The Ukraine Crisis as a Proxy Conflict: The Problems

In the first part of a series for the PDU, Maria Mitaev takes stock of the problems posed to international relations by the Ukraine crisis.

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The problem at the heart of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine is the clash of geopolitical interests.  Russia continues to see its so-called ‘Near Abroad’ as a sphere of its privileged interests, and will not tolerate the crossing of ‘red lines’ by Western blocs, be it NATO or the EU.  By offering a signature of the Free Trade and Association Agreement to Kyiv, the EU has, in Moscow’s view, crossed that ‘red line’ as such agreement would put Ukraine on a formal i.e. legal, as opposed to merely rhetorical, track for the country’s integration into the European bloc, thereby making the process irreversible.  Some in Moscow also see this as a potential springboard for Ukraine’s joining NATO in the midterm.  Moreover, with Ukraine walking out of the Russia-controlled space, any integrationist project – be it the Customs Union or the Eurasian idea – would be impossible as Moscow sees Ukraine as crucial to the success of any such endeavour.

Moscow’s position has been rather lax: it was not pressing for CIS republics to join any Moscow-dominated military bloc and this did not present a problem for Moscow as long as those republics did not aspire to join NATO or any other bloc in which Moscow does not have a say.  Moreover, Crimea is an important outpost where the Russian fleet is currently based on the Black Sea, which also hosts a number of NATO bases.  Should Ukraine pursue integration with NATO, the bilateral agreement which, according to the latest prolongation, extended Russian basing rights beyond 2017 by an additional 25-year period could be renounced.  Russia therefore sees the present steps of Kyiv to embark on a legal integration with the EU as an almost existential threat.  Its tactical interest is preserving the status quo.

Moscow sees the ongoing developments in the Ukraine (along with the past events in Moldova, Georgia and elsewhere) as masterminded by Western or CIA architects, and therefore it terms the change of power in Kyiv as a ‘coup’ and not a ‘revolution’, and holds the newly installed authorities and their decisions as correspondingly illegitimate and illegal.

The root causes of the current crisis

The root causes of the current crisis are nevertheless multiple and overlapping, and reducing the essence of the problem to Russia’s geopolitical posture would be an understatement.  First, the current Russian elite sees itself ignored and outmanoeuvred by the West.  The promises made to Moscow in the 1990s that NATO would not expand eastward were not respected.  Russia’s weakness in the 1990s was therefore exploited.  More recently, the U.S. attempts to unilaterally install its missile defence in Europe have served as a major irritant to Russia, resulting in Moscow suspending its participation in the CFE Treaty in 2007 and creating even more mistrust between Russia and the West, pushing it yet further into isolationism.

Furthermore, the erosion of the international law regime, particularly after Kosovo, has almost made hard force the true currency of international relations, essentially dashing the achievements of the community of nations after the end of World War II.  The two military interventions by the West in Kosovo and Iraq were conducted in circumvention of the existing international legal procedures.  Neither of the two military incursions was mandated by the UN.  By recognising Kosovo following its unilateral declaration of independence, the West has de facto set a precedent for similar scenarios across the world, opening a Pandora’s Box of secessionism and recognition, thus undermining the entire Helsinki Act order.  The Georgia war in August 2008 has shattered the entire post-World War II international order premised on the non-use of force and resolution of disputes by peaceful means as enshrined in the UN Charter.  By striking against South Ossetia in August 2008, Saakashvili provided an excuse for Moscow to intervene militarily but the war, as a fallout, also lowered the threshold for intervening militarily in its so-called Near Abroad. At the same time, most objectively, the Russian military campaign in Georgia, as another fallout, might just as well have alienated its neighbours, precipitating the elites’ more resolute drift or tilting toward Western integrationist projects, not necessarily entirely shared by their publics.

Eastern Partnership Countries as a Sui Generis Case in EU and NATO Enlargement

Ukraine, along perhaps with the other five states making up the Eastern Partnership (EP) – Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – may have to become a casus sui generis in EU and NATO foreign policy in the Eastern Neighbourhood and test-case for cooperation between Brussels and Moscow.

A lot has been said about the importance of the agency of people in the midst of the current crisis.  A closer look at Ukraine’s public reveals that the country is home to many linguistic and ethnic minorities and has a significant proportion of ethnic Russians (over seventeen per cent, according to the 2001 census), with other smaller ethnic groups making up another seven per cent of Ukraine’s population.  Other EP countries are likewise multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic.  Significant proportions of their populations (in the case of Ukraine, one half of the country’s population) – representatives of non-minority groups among them – see Moscow as their focal point for support, as confirmed by most recent polls.  The poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology at the time of the originally-scheduled signature of the Free Trade and Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine (DCFTA) in November 2013 revealed that the country is split roughly in half over the accession to either the European Union or the Moscow-dominated Customs Union, with the EU option favoured by some thirty-nine per cent and the Customs Union one by thirty-seven per cent of the respondents.

The distribution of geopolitical preferences largely mirrors the geographical spread of ethnic groups across the country, with the EU mostly chosen over the Customs Union in the western and central regions where ethnic Ukrainians constitute the largest segment of the population (sixty-nine percent vs. eleven percent and forty-three percent vs. twenty-seven percent), while the Customs Union is more popular in the southern and eastern regions (fifty-one percent vs. twenty-nine percent and sixty-one percent vs. fifteen percent).  Moldova proper (excluding its largely pro –Russian secessionist Transnistria), which signed the DCFTA in November 2013, likewise continues to show an overwhelming majority of its citizens supporting the Moscow-offered option of the Customs Union, based on the February 2014 survey by the Central European Policy Institute.  In other EP states, popular support for integration into the EU structures is similarly far from unanimous.

Against this background of long-term deep geopolitical cleavages, the decision to embark on formal integration with the EU in complete disregard of the sentiments and geopolitical preferences of roughly one half of Ukraine’s population for Kiyv stands as a sure recipe for a split of the country or, at a minimum, serves to create serious tensions within Ukraine.  It remains to be studied whether the outbreak of inter-ethnic tensions and the activation of nationalist movements within Ukraine was an endogenous or exogenous process, but the repealing of the old language law which afforded Russian along with other minority languages the status of a public sphere tongue certainly served to exacerbate the situation.  More than that, coupled with the arrival of ultra-nationalist forces and activation of extremists, it de facto opened a window of political opportunity for Moscow to intervene on behalf supressed Russian (and other) minorities.

Aside from the factor of the divided publics, unilateralism in approaching these countries as a foreign policy matter appears to produce nothing but destabilisation and tensions between Russia on the one side and EU and NATO on the other.  The current crisis around Ukraine is just one episode in this long-lasting, recurrent, cyclical saga.  Throughout the post-Yeltsin era, each attempt by Brussels or Washington to unilaterally establish closer relations with countries that Moscow sees as its privileged sphere of influence encountered a bitter reaction on the part of Russia, producing a new round of deterioration in Russia-Western relations.  The Neighbourhood countries often face the consequences of such deterioration.  Moldovans, for example, have repeatedly ‘faced the music’ of Moscow-imposed bans on their agricultural and wine exports each time the West was seen to be stepping in too far into Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’.  The Ukraine gas crises of 2006 and 2009 – the latter have also severely shattered Europe – were similarly the result of the country’s attempts to establish closer relations with the West.

The lack of normal relations between Brussels and Moscow means that countries in between have to choose their geopolitical allegiance in more categorical terms as opposed to a more balanced foreign policy course of cooperation with both parties – often detrimental to their broader political and economic interests.  Finally, as paradoxical as it may sound, the secessionist statelets along Russia’s periphery emerged from the rubble of the Soviet Union but their consolidation and reinforcement – and now the emergence or forging by Moscow of a new one in Crimea – was nothing but the Russian reaction to the lack of trust with the West and as such may be treated as a fallout of Western unilateralism in strategic and security matters in the region and the resultant Russian isolationism – Russia not without fault.  NATO’s eastward expansion appears to be correlated with Russia’s reluctance to allow progress in conflict resolution in its Near Abroad.  It stands as clear therefore that addressing the ongoing crisis in Ukraine as well as other regional security challenges requires that cooperation, not competition become the policy between Brussels and Moscow.


Maria Mitaev has held professional assignments with the US State Department and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the region. Her education background includes an MA in Political Science from the Central European University (Budapest), and an MSc in Public Policy and Administration from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She wishes to note that, although this analysis remains largely prescient, some details may have been overtaken by recent events.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Project for Democratic Union or any of its other associates.


Image: ‘Putin by Platon’ courtesy of firdaus omar via Flickr, released under Creative Commons.

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