Whatever happens in the second round of Ukraine’s elections later this month, a pro-Russian candidate will not become Ukraine’s next president. Five years after Russia annexed Crimea and launched a war in the country’s Donbass region, the Kremlin’s influence in Ukraine is at the lowest level in at least a century.
True, Russia continues to control 7 percent of Ukraine’s territory, which neither incumbent Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko nor his second-round opponent, the comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, has a strategy for retaking. Even though the country’s military has improved since 2014, Ukraine can’t retake the territory by force given Russia’s massive military advantage.
In the other 93 percent of Ukraine, however, things have not gone in the Kremlin’s favor. For Ukrainian politicians focused on consolidating their country’s independence and national identity—and that includes Poroshenko and most of the country’s political class—the status quo is tolerable. They would prefer to get Crimea and the Donbass back, yet Russia’s ongoing occupation has its benefits too. In seizing those areas, Russia chopped off the two regions with the least-developed sense of Ukrainian identity. And with them gone, no pro-Russian candidate could win a Ukrainian election. Long gone are the days when candidates such as former President Viktor Yanukovych, who was openly sympathetic to Russia, could win a majority of votes.
Things won’t change anytime soon. The ongoing confrontation with Russia—the humiliation of having lost Crimea, the sporadic fighting along the line of control, the lives disrupted and destroyed by the division of the country—reminds Ukrainians daily why they want to build a nation wholly separate from Moscow. That, too, is a boon for Ukraine’s politicians, whose inability to tackle corruption or improve the economy have otherwise disappointed the hopes of the 2014 revolution that brought them to power.
It is less clear what Russia is getting from the status quo. The Kremlin has proved willing to bear the costs of occupation, paying for soldiers’ salaries, tolerating the collapse in Russia-Ukraine trade, and putting up with Western sanctions that will persist until Moscow agrees to return the Donbass to Ukrainian control. Why? There are several potential explanations.
One is that Russia wants to send a message to other post-Soviet states about the costs of anti-Russian revolutions. The Kremlin’s continued occupation of the Donbass sends a clear message: Russia is willing to punish neighbors that presume they can topple their governments or cut deals with the West.
Yet Russia’s neighbors do not seem to have gotten the message. Just last year, Armenia tossed out its pro-Russian government, installing a younger crowd that wants better ties with Europe. Fearing blowback, the new Armenian government has insisted that its revolution is not anti-Russia. But the country is tacking closer to the West all the same.
Another possible explanation is that, even if Moscow couldn’t prevent other revolutions, it could at least prevent Ukraine from integrating with the West. Specifically, the frozen conflict will prevent Ukraine from being able to join NATO. But even if Russia withdrew from the Donbass tomorrow, NATO membership still seems far off for Ukraine. European countries such as Germany and France have long been skeptical, suggesting that the benefits of inviting Ukraine into the alliance would not outweigh the costs. If U.S. President Donald Trump thought that “aggressive” Montenegro’s membership in NATO might provoke World War III, as he told the TV personality Tucker Carlson last year, he seems unlikely to welcome Ukraine into the alliance.
European Union membership for Ukraine is no more likely in the short term. But here, too, the Donbass is not the most important factor. More significant is the EU’s own expansion fatigue. Ukraine, with 44 million people, would be the most populous country to join the EU since Spain joined the then-European Communities in 1986. Integrating countries such as Romania and Bulgaria caused plenty of difficulty. Ukraine is significantly bigger, and it would be significantly harder to integrate. Existing member states aren’t eager to take on that challenge now.
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