The Bloody Secession of Eastern Ukraine

28 April 2014, 0943 EDT

[Note: This is a guest post by Branislav L. Slantchev, professor of Political Science at the University of California-San Diego]

Anna Pechenkina has written an insightful response to my opinion that if the West cares about Ukraine’s pro-Western orientation and integrity (at least what remains after Crimea), then we and the Ukrainians need to brace ourselves for a risky confrontation with Putin’s Russia: Kiev must ask for, and we must agree to, NATO troops on the ground in the Eastern provinces. Since the question then becomes whether we care enough about Ukraine to run such a risk, I argued that it is in our interest to protect Ukraine.

Pechenkina – who, like I, wants to see Ukraine emerge whole and independent from this imbroglio – but she does not think we have important interests there.  In the end, this means Ukraine will be dismembered. But, and this is important, she says that this will hurt Russia in the long run. She also takes issue with my claims that Putin’s domestic legitimacy is based on promoting foreign policies that must confront Western influence in the Eurasian basin where Russia has traditionally been dominant, that our failure to act in Ukraine will encourage Russia’s neighbors to become more accommodating to Putin, and that Russia itself will be encouraged to pursue more adventurous policies.

Before addressing these important points, I have to admit that I find the interest-based argument for our reasons to help Ukraine not entirely satisfactory. I happen to think that after directly encouraging Maidan, we bear some responsibility for what happens there. I think we have a moral obligation to help people who are trying to break away from the “sovereign democratic” Russian embrace, but in this I might be unduly influenced by my upbringing in Cold War Bulgaria. Our history here, with East Berlin, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, is not encouraging.

This, however, is neither here nor there. Pechenkina sees our inaction as resulting in the secession of the Eastern provinces, but this makes the outcome sound a lot more peaceful than what is likely to happen. The outcome that Putin must like best would be for his intimidating tactics to succeed and for the Ukrainians to elect a government that would reverse the Western tilt in Kiev. This would ensure the country’s territorial integrity, the withdrawal of Russian troops from the border, the ending of interference in the East, and the resumption of total dependence on Russia. But if the Ukrainians defy him – and there is no indication at this point that they will not – then the violence in the Eastern provinces will escalate, the infiltration will continue, and Russian troops might openly intervene using this as a pretext. The country will slide into civil war and the provinces will probably end up in some sort of legal limbo without being annexed to Russia but outside of Ukrainian control. This secssion is going to be bloody, and it will force the majority non-Russian population to either migrate West or remain in a conflict zone. Our failure to act is going to cost the Ukrainians dearly if they insist on their independence. Perhaps this should stiffen Western, but especially European, resolve to act to prevent this.

Let me now turn to Pechenkina’s three points:

First, Pechenkina argues that Putin’s legitimacy does not rest on foreign policy. She claims that Putin has consistently enjoyed high approval ratings because the economy is growing and because he has been “increasing the salaries, pensions, and other social payments.” It is true that both GDP and GNI have been increasing, but this is not what ordinary Russians would care about. Life expectancy has not even recovered to Cold War levels, and this is at a time where Europeans, East and West, have seen marked improvements. Out of pocket health expenditures have been mercilessly going up, bucking the trend in Western Europe and of some of the more successful former satellites. Corruption has become a way of life, much, much worse than what they used to be in the USSR. Putin’s regime has tamed the oligarchs and enabled some to prosper, but it is leaving many behind. Putin has bought himself some time with increasing subsidies, but this is not sustainable, as Pechenkina agrees. Moreover, it is heavily dependent on income from exports (which is why I do not think the West should be particularly worried about Putin turning off the gas or oil supplies for long).

In other words, I think the growth in GDP/GNI is not telling us the whole story.

Putin should certainly be aware of the precarious state of fiscal affairs and what this will imply for future discontent. To make things worse, Putin’s rule has delivered prosperity to a small segement of society, but it seems that this has only made them want more Western-style liberties instead of a “managed democracy”. From his perspective, bribes do not seem to have worked very well, and the poorer average Russian has not seen them anyway. Support for Putin sans reforms has been steadily eroding. It is difficult to see what else Putin might be banking on except from a hope for improvement from Russian domination in Eurasia. And for this, an assertive foreign policy is necessary. That Russians believe that intervention is justified is without question, as the spikes in popularity after the invasion of Georgia and the Crimean annexation testify.

My point was not that Putin’s has always relied on foreign policy (overcoming the Cold War Syndrome) for his legitimation but that Russia has reached the limit of what it can deliver without further economic and political reforms. Since these will not be forthcoming, the alternative is Russian assertiveness in Eurasia that will both enjoy domestic support (so, in a sense, would be diversionary) and help Putin cobble together the Eurasian Union (which could provide more growth for Russia). Every government must eventually provide for its citizens. The problem is that the Cold War Syndrome furnishes not only an explanation for stagnation but a remedy that results in an assertive (one might say, aggressive) foreign policy.

We can, of course, argue whether Putin intervened in Crimea because he was afraid that inaction would cause him to “lose” Ukraine and because he thought that he could get away with a consolation prize (which is what I have argued) or whether it is because he was thinking 20 years ahead, as Wolford does. I, for one, do not buy the argument that a Western tilt in Ukraine would “erode Ukraine’s commitment to honoring leasing agreements”, not the least because even inveterate enemies tend to keep profitable arrangements (Castro’s Cuba certainly did not cancel the Guantanamo lease to the United States).

As a side note, Pechenkina essentially hopes that Putin’s Russia will collapse like the Soviet Union did, “due to economic reasons.” The problem is that the USSR did not collapse because of economic reasons but because Gorbachev lost control of the country with his political reforms. This is not only a lesson that the Chinese have taken to heart, but a mistake that Putin is not going to repeat. The response will be to tighten his grip on power and, if necessary, increase domestic repression.

Second, since I never really said that “Russia’s small neighbors will abandon the hopes for Western integration,” I will just clarify what I did say, which is that “Russia’s neighbors will reevaluate their relationship with Moscow, making Putin’s Eurasian dreams a reality.” This will mean a loss of influence in Asia or at least it will make it more expensive (as the brouhaha over the US base in Kyrgyzstan has already shown). I have also noted that it is possible that losing Ukraine will stiffen our resolve to help others resist future Russian encroachments, but I also suspected that when given a choice between “balancing” Russia with Western support and “bandwagoning” with it, neighboring countries might not want to rely on our notorious infidelity. I am not talking about the Baltic states whose memberships in NATO and the EU are going to keep them secure (although Graham Allison does not think it far-fetched that they could drag us into war), but about political and economic influence that is enough to pull these states into the Russian orbit.

And, finally, Russia will not be a revisionist in other regions. On this we agree, and I happen to think this is the silver lining in Putin’s legitimation of foreign policy that is neither based on traditional security concerns, religion, or communist ideology, but on greater Russia. The only problem is that the Eurasian region is plenty big, so we should care about what Putin does there.

I agree with Pechenkina that putting NATO troops in Ukraine (which, by the way, I explicitly noted would be very difficult for the Ukrainian government to do) would inevitably be used by Putin for domestic purposes. However, while Ukrainian capitulation or dismemberment will show that his policies are working (in the sense of Russia’s ability to stand up to the West), preserving Ukrainian integrity and pro-Western tilt despite 40,000 Russian troops on the border will reveal that his policies have failed. He will doubtless use this to argue that Russia has to get stronger, but this course will not be easy to sustain given Russia’s economic trajectory. On the balance, I think that defeat over Ukraine will undermine his legitimacy at home and torpedo the muscular influence abroad. The clamor for reforms would have to increase just when the strategy he had hoped to use to deflect them has proven a failure. This is why I think this will make the chances for internal reform in Russia better.