On the 11th of February 1945, the Yalta Agreement was signed by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. This Agreement divided Europe for the decades to come. On 12th February 2015, the Minsk Accord II was signed by Russia, Ukraine, and OSCE [the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] as an attempt to stop a war that was then escalating in the Eastern part of Ukraine. Many in the Kremlin enjoy symbolic allusions. But Karl Marx said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
The current Russian military build-up around Ukraine has raised fears of a possible Russian offensive that could extend beyond the territories in eastern Ukraine currently controlled by the Kremlin and lead to full-scale war between the two countries. Vladimir Putin has never accepted the independence of Ukraine. He has now hinted broadly that his patience with Kyiv is running out. In summer 2021, Putin again openly questioned the legitimacy of Ukraine as an independent state and laid bare his own imperial ambitions for Russia. Moscow’s problem is that Ukraine is, despite all problems, escaping Russia’s hold.
Situation in the Donbas under Zelensky’s presidency
Despite some achievements in 2019–20 (mainly in humanitarian aspects), a solution to the war in the Donbas (Eastern Ukraine) is nowhere close. Russia’s attitude toward Ukraine or regarding conflict resolution is unchanging. Its main goal is to push the Ukrainian government into direct negotiations with representatives of the occupational administrations of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics (DNR/LNR) and block Ukraine’s movement towards NATO and Europe. DNR/LNR are quasi-states fully controlled by the Kremlin which have remained the primary scene of the Donbas War since 2014. In response to Putin’s pressure, President Zelensky’s position on the Ukraine has remained unequivocal: legitimate elections in the occupied parts of the Donbas should take place only in a secure environment—namely, after the withdrawal of Russian troops and return of the eastern border to Ukrainian control.
Furthermore, contrary to the Kremlin’s demands, the topic of Crimea is still on the agenda. For example, the Crimea Platformwas established by President Zelensky in February 2021 in order to build a coordinated international effort to pressure Russia to leave the Crimean Peninsula. The inaugural Summit of the Crimea Platform was held in Kyiv on 23 August 2021, with representatives of forty-six countries. Ukraine hopes to consolidate international efforts in this area, and the initiative will focus on tasks such as enforcing sanctions and countering Russia’s militarization of the Crimea, as well as monitoring human rights and environmental threats.
Domestic policy obviously plays an important role in both countries. Putin’s imperial drive is rooted in the domestic dynamics of the Russian power regime. It is largely due to the nature and structure of Russian politics, which needs to generate a permanent sense of threat for domestic purposes because the state inherently needs militarization to preserve Putin`s system of power. The country is constantly either preparing for war against an external enemy or pursuing enemies at home.
President Zelensky’s options are limited: even if he could accept Moscow’s deal, Ukrainian society would not accept “peace under any conditions.” However, Ukraine has not managed to present a realistic vision for the resolution of the conflict or a strategy for re-integrating the occupied parts of Eastern Ukraine without the Kremlin’s willingness to cooperate.
Russia has continued its practice of granting citizenship to Ukrainian residents of the occupied Donbas territories, having already distributed more than 650,000 Russian passports. In essence, the negotiations under the Minsk format have reached a dead end, with Russia not having managed to achieve its aim to implement the accord on its own conditions. The Normandy format (a negotiating group involving Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France, whose representatives met in an effort to resolve the war in Donbas) also seems to be unviable as a platform for negotiations.
The main obstacles to ending the war in the Donbas are not only different approaches toward the negotiations but the fundamentally different aims of Russia and Ukraine. For Ukraine, the end of its conflict with Russia would require the restoration of its sovereignty, while Russia expects to always keep Ukraine in its “sphere of privileged interests” and influence Ukrainian internal affairs. As summarized by the British analyst Duncan Allan concerning the dilemma of the Minsk Accord: “Ukraine views the Minsk Process as a chance to restore its sovereignty, whereas Russia sees it as an opportunity to curtail this sovereignty.”
Russia’s goals in the potential escalation
For Russia, creating hybrid threats is its main strategy. An important aspect of Russian information and psychological operations is the so-called reflexive control (RC), which is closely related to the Chinese concept of “stratagems” and the concept of “perception management”. Reflexive control (RC) is the term used to describe the practice of predetermining an adversary’s decision in your favor, by altering key factors in the adversary’s perception of the world or of a certain situation.
Russia has essentially reached its limits concerning its possibilities to exert pressure on Ukraine, but it cannot accept real peace in a Donbas under Ukrainian control, as that would be perceived as weakness of the Kremlin and personally of Vladimir Putin.
In this sense, Russia’s military manoeuvres have primarily political objectives. First, Russia is seeking to “reset” its negotiations with the USA and increase the international influence of Moscow (not only with regard to Ukraine) through its traditional strategy of military-political blackmail. The Kremlin often uses the tactic of raising tensions and then, in exchange for calming down, it gets something smaller that before was unacceptable but now suffices to diffuse the situation.
Second, through its demonstration of military might the Kremlin is trying to force Kyiv to be more accommodating and compliant.
And third, Russia is desperate to prevent Ukraine’s rapprochement and deeper cooperation with NATO.
Additionally, the Kremlin is trying to divide the “West” as much as possible (most importantly, by, creating more tensions and contradictions between the US and European countries).
Moscow can again use its favourite tactics to increase tensions and blackmail Ukraine, with the end game of gaining a better negotiating position. A British House of Commons Report concluded: “Russia has several probable motives for escalating tensions on the border with Ukraine, driven by regional insecurities and President Putin’s willingness to engage in power politics. Russia is using its military for coercive diplomacy, to pressure the Ukrainian Government to make concessions in the political settlements for the Donbas and to test Western allies’ resolve to come to Ukraine’s aid.”
One of the main pillars of Ukraine’s efforts to neutralize the Russian threat is to obtain international support and increase sanctions on the Russian Federation. Unfortunately for Ukraine, in the eyes of US and even the European Union – Ukraine is a good cause but not vital to its strategic interests. For Putin, it is a key for keeping power and for Russian national interest.
At least, during last few months, Vladimir Putin already got more international attention than he had received in many years. On the one hand, then, Russian maneuvers around Ukraine could be very costly for Moscow, because they recreate fear of Russia in Europe and mobilize opponents of Kremlin policy. But the Kremlin will try to get what it can in this situation. For example, Russia will try to force Germany and France to press Kyiv to implement Minsk Agreement II on Moscow’s conditions. But for Ukraine, this is unacceptable because it will lead to endless internal conflicts and will destroy the country.
In the overall perception of the Kremlin, Russia continues to be at war with the West (writ large) and it is a war in multiple domains simultaneously. This war is not a frozen conflict but a multi-theatre confrontation that is highly dynamic and can be activated by Moscow in any domain that it wants, e.g., conventional escalation in Ukraine, Belarus, or any other place.
The attempts of some European countries to cooperate with Moscow in consensus mode or to “reset” relations are perceived by the Kremlin as weakness and will only provoke more aggressive actions on its part.
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has a longstanding strategic and even ontological character. Russia has no interest in a real peace for Ukraine and wants to keep the country as destabilized as possible. Putin’s speeches on many occasions highlight the constancy of his perception of the Ukrainian state as impermanent and of its existence as not justified by any reason. Because the Russian elite cannot accept the existence of an independent Ukraine (with constant emphasis on Ukraine’s full dependency, “failed state” status, disintegration, etc.), it will inevitably lead either to Ukraine being incorporated (in one form or another) into the sphere of “exclusive” Russian influence and under the full control of Moscow. Or, it will lead to Putin’s model of authoritarian regime, one that is based on ideas of revanchism, to be destroyed and Russia will transform itself into a democratic state. In other words, the existence of an independent Ukraine is possible only if the Russian Federation undergoes a profound transformation. As at the moment there is no chance of such a change (at least in the short term), the war between the two countries will continue. However, its intensity may increase or decrease, depending on the internal situation in the Russian Federation, the situation in the world, and the abilities of Ukraine to counteract Russian aggression.
The Kremlin, having made Ukraine part of Russia’s domestic political agenda, cannot accept the loss of Ukraine. By the same token, the Kremlin cannot allow Ukraine to develop successfully (especially after 2014) because this would mean a failure of Russian efforts, which could become an example for its own opposition-minded citizens and inspire them to protest in Russia and in the whole post-Soviet space. That is why Ukraine as a failed state or a basket case is a condition, a sine qua non for the survival of the current Kremlin elites.
At the same time, for an absolute majority of Ukrainians it is already impossible to imagine Ukraine under the control of Moscow. For millions of Ukrainians war will not have started at some point in the near future. Rather, war started already in 2014. Eight years of war have changed dramatically the perception of Russia (even for those who had had positive attitudes towards Russia) and Ukrainian society demonstrates a readiness to fight for their own country. According to a survey conducted by Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) in December 2021, 33.3% of the population is ready to put up armed resistance; and 21.7% are ready to resist by participating in civil resistance actions. A Russian invasion will be catastrophic for Ukraine, but also for Russia. Russia can destroy the Ukrainian military, but it will not be able to control the territory and population of Ukraine.
The scenario of developing a constant threat of conflict escalation and pushing Ukraine into endless internal confrontations will remain the basic formula for the Russian model of “controlled chaos” in the neighboring country for the foreseeable future.
 Duncan Allan. “The Minsk Conundrum: Western Policy and Russia’s War in Eastern Ukraine,” Chatham House, 22 May 2020; https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/minsk-conundrum-allan
 “Russia and Ukraine border tensions,” Report, House of Commons, 29 June 2021, p.12; https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/6567/documents/71219/default/
Polegkyi, Oleksii & Stepniowski, Tomasz (eds.) „Security dilemma in the Black Sea region in the light of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict”, IES Policy Papers, Institute of Central Europe, Poland, N5, 2021; https://ies.lublin.pl/ies-policy-papers/security-dilemma-in-the-black-sea-region-in-light-of-the-russian-ukrainian-conflict/?fbclid=IwAR1-PgJHMwTEa5ZlB0183v-Zm1dez2Rwzx3lMDLLYZdV6n9XjlvF0SgwRyA
“Will Ukrainians resist Russian intervention”, Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), December 3-11, 2021; https://www.kiis.com.ua/?lang=eng&cat=reports&id=1079&page=1
Dr. Oleksii Polegkyi
Center for Public Diplomacy, Ukraine