A response to Tim Ash’s “The big call on Ukraine” in the Kyiv Post

Standard Bank’s Timothy Ash has an excellent “on the one hand, on the other hand” analysis of Ukraine’s political and economic prospects in The Kyiv Post. He begins by laying out reasons why investors (particularly those considering buying Ukrainian sovereign debt) might have reason to be optimistic about Ukraine’s future, and then lists equally compelling reasons why they should be wary and put their money elsewhere.

Referring to Ukraine’s recent debt restructuring deal, he summarizes his take as follows: “Like warrants, Ukraine and the bonds are in my view a binary call at this stage. You can quite easily construct both very positive and very negative scenarios…” So Ukraine’s future could be very bright, or it could be dismal.

He continues: “With peace in the east, and if the current pace of economic reform continues – Ukraine can be the next Poland over the next decade – I really believe this line.”

With respect to reform, he argues that Kyiv is making considerable progress (with the partial exception of measures to limit corruption). This, too, is the view of Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, who today told Ukraine’s President Poroshenko at a Kyiv press conference in Kyiv that she is “extremely encouraged by the progress that has been achieved in the past few months… To have achieved what you have achieved in such a short period of time is just nothing but astonishing.”

So my take on Ash’s analysis – and here I agree with him – is that he thinks on balance Ukraine’s economic prospects, and somewhat less clearly its political prospects, are good if, but only if, it can contain the fighting in the east, or better yet if it can arrange a lasting ceasefire.

That, however, is where Ash’s pessimism enters, and where I begin to disagree with him. His summary of the pessimistic take on Ukraine begins as follows:

Russia is never going to leave Ukraine alone. According to this view (which I share), tearing Ukraine out of its current Western orbit and back within Russian geopolitical/strategic control is the number one policy priority for President Putin. Ukraine is part of the Russian psyche, its history, tradition, culture, economy, language (dating back over 1027 years to the founding of “Rus”, in Kiev) – and Putin, and Russia/Russians simply cannot imagine Ukraine taking a quite different direction/path. According to this view, Putin simply will not and, arguably, cannot afford to let Ukraine go on a separate course to Russia.

He then cites two arguments about why “further Russian intervention is very likely, almost inevitable.” First, a Ukraine that started to look like Poland (economically robust, generally liberal, democratic) would be a threat to Putin’s illiberal authoritarian order. And second, a Ukraine that looked like Poland would be a military threat to Russia. He then suggests that a Russian assault is likely to happen sooner rather than later because the next U.S. president is going to be considerably more hawkish than Obama.

My take is that while these are all factors in the Kremlin’s calculations, a major offensive in the east or a Russian assault on Ukrainian military assets is nonetheless quite unlikely. As Ash argues in the optimistic part of his analysis, the costs of such a move would be very high – more military assistance for Kyiv, more sanctions, and more NATO forces moving closer to Russia’s borders. Ash implies, however, that the Kremlin might decide to accept those costs because keeping Ukraine within its orbit is what matters most, and that can only be accomplished by decisively precluding economic and political stabilization in Kyiv through a large-scale invasion.

I have a rather different take, however, on what is driving Russia’s Ukraine policy. I don’t think, as Ash puts it, that “tearing Ukraine out of its current Western orbit and back within Russian geopolitical/strategic control is the number one policy priority for President Putin.” In fact, I don’t believe that Kremlin policy is the result of Putin’s deep affinity for ancient Rus’ or reflects an effort at “gathering of the Russian lands.” While Russia’s state media promotes this line, and many Russians doubtless believe it, I don’t think Putin himself considers Ukraine an essential part of eternal Russia which has no right to independent statehood (despite what he has sometimes said). As with his embrace of Russian Orthodoxy, I believe his embrace of the “Kievan Rus” trope and related discourse is instrumental – it dresses up what he wants to do for other reasons.

If that were not the case, I would agree that the risk of a major offensive in Ukraine would be a good deal higher than I think it is. But my guess is that Putin is much more Soviet multi-nationalist and a great power statist than he is a Russian ethno-nationalist and imperial traditionalist.

I also doubt that he or his advisors worry much about Ukraine on its own becoming a significant security threat at some point down the line. That would only be the case if Ukraine were to join NATO, or if cooperation between NATO and Kyiv became so extensive that the Kremlin felt NATO could use Ukraine as a launching point for an assault on Russia. In any case, I suspect that the Kremlin realizes that Ukraine is not going to be in a position to join NATO as long as Russia controls Crimea and prevents Kyiv from restoring sovereignty over all of the Donbas and securing its side of the border with Russia.

Finally, I agree that a Polish-type outcome for Ukraine would threaten regime stability in Moscow in the long run. But that is not going to happen soon, if at all. Moreover, Moscow has the option of trying to keep the pressure on Kyiv by keeping the pot boiling in the east and other forms of relatively low cost subversive efforts. Finally, the Kremlin no doubt is aware that a major offensive in Ukraine would itself pose great risks to regime stability in Moscow, even if it went well (which I very much doubt).

In any case, my take is that the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy is driven primarily by what it sees as Western encroachment on its rightful sphere of influence, by outrage over NATO expansion, and by genuine security concerns about the reinforcement of NATO’s eastern defenses and growing military cooperation with “partner” countries like Sweden, Finland, Georgia, and indeed Ukraine. If so, the Kremlin is going to respond where its sees the cost-benefits relationship as most advantageous, and that I think is no longer in Ukraine.

In effect, I imagine Kremlin decision-makers looking at a map that tracks the growing hard power assets of NATO and NATO partners near its borders. What the Kremlin sees is not only U.S. forces in Narva, some several hundred meters from the Russian border, but also Poland’s increasingly capable military, increased military spending in the Baltic republics, increased military spending and greater cooperation with NATO in Sweden and Finland, and two neighbors that it has warred with, Ukraine and Georgia. Countering those moves, or heading them off, is in my view the “number one policy priority for President Putin,” not bringing Ukraine back into the fold, which in any case is no longer possible (if it ever was).

The question, then, is what will Russia do, if anything, to try to mitigate what it perceives to be a dire and growing hard power threat from NATO and its partners.

As I’ve argued in previous posts, I believe that Russia is already hard-pressed, especially but not only economically, to sustain its current level of operations in Ukraine. A major offensive in Ukraine would make that problem worse, indeed much worse if you consider the enormous long-term cost of trying to occupy and pacify more territory. It would also guarantee more sanctions, including the possibility of removing Russia from the SWIFT international clearance system. But most importantly, it would make Russia’s NATO problem worse.

So I don’t think it will happen.

What can Russia do? I continue think that it will likely to ratchet up its conventional arms brinkmanship (e.g., more large-scale snap exercises, take measures that increase the risk of some kind of accidental confrontation in, say, the Gulf of Finland, etc.), and intensify its nuclear saber rattling.

I should be clear that I don’t think it will engage in nuclear brinkmanship. The intent of saber rattling is to threaten, not to raise the risks of an accidental nuclear exchange. Russian military aviation entering Swedish or Estonian airspace is not the same as risking nuclear war. What Moscow can do is deploy nuclear weapons that target Western Europe, which is no more likely to lead to an accident than targeting the United States with its existing strategic arsenal. It would, however, likely cause a considerable political storm in an already highly stressed Europe.

I likewise think that at this point there is very little risk Russia will send troops in the Baltic republics, Finland, or Sweden (although Georgia somewhat at risk in this regard, and provocative “island grabs” in remote areas are also possible.)

Instead, if it decides to emphasize intimidation, it will try to increase the perceived risk of conflict while avoiding anything that actually crosses the kinetic threshold. That, however, will be a delicate and dangerous balancing act.

It is also possible, however, that the Kremlin will decide to adopt a “Mr. Nice Guy” strategy (“nice” in the relative sense). That would mean taking steps to ensure that a ceasefire takes effect in the Donbas. It might also mean allowing a symbolic presence of Ukrainian border guards on the DPR/LPR border, although I think there is almost no chance that Moscow will allow Kyiv to actually control the border. Moscow might also organize “elections” in the breakaway regions, albeit ones that don’t comply with Ukrainian law (what’s the likelihood that Ukraine’s central election officials will be allowed any say, for example, in compiling voter lists in the DPR/LPR). Moscow would then argue that it had carried out its obligations under Minsk (despite that fact that there will still at least some Russian regulars serving as advisors and technicians with the separatists, and arms and “volunteers” will continue to cross the border).

To make a Mr. Nice Guy strategy work, however, Moscow would have to go further and cut back on conventional forces brinkmanship (fewer provocations, smaller military exercises, no more “snap” exercises, etc.) and nuclear saber rattling. The goal would be to make it easier for anti-system parties to gain strength and take office in Western countries. It would also be to help pro-Russian forces and business interests press for the lifting of economic sanctions. Most importantly, it would be to deepen divisions between hawks and doves in Western Europe, and between the United States some of its key NATO allies, notably Germany and France.

It strikes me that Europe’s refugee/migrant crisis makes it rather more likely that the Kremlin will try this kind of a Mr. Nice Guy strategy, at least for some time. The Kremlin is doubtless hoping – and this is not a frivolous hope – that the crisis will improve the prospects for euroskeptic and far right/far left parties across Europe.

If that doesn’t work, however, the Kremlin is likely to turn once again to intimidation.


To sum up, I think a big Russia offensive in Ukraine is a good deal less likely than suggested in the Ash article because I don’t think Ukraine is the Kremlin’s top priority – NATO is. And Russia’s NATO problem can’t be solved in Ukraine.

I could be wrong of course – forecasting is about identifying alternatives and assessing risks. One can get those risks wrong. And unlikely things happen all the time.

One thought on “A response to Tim Ash’s “The big call on Ukraine” in the Kyiv Post

  1. Pingback: RUSSIA & UKRAINE – Johnson’s Russia List :: JRL 2015-#176 :: Thursday 10 September 2015 | Johnson's Russia List

Comments are closed.