In the wake of the Russian ruble’s precipitous decline in value, plummeting global energy prices, and the ever-more likely possibility of long-term economic decline, Russian leaders have seemingly softened their rhetoric on Ukraine. Russian leaders such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have emphasized that war-torn regions of Donetsk and Luhansk must remain within a united Ukraine. In addition, the Kremlin has stepped back on demands that Kyiv “federalize” their country, granting a large degree of autonomy to Ukraine’s regions. Such a proposal for Ukraine’s political configuration has been the Kremlin’s go-to demand since the beginning of the conflict, which would give Moscow additional influence over Ukraine’s eastern regions when it comes to possibly de-railing the country’s European integration.
In a recent interview with Interfax, Lavrov stated that the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine should stay as part of the country. There must be “dialogue with Donbas in order to work out the agreements that will allow all Ukrainians from all the regions to live in Ukraine with equality and respect.” Later in the week, as Russia’s precarious economic positions wavered on the brink of acute collapse, Lavrov’s tone softened even more. “We are not suggesting federalization [of Ukraine], we’re not suggesting autonomy,” Lavrov said to France-24. “It’s up for Ukrainians to decide.”
While Lavrov’s de-emphasis on Ukraine federalization is a marked change in rhetoric, Moscow’s new tone should not be considered as a foreign policy coup that some observers in the West are cautiously celebrating. American Secretary of State, John Kerry, indicated that sanctions against Russia can be scaled back or repealed in their entirety in the near future if Putin’s actions change in Ukraine. However, A slight change in the Kremlin’s aggressive tone is not tantamount to a substantive change in policy.
Lavrov’s emphasis that restive eastern Ukrainian regions should stay within the country has in fact been the Kremlin’s strategy all along. The heavily-populated but economically dependent Donbas region of Ukraine has long been a strong counterweight to the largely pro-European western and central regions of the country. The region’s older and more conservative population had long cherished Soviet nostalgia over European integration. Donbas served as the breeding ground for politicians with support networks that stretch deep into circles of power in the Russian Federation. Particularly following the annexation of largely pro-Russian Crimea, Russia needed Donbas to stay in Ukraine in order to disrupt Ukraine’s political and economic system. For one, Donbas is economically dependent on transfer payments from Kyiv to prop up uncompetitive and declining Soviet-era industry. Russia had no intention to sponsor the Donbas economy, even before the destruction of its infrastructure in the current conflict. Instead of supporting outright separation from Ukraine, Russia has supported its proxies in the region for the purpose of forcing the federalization of Ukraine and subsequently de-railing internal reform and Europeanization.
While Lavrov’s statements backing down on Ukraine’s federalization is certainly a change in tone, there are several reasons why the West should be skeptical of Russia’s intentions. While Russia’s hands are tied in the face of sharp economic decline, there is little asides from the rhetorical to indicate that the Kremlin’s policy in Ukraine has changed. There is no evidence that Russian support for their proxies in eastern Ukraine has diminished. Instead, pro-Russian leaders say they will push for more territory. While Ukraine currently controls about half the territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the two self-proclaimed republics have never shied from stating that they plan to control the entirety of Donbas, if not more. “At the negotiations [in Minsk – UCMC], we will insist on expanding the borders [of the self-proclaimed republic] to meet the borders of the Donetsk region,” said Denis Pushilin to Russian state media agency RIA Novosti.
Next, Lavrov’s more dovish statement backing away from demanding the federalization of Ukraine is matched by other aggressive rhetoric emanating from the Kremlin. Lavrov recently mentioned the possibility of moving strategic nuclear weapons to annexed Crimea. The proposed move serves absolutely no strategic purpose, grossly violates international law, and would destroy the mutually beneficial New START Treaty with the U.S. over nuclear arms reduction. Such an action is merely meant to antagonize the international community, and could potentially result in the leveling of more sanctions against Russia by the United States or European Union. That Russia would even propose such a rash and provocative development, even in the midst of an unraveling economy, is a clear signal of Russia’s unwillingness to find common ground with its Western partners.
Instead, Moscow’s seemingly more conciliatory posture toward Ukraine is simply a strategy to buy time and shield Russia from additional sanctions in the midst of the sharp deterioration of the Russian economy to crisis levels. Russia’s tight grip on the Crimean peninsula just drew more sanctions from the West, who targeted individuals in Crimea and Russia, and greatly restricted foreign investment in key industries. In addition, the US Congress recently passed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, which gives President Obama the authority to provide weapons to the Ukrainian military and expand sanctions. Although the President has made it clear that he will not provide Ukraine with weapons at the present time, an escalation of hostilities in eastern Ukraine could result in a firmer American response.
The international community should not be fooled by half-hearted overtures and a slight change in rhetoric. Russia has never planned to annex Donbas or allow its secession from Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s more conciliatory statements on Ukraine’s political composition were designed to buy for time and shield Russia from more sanctions when its economy is weakest. Aside from the rhetorical, which is offset by other aggressive proposals, there is little reason to believe that Russia’s tactics in Ukraine have shifted. Barring concrete evidence to the contrary, Moscow is still seeking a weak, dismantled, and pliable neighbor in Kyiv that is unable to undergo difficult reforms and is therefore unattractive to Europe for closer economic integration.
Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center