors will abandon the hopes of Western integration. I am not sure which neighbors are implied here. It’s only Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova left in Europe. With exception of Georgia, the rest of the post-Soviet territories are autocratic states in Central Asia and North Caucasus. The two regimes that cooperate with Russia the most – Belarus and Kazakhstan- are growing faster than any other non-Baltic post-Soviet territories (see the same graph from above). Pro-western integration is conditioned on economic performance of current applicants: e.g., Georgia is growing but it is still poor, Ukraine is stagnating. If the West invests in those countries as it did in Poland and the rest of post-Warsaw bloc, then there will be plenty of desire for Western integration (this is not to diminish Polish elites’ steady course to reform – even here, however, see p. 13 for the role of foreign assistance). The problem is that the West doesn’t need new markets as desperately as the US did after WWII and therefore mini-Marshall plans are not likely to happen.

If Ukraine splits, western Ukraine will have a warm embrace from the EU and will grow faster than the secessionist East – that would be the best argument for pro-Western movements across the region (I suppose, although I might be wrong about the potential assistance, since I used to think that a Crimea-less Ukraine was going to receive the necessary assistance as well, yet as of now the new government has received 1(!) bln in loan guarantees (not a loan) and a promise of 15 bln over the next few years, while the country needs 35 bln to avoid default.) The secessionist movement in the East is economic in nature (just like Crimea’s) not cultural, despite the rhetoric. Look at Singapore: nobody there is arguing to join China, even though they speak Chinese. This is why. Eastern Ukrainians want better lives, they have extended families in Russia who enjoy quality of life much higher than what they experience in Ukraine, and therefore they think that joining Russia will bring prosperity. In the long-run, Russia will have to reform, because corruption has precluded any value-added manufacturing or knowledge-based economy from developing (e.g., Prokhorov’s last attempt at developing an electric car in Russia went out of business a few weeks ago), and that will inevitably lead to a worsening of living standards-but not at the moment.

3. Revisionist Russia in other regions. Slantchev himself says that the pretext for possible Russian action is the encroachment on the rights of Russian-speaking populations, which limits those potential revisionist actions to only a few countries. The Baltics are in NATO, so there’s no possibility there. Should the West care if Russia annexes Transnistria? For the same reasons as with the annexation of Crimea and possibly Donetsk-Luhasnk, no: in the long run, it is to the detriment of Russia to absorb less developed territories that will inevitably observe faster growing standards living in their former homelands after secession (assuming the remaining Ukraine’s European integration is not botched by the EU and Ukraine’s elites).

The current events could have been avoided: if there was a Marshall plan for Russia in 1989, it would have joined all the European and North Atlantic institutions by now. The political and economic investments in Germany and Japan proved hugely beneficial to the West in form of  trade and political cooperation. The opportunity costs of failing to integrate Russia into the West are enormous. Russia will become a part of the West eventually, I am sure, but the West hasn’t been too interested in making that happen so far, surprisingly.