Event report - “Five years into Russian-Ukrainian conflict: What role for the West?”

June 3, 2019

On May 13, 2019 Center for European Neighbourhood Studies jointly with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung organized a conference aiming to look into the history and perspectives resolution of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict and the Western engagement.

The first panel, entitled “Russian-Ukrainian conflict and its implications for the Western liberal order” was chaired by Maryna Vorostnyuk (Visiting Researcher at CENS). Andrew Wilson (Professor of Ukrainian Studies, School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), University College London, London) offered his views on the nature of the conflict, and argued that Russia was not prepared to go beyond the constraints of hybrid war. He noted that Russia hasn’t used many chances of local escalation, instead has escalated elsewhere and used a moving pressure strategy. Professor Wilson provided clarifications concerning two clichés about the conflict. The first one is that “Putin has lost Ukraine”, whereas it is more correct to say that Putin has weakened Russian positions in Ukraine. The second cliché is that “Ukraine is more united then before the conflict”, which is partially true as more Ukrainian citizens are prioritizing their national identity over regional or local. However, there is a visible war-weariness at the same time. Concerning the role of the West, Wilson stated that the West’s decision to supply arms to Ukraine didn’t change the picture strategically, and that no change is foreseen in this formula of ‘soft support and sanctions”. On the other hand, Wilson observed that one can see that Russians have war fatigue or at least confrontation fatigue as well. Concluding, he also touched upon the possible outcome of the European Parliament election that can bring a more Russia-friendly and Ukraine-sceptic policy.

In her presentation Anna Korbut (Academy Robert Bosch Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House, London) discussed the political changes in Ukraine with the new president Volodymyr Zelensky coming to power. She pointed out the ambiguous nature of the President’s views. However, before the second round, and in the light of Russia’s passportization move, the rhetoric became more firm and falling in line with that of the previous administration. Korbut has observed a shift from the initial stance on the European and Euro-Atlantic integration saying that Ukraine should not be an unwelcome guest, towards expressing stronger allegiance to the integration. The researcher argued that the change of rhetoric happened due to strong public demand of a certain course and administration had to accommodate it. Russia’s positions is directed at escalation while the West is trying to de-escalate as it reached its threshold on sanctions and pressure against Russia. She referred to the case of Russia’s voting rights restored in the Council of Europe as an example of West trying to reach this de-escalation. For Russia the price of escalation is low and for the West the price of de-escalation is high, said Korbut. Concluding she envisages this dilemma to aggravate as neither Russia’s, nor Ukrainian positions are likely to change, especially given that West will continue to compromise its values and rules.       

Alexander Baunov (Senior Fellow, Carnegie Moscow Center and editor-in-chief of Carnegie.ru) opened his intervention by noting that Russia-Ukraine conflict has become a part of the wider hybrid Russia-West conflict and larger confrontation. He referred to several ‘stereotypes’ that don’t help to understand the Russian regime. One of them is that “Putin is believed to build a system of rogue states”. In fact, Baunov argued, the relations with many of them are without trust and worse than with dozens of ‘normal‘ states. Another stereotype is that “Putin is believed to be the enemy of democracy and intentionally undermine the democratic institutions at home and abroad”. Yet, Baunov suggests it looks like his position is more properly characterized as indifference. He maintained that in the West there is a tendency to explain many internal issues with the external influences- method used by Russia itself – and to protect liberal values with illiberal measures. Baunov also discussed the tendency in the post-Soviet space of equalizing not anti-Russian attitudes with authoritarianism while pro-democratic views with anti-Russianism. However, in Baunov’s point of view, this principle doesn’t apply to recent Ukrainian elections. As for the view from Moscow, Baunov suggested that Poroshenko’s Ukraine was a useful instrument of Russian domestic politics – example what should better not happen. Zelensky’s Ukraine can show a stylistic alternative to Putin, he concluded, thus constituting a threat to the regime.   

Kataryna Wolczuk (Professor, Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies, University of Birmingham, UK) took a closer look at the limitation of the definitions such as ‘Ukraine crisis’ or ‘Russia-Ukraine conflict’, and pointed out the absence an fitting definition of what is happening between Russia and Ukraine. Professor Wolczuk also analized of what she sees as two prevailing myths about the topic. The first, a so called “frozen conflict mantra” as a solution to the conflict. Wolczuk underlined, that the conflict is far from frozen and far from being a leftover conflict after the collapse of the USSR but rather a new conflict with the use of limited military invasion. The second myth, in her opinion, is that of the equivalence between the actions of Russia and the West, where the underlying message is that Ukraine was forced by the EU to choose between the two equivalent forms of regional integration and there would have been no conflict if there had been cooperation between the two regional blocs (the EU and EaEU). This view, she stressed, emanates from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Wolczuk also touched upon the Eurasian integration as well as the term ‘blending’ as the one used both for talking about Russia-Ukraine relations and Ukraine-EU relations.

In the Panel II speakers discussed the topic “Western stance and contribution towards the resolution of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict: Assessing the options at hand”. The panel was moderated by Balázs Jarábik (Nonresident Scholar, Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program).

Firstly, Wolfgang Sporrer (Head of Human Dimension OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine) described the situation on the ground in Donbas, both on Ukrainian government-controlled areas and non-controlled areas. He stressed that this is not a frozen conflict, as there was no single day in 5 years of the conflict without a ceasefire violations. There were more than 20 recommitments for the ceasefire which in the end did not last more than 1-3 days. Implementation of the Minsk agreement is incomplete: withdrawal of weapons still has to be implemented, commitments on demining are yet to follow. There is also a limited progress in withdrawal of foreign fighters, economic reintegration of Donbas. There are more than 1 million crossings per month through the contact line. In his opinion people who have some legitimacy have to represent Donbas, and not the ones who currently don’t have any mandate. Humanitarian assistance is hampered at the areas not controlled by Ukrainian government, Sporrer concluded.

According to Sergey Utkin (Head of Strategic Assessment Section, Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russia) Zelenskiy’s factor shows the generational change for Ukrainian politics which might denote a change in policy priorities. Utkin suggests that Zelenskiy would have hard time to shape his team and make it operational. As for conflict resolution, general message from the leader matters. However, always naming Russia as the enemy in expert circles does not contribute to the settlement of the conflict, he emphasized. Sergey Utkin also gave an insight on the Russian debate and scenarios being discussed. He highlighted three directions. First, offered by the former Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov to use and legitimize the Normandy format. Second, a more skeptical scenario by Aleksey Tseshnakov, of some restorations but with no full political resolution (status-quo). The third possible scenario debated in Russia is the OSCE paper by Ambassador Sajdik and his colleagues in the Trilateral Contact Group). The latter Utkin sees as an important effort made towards the conflict resolution, however, overlooked by both sides. Summarizing, Utkin offered his idea of what can be the first step to solve the conflict: to put the so called “Steinmeier formula” on paper and give special status for the Donbas.

Volodymyr Dubovyk (Associate professor, Odesa Mechnikov National University, Ukraine) stressed that in 2014 the West demonstrated unpreparedness after the Russian aggression in Ukraine. It has no willingness for the new Cold War and attempt not to reciprocate it. Western sanctions did not stop Russia but they were symbolical and hit Russian economy to a certain extent. He suggested that sanctions could be more biting and the US and the EU could coordinate them better. Dubovyk argued that there must be a balance, it is important not to normalize the Russian aggression by the mere fact of corruption in Ukraine. Talking about the military assistance to Ukraine, he admitted the importance of Western contribution to the Ukrainian naval capabilities. However, the increased presence of NATO vessels in the Black Sea is symbolical. But on the whole, the measures taken after the Kerch Strait incident were not adequate, Dubovyk noted. Some meaningful format of the peace-keeping mission is important, not in the Russian biased version. Dubovyk suggested that the West needs resolve in dealing with Russia. To sum up, Ukraine needs to resist the scenario of going back to normalcy at the expense of its interests and the West needs not to give up its resolve either, he said.

Susan Stewart (Senior Associate, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, SWP) opened her presentation by saying that it is erroneous to think that the mere fact of Zelenskiy’s presidency will change the conflict dynamics. There are no reasons to believe that Russian goals have changed and they still include destabilization of Donbas, prevention of European integration of Ukraine. Passportization issue shows the hardening of Russian position, she added. On the EU side, France and Germany are set to continue the process, support for Minsk and Normandy, but show no strong desire to revitalize them. Important factors will be the elections for the European Parliament and change of the Commission, so not much excitement about reconfiguring these formats (bringing in UK or US) is likely. There are no real preconditions for resolution but some steps can be taken, Stewart suggests. The first positive thing is Zelenskiy’s focus on naming the people in Donbas Ukrainians, which, is symbolical and was not so present in the discourse before. Also, according to Dr. Stewart the discussion in the EU should be about what type of actor Russia is  (part of the conflict, not a mediator only) because the current set-up doesn’t recognize this.

In his concluding remarks Péter Balázs (Director, CEU Center for European Neighborhood Studies (CENS)) summed up the discussion saying that what we witness is war and one can clearly see the blending of different methods used here even in the absence of the open military intervention which proves the complex nature of hybrid warfare.