Quick Take: What’s the Significance of Ukraine/Russia So Far?

What’s the most significant outcome to date of developments in Ukraine/Russia?

CIPS faculty were invited to give brief responses to this question—still very much a development in progress, as many of them point out. Here’s a range of strikingly disparate takes on the meaning of the Ukraine/Russia crisis from a lineup of our expert scholars.

Contributors: Alexandra Gheciu, David Petrasek, Paul Robinson, Gerd Schönwälder, Srdjan Vucetic and Benjamin Zyla



Alexandra Gheciu

The situation in Ukraine continues to evolve, and with so many actors and so many factors involved it is impossible to predict how events will unfold in the coming weeks.  Yet even if the crisis is resolved quickly and peacefully—a scenario that does not seem very probable at the moment—its implications are likely to be important, multi-faceted and durable. One could list a long series of recent developments in Ukraine and Russia that have had—and will continue to have—significant consequences.

From that list, several issues deserve special attention. First, the crisis has dealt a blow to Euro-Atlantic institutions and practices that were designed to promote cooperative security and, more broadly, to nurture the vision of a “Europe whole and free and at peace” that became popular at the end of the Cold War. That vision was intended in part to replace balance-of-power politics with cooperative institutions based on principles of democracy, human rights, respect for the territorial integrity of states and peaceful resolution of conflicts. That vision, already weakened by the ‘frozen’ conflicts in the ex-Soviet space and by the 2008 war in Georgia, has now been severely undermined. A potent illustration of this situation can be found in the inability of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to contribute to the resolution of the crisis.  The OSCE, which emerged out of the Helsinki Process with the aim of building a security community from Vancouver to Vladivostok, could have been a central player in efforts to de-escalate this crisis. Instead, due to disagreements among its member states (particularly between Russia and Western states), the OSCE has been marginalized. In a move that symbolizes the organization’s limits, eight members of its verification team have recently been seized by pro-Russia separatists in Sloviansk, sparking outrage in the West and prompting the German Foreign Minister to argue that Russia has a duty to influence the separatists so that the members of the mission can be freed as soon as possible.

While highlighting and exacerbating the OSCE’s weakness, the Ukraine crisis has placed renewed emphasis on NATO. The Alliance, which suspended its practical civilian and military cooperation with Russia following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, has already strengthened its presence in Central/Eastern Europe.  Efforts to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank are likely to continue in the coming months, particularly if Russian aggression escalates. Many of the newer (ex-communist) allies have long argued that NATO should do more in the area of collective defense, and their voices can be expected to grow louder in the future. While this need not lead to a second Cold War, it is likely to generate more tension between Russia and the West, and to translate into a greater focus on policies, practices and capabilities associated with territorial defense in Europe. In the longer term, the Ukraine crisis will almost certainly affect the way in which NATO redefines itself—and the way in which it engages with its partners—in the post-Afghanistan era.

Looking beyond the Euro-Atlantic area, the Ukraine crisis is particularly significant because of its potential impact on the nuclear non-proliferation regime. There is a real possibility that Moscow’s disregard for the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Russia, the US, and the UK pledged to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in return for Kiev giving up its nuclear weapons, will have serious consequences on the non-proliferation front. So far, much of the discussion on this topic has concerned whether Ukraine was wrong to have returned to Russia some 2,000 nuclear warheads left in Kiev’s possession after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the more difficult question about the Ukraine crisis is whether and how Russia’s actions in Ukraine (particularly its annexation of Crimea) will influence other states’ decisions on whether to acquire/keep nuclear weapons. As Russia has violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity—contrary to assurances provided in the 1994 Memorandum—there is a real risk that Iran, currently engaged in negotiations with the West on constraining its nuclear capabilities, will be less likely to agree to strict constraints on its nuclear weapons capability in return for a package of rewards that could include a U.S. security assurance. And—though it is notoriously difficult to understand and predict the actions of the North Korean leadership—the Ukraine crisis might also strengthen Pyongyang’s resolve to maintain and expand its nuclear arsenal. The impact of the current crisis on non-proliferation is likely to be complex, and much will depend on the reactions of each of the players. But the Ukraine crisis has already undermined trust, weakened cooperative arrangements and encouraged aggressive rhetoric in many quarters. It would be an exaggeration to claim that the events that have occurred so far will necessarily have catastrophic consequences.  At the same time, however, the challenges they pose and risks they entail should not be underestimated.



David Petrasek

As ‘developments’ are very much ongoing, answering this is like hitting a moving target. But perhaps we might draw three tentative conclusions.

First, the crisis seems certain to push aside growing doubts about NATO’s future, or at least its future priorities. Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, and President Putin’s threatened intervention in eastern Ukraine, has provided ample reason for anxiety among the NATO Member States making up the alliance’s eastern border. Western European countries, Canada and the U.S. will all be expected to support Poland, the Baltic states, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, in strengthening their military defenses (and most will do so). Military staff at NATO’s Brussels headquarters will be shelving the Afghan and Middle East maps, and retrieving maps of the Kaliningrad approaches from the archives. NATO never fully reconciled with Russia, but now its implicit wariness of Russia will be an explicit and dominant posture for the alliance.

Second, the Russian military action in Crimea, the rushed annexation and the threat to use force in eastern Ukraine—all clearly illegal under international law—further undermine the non-intervention norm. The world’s great powers have in the past several decades intervened without UN authorization, and for purposes other than self-defense, in numerous conflicts. ‘Invitations’ from local leaders with dubious legitimacy, the rescue of one’s own nationals or beleaguered civilians and the righting of an historically unjust border have all been relied on by the U.S., France, Great Britain and others to justify intervention; and Russia cynically cites these precedents for its actions in Crimea and Ukraine. We should soon expect China to follow suit, with very worrying consequences.

Third, the Crimea and Ukraine crises remind us again how little we are able to anticipate political and military crises. Now at the top of most diplomatic agendas, Ukraine wasn’t even on those agendas twelve months ago, even as an afterthought. This isn’t just a failing of busy European governments preoccupied with their economies and Syria, or a distracted U.S. pivoting to Asia (the pivot now a pirouette as President Obama’s gaze circles and falls again across the Atlantic). Independent agencies like the International Crisis Group, whose raison d’etre is to spot impending conflict, also largely ignored the Ukraine for the past several years. Who would have thought twelve months ago that a solution to the crisis in Syria, or a final nuclear deal with Iran, may now hinge on how Russia, the Ukraine, the U.S. and Europe respond to the provocations of several hundred bearded nationalists in Sloviansk?



Paul Robinson

Drawing conclusions about the outcomes of any given crisis is always difficult: what seems important now may seem rather insignificant some time later, and vice versa. Drawing conclusions is even more difficult when the crisis is still ongoing, as is that in Ukraine. It would be a very rash commentator who would wish to predict what the outcomes are going to be, let alone which of them are most significant. Perhaps the only thing that one can say with any certainty is that the annexation of Crimea by Russia is permanent. Western and Ukrainian politicians will of course deny this for many years to come, creating a long-lasting irritant in international relations. But how great that irritant will be remains to be seen.

Certainly, in the short term, relations between Russia and the West will be soured by mutual suspicion and paranoia. Irrational fears, pride, and other emotions will cloud sound judgement. How long this will last, though, is uncertain. Russian-Western relations have been bad before and have recovered, if only because the entire concept of the ‘West’ is fluid and Russia is, in many ways, part of it and always will be, however much some might deny it. There are grounds for thinking that the rift this time may be particularly severe, but as long as economic and cultural ties remain strong, political troubles may be more a problem of the short and medium term than the long one. Retaining and indeed promoting such ties is, therefore, desirable. For this reason, isolating Russia and seeking to cause it economic harm as punishment for its alleged ill-behaviour is likely to be counterproductive.



Gerd Schönwälder

One significant outcome is the increasing factionalization of Ukrainian society. The weeks-long manifestations on Kiev’s Maidan Square gave prominence to those in Ukraine who favour a democratic, pro-European and pro-Western course for their country’s future—but it also provided a stage for rightist extremists who hark back to some of the darkest chapters in its past. Add to that mix the separatist eruptions in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, which show that many Ukrainians are perfectly happy (indeed prefer) to live under the Russian shadow.

Every day of unrest in Ukraine’s east makes the obvious solution—a federalist system with a large degree of regional autonomy—harder to implement. Inflexibility and ineptitude on the part of Ukraine’s interim government, familiar bullying and deceit by Russia and equally familiar naming and shaming by the West (though not by all the Europeans!) won’t help. In fact, it might destroy the last bit of trust and mutual confidence so essential for finding a way out of the current impasse.

But what’s perhaps most significant is the fact that a large, perhaps growing, portion of Ukrainian society is fed up with being a pawn in someone else’s game. If nothing else, the demonstrations on Maidan Square have demonstrated a new level self-confidence and independence, and a greater determination to see things through. If successful, these efforts would make Ukraine the first core former-Soviet state—the Baltics don’t count—to come out from under the shadow of the former Soviet Union and chart an entirely new course. That’s what’s really at stake in the current crisis.



Srdjan Vucetic

The Ukrainians find themselves in an unenviable situation that smacks of Croatia in 1990-1 or Bosnia in 1991-2. There is a palpable sense of dread in the eastern part of the country, where a chain of events could bring about widespread bloodshed. What the crisis has shown so far is that international order is a brittle achievement. In political theory, a community is identifiable by the so-called general interest upon which rights and obligations build. But ‘international community’ is unique. Even NATO and EU member states cannot agree how best to respond to Moscow’s coercive territorial revisionism, to say nothing of a broader community of democracies or the putative West. Institutions meant to provide protection of the community interest tend to be defined by their limitations.



Benjamin Zyla

U.S.-European relations were quite rough for the past year or so. Some of America’s closest allies have distanced themselves from the U.S., especially the Germans and the French. One reason for this, among others, is Edward Snowden, who disclosed that the U.S. intelligence community extensively spied on European governments with the active support of the White House. Among those whose cellphones were tapped into for years was German chancellor Angela Merkel. In turn, she has put the Obama administration on the defensive and demanded a no-spy agreement. The White House shrugged at this transatlantic proposal, a move Germany’s interior Minister de Maizière in a recent interview with the newsmagazine Der Spiegel bluntly notes has produced “a huge damage to our relationship” because the “USA acts without measure”. A happy transatlantic relationship looks different.

One interesting (yet I am not sure if it is the most significant) outcome to date of the Ukrainian crisis is that it has led to a rapprochement between the Europeans and America. France, Germany and the U.S. talk to each other again and coordinate their foreign policy moves to show transatlantic unity. Indeed, on the big questions of how to respond to Russia’s acts of aggression and blatant violation of international law, there more or less appears to be unity among the transatlantic partners. Holland, Merkel and Obama agreed to condemn Putin’s annexation of the Crimea and to impose steps one and two of a three-stage sanction process against political individuals close to the Russian President. Until now have they not ratcheted up the sabre-rattling. Rather, their foreign ministers were jetting between Washington, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Geneva, Warsaw and Kiev to keep diplomatic channels and possibilities open and to stress principles of de-escalation. NATO’s latest military reinforcements in Eastern Europe (in the form of additional fighter jets, AWACS planes and maritime forces) can only be interpreted as reinforcements rather than offensive acts of preparing for war. They are internal signals for the ‘new’ members of the alliance (especially the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary) to show unity and to provide confidence and trust. In that sense, the Ukrainian crisis has brought the ‘new’ and ‘old’ members of the Alliance closer together again.

The only person who currently torpedoes this strategy of de-escalation is NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Some observers note that he is now experiencing a resurgence of his commonly-perceived weak tenure at the helm of the alliance. He certainly pushed the escalation by suggesting in an op-ed piece for the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag that NATO’s doors for Ukrainian membership are “open in principle”, and lamenting that sovereign states are principally free to decide their own destiny and to join international alliances if they so desire. Again, a restrained public diplomacy in an intensifying crisis sounds different, and so it is little surprising that he was snubbed by Germany’s Foreign Minister, who noted that NATO membership for Ukraine is not on the agenda at the moment. This, however, is hard to believe as one hears from NATO’s International Staff. The next Summit in September apparently has only one point on the agenda at the moment: a new NATO strategy. Military planners across European capitals are already discussing the resurrection of Leopard panzers.

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