Russia’s standoff with Western countries over its aggression in Ukraine may not resolve itself for years, experts warn. Even if the status quo is unsatisfying for both sides — and a risk to peace in Europe — neither is likely to escalate or seek a diplomatic solution.
The civil war Russia instigated in the largely Russian-speaking frontier region of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, has lost intensity in recent months. But neither the government nor the rebels Russia backs seems in a position to break the stalemate.
If the conflict in the country drags on, so likely will the geopolitical tension between Russia on the one hand and NATO allies on the other.
Nikolas Gvosdev, a former editor of The National Interest, argues at World Politics Review that this impasse is unstable. European countries like Greece, Hungary and Italy want to wrap up Western sanctions against Russia. Russia’s economy is hurting. Ukraine’s is in freefall and needs international support.
Ukraine has been vocal in proclaiming its cause to be the West’s at large and this view is shared in Central Europe and the United States, according to Gvosdev, where there is support for arming the Ukrainians or even letting them into NATO.
A countervailing view is more prevalent in Southern Europe and among the German business community: the sense that any lasting settlement that allows Ukraine to have some degree of association with Europe requires accommodating Russia’s concerns.
If Russia were to pull back and tap down its threatening posture — like flying bombers, Cold War-style, through NATO airspace — “the image of Ukraine as the West’s first line of defense would fade,” Gvosdev suggests, “replaced by a more realpolitik approach to balancing interests in Europe’s eastern borderlands.”
Russia may seek such an accommodation. Despite its rhetoric about protecting Russian “compatriots” in Ukraine and seeking a fair political settlement in its former vassal state, its policy is really informed by geopolitical considerations, argues Edward W. Walker, a comparative political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley who specializes in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Ukraine was, and doubtless to a certain extent still is, a central element in the Kremlin’s ambitions to establish a Russian-dominated “Eurasian” pole in what it sees as an increasingly multipolar world. But more importantly, it has been and remains critical to the Kremlin’s goal of keeping the United States, the European Union and above all NATO from becoming politically, economically and militarily preeminent in the post-Soviet space.
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has had the opposite effect.
In the wake of its occupation and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine last year, NATO for the first time stationed forces in the former East Bloc states that joined the alliance after the end of the Cold War. Nominally neutral border states like Finland and Sweden have increased their cooperation with the Western military alliance and support for joining NATO is rising there.
Russia also alienated an otherwise sympathetic Ukrainian population that overwhelmingly backed pro-Western parties in October’s election.
Walker believes Russia will hunker down in the short term, continue to build up its military forces and try to divide the West along the lines described by Gvosdev.
He is less optimistic about the possibility of a détente. “Western governments are not going to want to appear to reward Russia for using force to change internationally recognized borders,” Walker argues.
Nor are they, as a matter of principle, going to put a permanent halt to NATO or EU expansion or the movement of more hard power assets toward Russia’s borders, let alone withdraw those that have already moved in over the past year. At some point well down the road — perhaps in five or ten years — a grand security bargain with Russia may be possible.
But not now.