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Heightening Tensions in Ukraine

The U.S. must make it clear that there will be no support if Kyiv launches a large scale military offensive.

Shifting strategic priorities in the United States and Europe are leading Kyiv—not Moscow—to heighten tensions in Eastern Europe. Following the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and the ensuing separatist conflict in Ukraine’s eastern oblasts, the country began taking significant steps to divest itself of its economic reliance on Russia and politically reorient towards Europe. For its part, the latter viewed facilitating Ukrainian integration into various transatlantic frameworks as a net benefit.

As geopolitical circumstances have changed, however, Western enthusiasm towards Ukraine has started to wane. This trend is troublesome for Kyiv, as the country has become increasingly reliant on presenting itself as the victimized eastern edge of Europe. In an attempt to counter its diminishing level of priority, it has begun to ratchet up its hostile rhetoric as well as escalatory behavior in the region.

Ukraine initially became a central focus of Western attention for several reasons. Recall the immediate factor that precipitated the 2013-14 Euromaidan uprising: Then-Ukrainian President Victor Yankovych abruptly decided to scrap an Association Agreement with Brussels that would have more closely linked his country with the E.U., and instead opted for greater integration in the Moscow-directed Eurasian Economic Union.

Following the tumultuous events of 2013 and 2014, Ukraine’s government was forced to accrue significant levels of Western debt in order to finance increased military spending and withstand economic upheaval. Depreciation of the Ukrainian hryvna and high-levels of inflation, compounded with a fiscal and banking crisis, resulted in alarming growth of the country’s national deficit. The eastern oblasts that Kyiv lost to Russian separatists—Donetsk and Luhansk—were also two of the most highly industrialized and export-oriented regions, further exacerbating the situation. The economy contracted by 6.6 percent in 2014 followed by an additional 9.8 percent in 2015. Ukraine subsequently became entirely dependent on loans from the International Monetary Fund, as well as other forms of external assistance from multilateral organizations.

This coincided with the reorientation of Ukrainian trade away from Russia and towards Europe. When the Euromaidan uprising first began, Russia still slightly edged out the E.U. as the primary recipient of Ukrainian exports, with each destination respectively holding about 25 percent of the total; by 2018, the Russian share had plummeted to around 8 percent, while exports destined for the E.U. skyrocketed to 43 percent. The same pattern was reflected in Ukrainian imports as well.

Ukraine’s position as a littoral Black Sea state is also of primary importance to understanding Western considerations. A primary region of NATO-Russia geostrategic competition, the body of water is also integral to Moscow’s economy. The Blue Stream pipeline transports natural gas along the seabed to Turkey while key oil terminals in Russian Tuapse and Novorossiysk serve as hubs for crude deliveries to the wider Black Sea Market. Significant amounts of Russian non-energy exports additionally pass through the Turkish Straits. Militarily, it houses Russia’s extremely important warm water naval port at Sevastopol, facilitating its Navy’s access to the Mediterranean. Besides bolstering Russia’s anti-access and area denial aerial defense forces and subsequently strengthening the Kremlin’s strategic position in Eastern Europe vis-à-vis NATO, this also allows Moscow to assert greater geopolitical influence in the North African and Southern European regions.

Shifting geopolitical realities, however, have seemingly diminished Ukraine’s level of priority among its Western partners. For one, Kyiv has not lived up to the aspirations of the Euromaidan: Corruption is rampant in the country, and significantly inhibits efforts to integrate Ukraine into both the political and economic transatlantic community. Many national governments that comprise the latter have subsequently increased their efforts to take a more balanced approach to Russia, prioritizing economics and stable relations over support for abstract notions of a “liberal international order.” Many, including the United States, may very well consider it in their own national interest to accept a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine. This is an alarming prospect for Kyiv, especially given recent developments in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh flare-up. Russia has now solidified its military presence in the latter region under the auspices of peacekeeping. Ukraine fears the international community accepting a similar consensus for its own separatist conflict.

In U.S. foreign policy, Ukraine’s decreasing priority was made evident during President Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington on September 1. Purposeful or not, the Biden administration’s sloppy handling of the entire trip clearly signaled to Kyiv its diminished level of importance for the United States. The meeting between Biden and Zelenskyy proceeded in a heavily scripted manner, giving it a forced and awkward appearance—even for the current occupant of the Oval Office. Zelenskyy walked away from the meeting with a pre-agreed upon $60 million security assistance package, an unexceptionable sum given the steady trend in support to Kyiv since 2014. He was not successful, however, in securing the two goals he covets most: Biden has refused to denounce the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, declaring his intention to waive sanctions of its construction; and there is still little, if any, movement toward forming a concrete Membership Action Plan for Ukrainian ascension to NATO.

The United States is not the only country that has demonstrated that Ukraine is becoming a reduced priority. Before his trip to Washington, Zelenskyy hosted German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Kyiv. Germany has been a reliable bastion of anti-Kremlin rhetoric following the annexation of Crimea, earning Merkel a 60 percent approval rating among Ukrainians; however, in securing Nord Stream 2, Berlin has engendered a sense of betrayal in the country. The natural gas pipeline linking Germany and Russia deprives the Ukrainian economy of much-needed transit-fees for Russian energy traveling through its territory. The decision to proceed with the project has subsequently earned Merkel a new nickname among the Ukrainians: “Frau Ribbentrop.” Germany’s commitment to Nord Stream 2 is unlikely to change even with Merkel’s imminent departure from power.

These developments are part of an alarming trend for Zelenskyy that goes back to the Reykjavik meeting in June between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ukraine correctly fears that its Western aspirations are being sacrificed to larger U.S.-European geopolitical interests. Looming over all of this is the total lack of progress on Ukraine’s two most pressing strategic priorities: the return of Crimea and finding an acceptable solution to the country’s separatist conflict.

Kyiv and Moscow are fundamentally at odds over what a political solution in the Donbas should entail. The Ukrainian government has consistently viewed the Minsk protocols as unacceptable. Large-scale autonomy for the ethnically Russian eastern oblasts equates to Kyiv’s loss of control over its own eastern border; additionally, it would guarantee the Kremlin a veto over internal Ukrainian politics by way of proxy. The failure of mediation efforts by the Normandy Format (representative delegates from France and Germany) further exacerbates feelings of betrayal towards Ukraine’s Western European partners.

This has led to more than just Zelenskyy expressing verbal disapproval with allies’ intransigence; he has also taken concrete steps to increase the risk for escalation in Eastern Ukraine. Immediately following the change of presidential administration in Washington, Kyiv unexpectedly mounted a new push to retake its separatist controlled eastern oblasts in the Donbas. The shock of the situation was exacerbated when Ukraine followed up its action by officially withdrawing from the Minsk peace talks several months later.

Kyiv’s demands for the return of Crimea have also not abated. The annual summit, Crimea Platform, met in Ukraine last month with the stated purpose of “[ensuring] that Russia ceases the occupation of Crimea and the Ukrainian government regains control of the peninsula.” Crimea is de facto Russian territory, and any forceful attempt to return it would be sure to incite a military confrontation with Russia. On top of this, Moscow and Minsk have recently announced new integration efforts to more closely tie the two countries together. Placing the pariah government in Minsk more firmly under the Kremlin’s direct control equates to an increased ability for pressuring Kyiv.

Changing geopolitical realities in Eastern Europe are creating an increasingly strained political, economic, and security environment for Ukraine. Kyiv correctly perceives its key national interests as being subjugated to those of its Western partners. Add to this a downward economic spiral significantly exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the country’s political desperation becomes evident. Additionally, Zelenskyy may view an escalation with Russia as a chance to win political points in the run up to a second term. For his part, Putin may very well oblige instigation with a response: Amid decreasing popularity himself, and less than exemplary results from the recent Duma elections, he could seize an opportunity to bolster support with his own electorate as well.

The $60 million pittance from Washington will not long placate Ukrainian demands. Together with its European allies, the U.S. must make it clear that there will be no support given if Kyiv launches a large scale military offensive to return its eastern oblasts, or an attempt to wrest Crimea from Russian control. The United States and Europe disregard the changing geopolitical situation in Ukraine at their own peril; indeed, troublesome political straits in Kyiv may lead its government to pursue a course of action that is impossible for its Western partners to ignore.

Dominick Sansone writes on Russian geopolitics in Eastern Europe. His work on the subject has been published at the National Interest, the Euromaidan Press, and Modern Diplomacy.

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