Putin is doomed to enter Russian history as the man who lost Ukraine

Peter Dickinson,
Publisher, Business Ukraine magazine

Editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert Service

The hybrid war between Russia and Ukraine is now in its eighth year and remains one of the most misunderstood geopolitical events of the twenty-first century. Ever since 2014, the complex and unconventional nature of this conflict has provided fertile ground for disinformation and made it difficult for international audiences to appreciate the gravity of the situation unfolding on Europe’s eastern frontier.

This confusion is no accident. On the contrary, Russia’s tactics have been specifically designed to create a veneer of plausible deniability while blurring the traditional boundaries between war and peace.

Despite these deliberate distractions, the historic significance of the confrontation is slowly but surely coming into focus. Eight years on, it is now increasingly clear that Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine was a catastrophic blunder. Far from preserving Russia’s grip over Ukraine, it that has produced the biggest shift in the European balance of power since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the USSR.

To fully grasp the gravity of the changes that have taken place in Ukraine since 2014, it is necessary to explore the country’s long and troubled relationship with Russia prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Tensions between Ukraine and Russia are nothing new. Indeed, a significant minority within Ukrainian society has always resented Russia’s role as imperial overlord. However, the two countries shared a common history stretching back centuries and remained bound closely together despite their nominal post-Soviet division into separate states.

Throughout the first few decades of the post-Soviet era, Russia continued to exert unparalleled influence over Ukraine. This was evident in everything from the political and economic spheres to religion and popular culture. Ukrainian channels queued up to screen Russian TV serials, while ambitious Ukrainian celebrities dreamed of making it big in Russia.

Moscow’s interest in Ukraine was twofold. The country played a key role in Russia’s own national story, with Kyiv regarded as the mother city of Russian civilization and Ukraine as a whole seen as central to Russian national identity. This closeness also meant that any Ukrainian attempts to embrace European democracy posed a direct and existential threat to Russia itself. If democracy could be made to work in a country as allegedly indistinguishable as Ukraine, then it was merely a matter of time before the Russian public began calling for a similar transition.

Of course, Ukraine was never quite as culturally close to Russia as many in Moscow liked to believe. Despite centuries of relentless Russification, Ukrainian national identity remained distinct from its Russian counterpart. These differences would become progressively more pronounced after 1991 as post-Soviet Ukraine began to find its feet and grow in self-confidence as an independent state.

Nevertheless, there was nothing preordained about the collapse in bilateral ties that has taken place since 2014. With different handling, it is quite possible that Ukraine and Russia could have forged a meaningful partnership that would have benefited from the many obvious synergies between the two countries. The man most directly responsible for this failure is Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Soon after Putin came to power in 2000, it became clear that he intended to rehabilitate the Soviet era. The first giveaway was the resurrection of the Soviet national anthem, which took place just months after Putin’s appointment had been confirmed via his first election victory. This marked a shift from earlier post-Soviet attitudes towards the past and put Russia on a collision course with other ex-Soviet states that were seeking to shake off the Soviet legacy. Ukraine’s size, wealth, shared history, and close proximity to Russia meant that it was always going to be at the heart of Kremlin efforts to reverse the verdict of 1991.

The first major confrontation between post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine occurred in the run-up to Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election and set the tone for the coming decade. Putin chose to intervene directly in the campaign, visiting Kyiv amid much pomp and pageantry on the eve of the first round. During this ill-advised trip, he gave a long TV interview and lectured Ukrainians on the need to support his preferred candidate. This hubris backfired spectacularly. It outraged millions of previously apolitical Ukrainians and was to prove a major factor behind the Orange Revolution, which erupted weeks later. The uprising in Ukraine sent shock waves through Russian society.

Many believe that Putin’s 2004 humiliation in Ukraine was the major turning point of his reign. From that moment onward, the Russian dictator grew increasingly hostile to the entire Western world. Meanwhile, his policies towards Ukraine were often openly aggressive, albeit without any actual military component.

Disillusionment with the dysfunction of the authorities who had been brought to power by the Orange Revolution led to a revenge victory for pro-Russian forces in Ukraine’s 2010 presidential vote. However, it is important to stress that by this point, the mood in the country had shifted to such a degree that the new Kremlin-friendly government felt obliged to publicly declare their support for further European integration.

When the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych eventually reneged on its campaign trail commitment to sign a landmark Association Agreement with the European Union, Ukrainians once more took to the streets in protest. The 2013-14 Euromaidan Revolution was to prove a major turning point in Ukraine’s post-Soviet development and a watershed event in the relationship with Russia.

Moscow responded to the protests with an unprecedented information war that raged in Russia, Ukraine, and throughout the international media. This proved insufficient to rescue Yanukovych, who was eventually abandoned by his former colleagues following a massacre of protesters in Kyiv and fled to Russia.

The Kremlin was not prepared to accept Ukraine’s European choice. Instead, Putin ordered the military takeover of Crimea. The sense of disbelief in Kyiv at this unlikely turn of events was palpable. Moscow’s general hostility was no secret, but the idea of Russia using its armed forces against Ukrainians remained barely conceivable.

The wave of shock that initially paralyzed Ukrainian society gave way to resolve when Russian forces expanded their operations from Crimea into southern and eastern Ukraine. A series of Kremlin-coordinated local uprisings were crushed by the Ukrainian security forces and volunteers, with military clashes eventually breaking out in the southeastern Donbas region of Ukraine, where support for the ousted pro-Russian government had been strongest.

The military component of the conflict was at its peak from spring 2014 until the first few months of 2015. Since then, the front lines have remained fairly static, with a steady trickle of casualties from sporadic sniper fire and occasional artillery engagements. However, this traditional armed confrontation is only one aspect of a much wider hybrid war.

Far beyond the front lines in eastern Ukraine, Russia deployed a range of informational, economic, sabotage, and cyber weapons in a bid to destabilize Ukraine. The Kremlin has created fake separatist movements in different regions of Ukraine or sought to fan the flames of existing social tensions. Russian agents have been implicated in staged terrorist attacks designed to discredit Ukraine and cause rifts with the country’s international allies. The pressure has been both intense and relentless.

Many expected Ukraine to cave in, but Ukrainian society proved far more durable than anticipated. As the conflict entered its eighth year, Ukraine had done much to address the challenges created by Russian aggression.

During the early years of the confrontation, Kyiv banned Russian media outlets and social media platforms. More recently, the Ukrainian authorities shut down a number of pro-Russian TV channels operating in the country and allegedly funded by the Kremlin. Many of Russia’s biggest pop stars are banned from entering Ukraine, while Ukrainian TV channels no longer fill their schedules with Russian content.

Russia’s ability to influence Ukraine via the dominance of the Russian Orthodox Church was dealt a major blow by the 2019 establishment of an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the parallel revocation of the spiritual authority previously enjoyed by the Moscow Patriarchate.

Moscow’s trade embargoes initially hit the Ukrainian economy hard, but a strong recovery began in 2016 as Ukrainian businesses sought out new markets. By 2019, China had usurped Russia as Ukraine’s biggest trading partner, while trade with Russia had fallen to historically low levels.

As well as free trade, Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU also brought the considerable dividend of visa-free European travel. Since the EU opened its borders to Ukrainian citizens in summer 2017, record numbers have traveled across Europe. This has added to the sense of broadening horizons that has gripped Ukrainian society since the country’s Euromaidan Revolution and the outbreak of hostilities with Russia in 2014.

Ukraine has paid a remarkably high price for this progress. The conflict has killed over 13,000 Ukrainians and forced millions to flee their homes. This has traumatized the entire nation, but it has also served to significantly strengthen Ukrainian identity.

The volunteer movement of 2014, which saw tens of thousands of Ukrainian mobilize to plug the gaping holes in the country’s ramshackle military, was to have a huge impact on Ukrainian attitudes towards issues of identity. In many ways, it was the moment when independent Ukraine belatedly passed the statehood test.

Russia now finds itself facing a Ukraine that is unrecognizable from the chaotic and divided nation of 2014. Despite the economic woes of the past seven years and the disappointments of a faltering reform process, there has been swing back towards support for Ukraine’s pro-Russian political parties. Instead, forces that were once capable of winning presidential elections and securing parliamentary majorities are now reduced to support levels of around 20%. Meanwhile, polls consistently indicate that any future referendum on NATO and EU membership would result in landslide “yes” votes.

Many in Moscow had hoped the victory of Jewish Russian-speaker Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Ukraine’s 2019 presidential election might signal a move towards reconciliation and a rejection of the more strident Ukrainian demands for Euro-Atlantic integration. These hopes have proven misplaced. While Zelenskyy initially adopted a far less confrontational tone than his predecessor, he has been unable to reach any meaningful compromises with the Kremlin. In the final analysis, there is simply no middle ground between Ukraine’s quest for a European future and Moscow’s insistence that the country return to the Russian orbit.

This leaves Putin with few realistic options. He cannot admit his mistake and retreat from Ukraine without provoking a domestic crisis that could conceivably bring down his regime. A continuation of the current status quo is far more likely, while a further escalation cannot be ruled out.

Regardless of which route the Russian leader chooses, it is difficult to see any way back for the Kremlin. Russian influence in Ukraine has fallen to levels not witnessed in over three hundred years, and responsibility rests firmly with Putin himself. He had hoped to enter Russian history as the leader who restored national pride following the Soviet collapse, but he now looks destined to be best remembered as the man who lost Ukraine.

Expert article 2920

> Back to Baltic Rim Economies 2/2021

To receive the Baltic Rim Economies review free of charge, you may register to the mailing list.
The review is published 4-6 times a year.