INSOR Russia: Institute of Contemporary Development
Updated June 28, 2019

I.Yurgens. Russian Foreign Policy and the Crisis in Ukraine

April 8, 2014

Russian Foreign Policy and the Crisis in Ukraine


By Igor Yurgens,

Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR)

Analytical Bulletin of INSOR, #3 (22), March 2014

For now we can only guess how the current Ukrainian situation will play out in international relations. However, the consequences for Russia stemming from the struggle around Ukraine already began to manifest themselves in March. It remains to be seen how profound these consequences will be and what effort will be needed to overcome them.

We already see numerous indications of a sharp decline in trust toward Russia among a majority of partner countries, particular neighboring countries, both among the elites and across broad sections of the society. Russian soft power is beginning to be perceived as a dangerous and potentially destabilizing factor.

The immediate exclusion of Russia from the G8 format on the very eve of the planned summit in Sochi points to a qualitative change in the role of our country in the world. Russia faces much narrower opportunities to participate in global and regional governance. While maintaining a presence in most institutions of this sort, it nonetheless now has fewer opportunities for promoting its own initiatives and in general influence the decision-making process.

This has been accompanied by the accelerating decline of the authority of global and regional structures responsible for security in Europe. The Crimean events have gotten experts talking about a major crisis in the modern European security system. In this sense, the separation of Crimea from Ukraine has dealt a blow to the entire nuclear nonproliferation regime. It has called into question the ability of nuclear powers to provide a unified guarantee for countries which retain their nonnuclear status. The strengthening of the nonproliferation regime had been one of the top priorities of Russian foreign policy in the post-Soviet period, and it is closely linked with many other issues on Russia’s agenda. The subversion of this regime is a huge blow to our own positions and the rationale behind them in our foreign policy track.

Even the discussion of the possibility of sanctions against Russia has noticeably increased the political and economic risks for existing and potential participants of Eurasian integration and benefited our competitors in the West (the European Union) and East (China). A serious slowing of integration processes should be expected in the near future.

The events which played out in Kyiv this last winter represented an escalation of the long-drawn-out fight over Ukraine’s choice between European integration and a course toward stronger ties with Moscow and its Eurasian integration project. Of course, the nature of the current events in Ukraine is not limited to this competition between two models of social-economic development. However, this is very much at the core of the conflict.

Russia’s main challenge now is that it has yet to present to its neighbors a complete and articulate description of its own model. The European Union, to the contrary, has presented a very specific vision for the future. Experts have on many occasions noted that without building a comparable vision, Moscow’s Eurasian initiatives are doomed to fail among its western neighbors. At the same time most experts do not see any reason to believe that this issue will be resolved in the near future.

Firstly, few question the fact that Russia’s economic and financial situation is gradually worsening. Secondly, there are no signs that the current leadership will make any moves toward the real (or even partial) dismantling of state capitalism. Sanctions of various sorts and, more importantly, changes in global commodities markets will further worsen the country’s position.

The previous government in Kyiv followed Ukraine’s traditional strategy of ‘sitting on two chairs’ at the confluence of interests of Brussels and Moscow. And this was one of its fatal mistakes, as despite the clear miscalculations of the authors of the Eastern Partnership policy, its implementation had a notable influence on the mindsets and hopes of an increasingly large portion of the population. For example, in March 2013 the Ukrainian government approved a concept aimed at promoting the advantages of European integration through the year 2017. Kyiv had no similar efforts to popularize integration in the eastern direction.

The public was broadly informed about the adoption by executive and legislative authorities of numerous documents aimed at European integration, the consideration of legislation to fight corruption, protect personal data, ensure independence of the courts and prosecutors, and all this was largely based on the recommendations of the European Union. In order to join the Customs Union, Kyiv would again have to reconsider its legislation, adopt new laws and even amend its constitution (for example, to include a provision on the transfer of national functions to a supranational body).

The European Union itself, in contrast to Russia, used (within the framework of the Eastern Partnership and outside it) a wide array of instruments to reinforce its appeal, which has not been seriously shaken by the financial and economic crisis.

Until very recently Moscow remained very passive in its engagement. No project comparable to the Eastern Partnership was instigated. The coverage of the positive results of the Customs Union and potential advantages of the planned Eurasian Economic Union was and still remains poor.

By mid-2013 only three major expert studies had been done on the advantages or disadvantages of the choice between the European and Eurasian vectors. And only one was done with Russian participation while the two other were funded by Western grants. The conclusions were different and the argumentation for the Eurasian choice appeared weaker.

At the same time, no one denied that the existing ties between Russia and Ukraine were capable of serving as a sufficient foundation for the broadest integration. This is where a possible solution to the current situation could be found.

The West — both the United States and the European Union — at present do not likely have the resources available to pull Ukraine out of its economic crisis, ensure sufficient support to restructure its economy, modernize its industry and allow the country to overcome the eminent threat of a sharp drop in living standards (which will likely even further exacerbate social tensions).

Prior to the events in Crimea, representatives of the West were forthcoming in their hopes to share responsibility for Ukraine’s future with Russia. Russia remains one of Ukraine’s most important markets and a financial donor for the country. These ties cannot be severed instantaneously.

Despite emphatic assertions that the acting Ukrainian government is not legitimate, Moscow continues contact with it and has indicated a willingness to recognize the outcome of the scheduled presidential elections in May. In other words, notwithstanding its declared commitment to the February 21 agreement and occasional demonstrations of Yanukovych to the world, Russia acknowledges the possibility for the legitimization of the current ruling elite in Ukraine – in some form or another.

For the Kremlin it is important that the establishment and legitimization of the new authorities does not represent a defeat for Russia (somewhat compensated by territorial acquisitions). To the contrary, it should emphasize Russia’s continued influence in Ukrainian politics. Clearly, both sides of the conflict recognize that this would greatly contribute to effective future cooperation, which remains both inevitable and promising.