Negative Sum: The Destabilization of Ukraine

Visiting Media Fellow Michael Moran speaks with Timothy Colton, Professor of Government and Russian Studies at Harvard University, and Samuel Charap, Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The two are coauthors of Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia.

MORAN:  Welcome to Episode Nine of Diffusion: Russia in Focus. This week we consider the seemingly frozen conflict in Ukraine, where Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbass region has destabilized its neighbor and led to western economic sanctions. I’m Michael Moran, Visiting Media Fellow for Peace and Security at the Carnegie Corporation of New York. My guests today are Timothy Colton – a  Professor of Government and Russian Studies at Harvard University and currently a ‘Distinguished Visiting Professor at the National University of Singapore.’ And Sam Charap, a senior fellow at the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies. 

Tim, there’s a lot of debate about why Russia did what it did in Ukraine. You’ve just published a book with Sam Charap entitoed Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia How do you answer the question of Russian motives?

COLTON: This is a difficult question to answer, because the principles have not told us much about what they were thinking. Putin has given us a half-dozen explanations, all of them of varying degrees of complexities and with completely different time frames. He has referred in some of his rhetoric to centuries, or even almost a thousand years, of attachment to Crimea as a kind of sacred place. He has also referred to the short-term mechanics of the so-called coup in Kiev. It’s kind of a jumble in terms of what he’s been willing to share with us. The way I see it is that there are layers of explanations that are settling on this particular thing – we’re talking about Crimea – that was done in a somewhat impulsive way. I don’t think it was planned in detail until the decisive days, but it relied on contingency planning that had been going on undoubtedly for years. The way Sam Charap and I play this in our book, is we really see it as more about Ukraine and the so-called ‘in-between space’ between Russia and the West than about Crimea specifically. It was a way of getting some compensation under circumstances where he thought he had suffered a major strategic defeat. This was a way of getting something, and also of exerting pressure on the Ukrainians to be more cooperative in the coming months. I would explain it that way. 

MORAN: Sam, let’s turn to you. Why is it so difficult for the US and the West to find mutually beneficial solutions in Ukraine and beyond Ukraine?

CHARAP: I think there are a couple of answers to that question. There’s a sort of structural one, which is that in the broader Europe and Eurasia region, after the end of the Cold War, there has not been a mutually accepted order, both economic and in terms of security and geopolitics that all parties (Russia, the West, the countries in between) could buy into. That set the stage for a potential clash in Ukraine and beyond Ukraine, in the countries that we call ‘the in-betweens’ in the book. So I think that’s a big part of it. In the narrow window where the crisis really picked up and got out of control in late 2013 and early 2014, I think by that time there was just no habit of looking for mutually beneficial, mutually acceptable outcomes. There has been no tradition of trying to find common ground. Instead the tradition is of trying to seek unilateral advantage. That is true on both sides. I think that’s where we come out.

MORAN: In the book, you write of a lose-lose paradigm. We’ve seen a similar dynamic in Georgia in 2008. Are there other countries that may follow the Ukraine scenario, and if so, what have we learned from the three years in conflict in Ukraine that might prevent a wider conflict?

COLTON: Referring to this category of the so-called ‘in betweens’, this is former soviet republics that have not been incorporated into the western systems. That means this whole band along Russia’s western frontiers, with the exception of the three Baltic countries which made their exit from Russia’s orbit very early on and with very little resistance. Looking back on it, their exit is a bit mysterious, but it seems that Yeltsin thought it was something that Russia couldn’t really stop, and he had other priorities, and I think he sympathized with them having been victimized and so on and so forth.

As for the range of countries, the six that are left, of the six, in fact, most of them have gone through crises that share certain characteristics with Ukraine’s crisis. We’re really talking about the frozen conflict countries. Moldova and Georgia fit the pattern very, very well. Armenia and Azerbaijan are special circumstances because, of course, their main disagreements are with one another. Then there is Belarus, which is a Russian ally, though not the most enthusiastic Russian ally. So, I’m not sure that there are too many countries that are going to go through this again, but the fact is that the majority of them are locked into a pattern like this in which we claim ‘everyone loses’. 

CHARAP: We really get into a degree of detail of why we think this is a ‘negative-sum’ outcome, in other words why everyone has lost. 

Every major player involved has come out worse than they were before it began. Those negative sum situations in game theory tend to be the most destabilizing, and that’s what we’re observing. Ukraine has of course been the biggest loser – both in terms of the 10,000 people who have died, its loss of Crimea, the war in Donbass, and the really extremely difficult economic times that Ukraine has been in since 2014. 

MORAN: Tim, back to you. At this point, the focus of world headlines has shifted more toward the Syrian conflict, and Russia’s involvement there. Does that make it less likely that we’ll ever see the Minsk agreement – the accord that was supposed to solve this conflict – fully implemented?

COLTON: I don’t think so. I don’t really buy that there’s all that much of a connection there...[T]he current stalemate in the Donbas is quite costly for Russia. It does derive a certain strategic benefit, and probably moral satisfaction from keeping the Ukrainians on the ropes. ‘They did things to us that we didn’t like, and now we get to make life difficult for them.’ But, that aside, this is a very painful situation, and it’s costing Russia a lot of money, it’s poisoning the relationship with the United States and the European Union. The worst of the sanctions for Russia are the ones related to the Donbass and not the Crimea. I don’t think that too many people in Moscow are satisfied with the status quo. If it’s going to be another frozen conflict, fine, but this is by far the worst of the ones that have evolved, and it’s right on Russia’s door step. So I think there are a lot of incentives for them to be open and talk of a compromise.

MORAN: Sam, does a failed Minsk process also freeze Russia-Western ties in their current poor state?

CHARAP: The Minsk process itself, while important, even if it were to be successful would not address the fundamental problem here, which is that both Russian and Western policies have reached a dead end for the region. Both sides need to recognize that they need to rethink their approaches to the region and instead of contesting these countries, actually try to find common ground together with them. In the Minsk process, the Germans and the French and the US indirectly, end up debating with Russia about local elections in the Donbas and the modalities for municipal councils which ultimately, while important, is not the central issue here. We haven’t even really begun that discussion about what’s important – it’s just been a sort of proxy battles for the broader question of Ukraine’s future, which is still deeply contested between Russia and the West. So long as that remains the case, there is going to be contestation in some form or another, be it military, political, or economic. In terms of where the process stands at the moment, it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere fast. In fact, it’s really been stuck for over a year, if not longer, with neither side really willing to take the big first step of moving towards implementation of the document. The political requirement that Kiev signed up for in the agreements are perceived as a ‘victor’s peace’ in Kiev imposed upon them at the barrel of a gun, and thus ever since the document was signed there has been resistance to implementing. On the other hand, Russia hasn’t let up in support of its pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country, and thus the fighting has never really stopped. So, it’s very hard to see how we get from here to full implementation in Minsk, but it’s also very hard to see how Ukraine ends up thriving and prospering in the future unless the conflict is resolved to some extent. Russia consent to whatever the political settlement that ends the conflict is going to be a necessary piece of the puzzle for it to be staked, for it to work.

MORAN: We now have a new administration in Washington, and change appears to be afoot in Europe, too, where there are several important elections this year. Will sanctions be lifted as result?

COLTON: We have claimed ‘everyone loses’. In the cases of Crimea, a piece of territory with 2 and a half million people and a big military force was moved from one country to another and you can like it or not like it, but it is something substantial, and it’s not purely destructive. In the case of Donbas, though, it’s very difficult to see who has benefited from this. Russia doesn’t want this territory. The rebels are very erratic, strange figures. It’s helped to radicalize Ukrainian politics, and move it to what I think are very destructive directions. Here I think that the tendency for new administration thinking about this afresh, will be to reopen some of these things. Mr. Tillerson …. our next Secretary of State….has stated repeatedly in his capacity as an oil executive, that the sanctions are not only useless, but counterproductive. So, I think the question will be opened up. I think the Russians now are hoping that this will be the case and their forbearance when their spies were evicted from Washington a couple weeks ago was a pretty good indication of this. It’s hard for me to believe that, having set the stage in this fashion, Trump is going to do nothing. 

MORAN: Once again, the book is Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia, by Samuel Charap and Tim Colton. I thank the two authors, and I thank all of you for listening to this latest edition of Diffusion: Focus on Russia. Join us next time when we look at Russia’s domestic climate with Brian Taylor of Syracus and Havard’s Alexandra Vacroux. For now, on behalf of my colleagues at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, this is Michael Moran. Thanks for joining.

Diffusion is the podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York, promoting the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding around issues of peace, education and democracy.