What does Russia want?

James Meek

There is a dangerous false assumption at the heart of the West's negotiations at, and reporting of, peace talks in Minsk over the fighting in eastern Ukraine. It is that Russia wants to have direct control over a small area of Ukraine – about 3 per cent of the country; the area, slightly smaller than Kuwait, now under separatist rule – and that Ukrainian forces are fighting to win this area back.

You can't blame Western negotiators or journalists for thinking this is what is going on, because it's what the Ukrainians are bound to tell them. That doesn't mean it is the underlying truth. The evidence so far is that what Russia actually wants is indirect influence over the whole of Ukraine, and for the West to pay for it.

President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine cannot admit this publicly; he would find it hard to admit it privately. But Ukraine lost the war to keep the far east of the country last summer, in a little reported series of battles on the frontier. Ukrainian border guards, and troops trying to enforce control of the border, came under massive artillery barrages from the Russian side of the border. They couldn't fire back into Russian territory without inciting a full-scale Russian military assault. Accordingly they were massacred, or they surrendered, or they ran away.

Ever since, a large section of the border has been under Russian-separatist control. As long as Ukraine can't lob shells into Russia, and Russia is prepared to lob shells into Ukraine, that is how it will stay.

The Ukrainian army and volunteer units have been fighting a war of containment, in two parts. One is military: stop the separatists breaking out into a wider area. Another is political, psychological and economic: create effectively a new border between Kiev-controlled and separatist-controlled Ukraine, disavowing any responsibility for pensions or essential services there, giving up any attempt to collect taxes, accepting the separatists' rejection of Kiev-organised elections.

Seal the rebels off, in other words, not in the hope of reconquering the territory later, but in acceptance of the loss, and on the assumption that the cost of repairing the damage and looking after its pensioners and subsidised coal mines would fall on Moscow.

That was the deal Kiev thought it had at the end of last summer: a frozen conflict, an eternal ceasefire, in a zone along the lines of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, North Cyprus and, indeed, Crimea.

Even the recent upsurge in fighting, which has been in so many obvious ways a series of defeats for the Ukrainian government (they have lost the ruins of Donetsk airport, seen the rail and road junction at Debaltsevo almost encircled, and struggled to hold their lines along the Kalmius and Severny Donets rivers), could be seen in the bigger picture as a victory for Kiev. Separatist forces, including Russian citizens, have had to pay a terrible price in blood and maiming for every foot of ground they have won; and they are a long way from controlling the towns they held at the high-water mark of their rebellion, let alone the whole of Donetsk and Lugansk regions. And Ukrainian defenders have achieved this without Western weapons.

It is not something any Kiev politician could say openly, but Ukrainian government forces – the forces fighting in support of the ideal of Ukraine as an independent European country – have not been fighting on friendly ground. They have not been fighting to win the Donbass. They have been fighting to stop the fighting spreading west to Kharkiv and the great cities of the Dniepr – Zaporozhye, Dnepropetrovsk and Kiev itself – because they have no way of knowing that Putin has decided to leave them alone.

Do the people of central and western Ukraine, even Russophone southern Ukraine, actually want the Donbass back? I'm not sure. Do the people of Donbass want to return to a country whose forces have rained artillery shells down on them (no more, to be fair, than have rained in the opposite direction)? I doubt it.

Putin and his inner circle know that if the conflict were frozen along present lines, what would appear to be a victory for his ruthless willingness to use force would actually be a defeat. He would add another tiny, needy enclave to his collection; Russia would be stuck with the bill; the rest of Ukraine would be lost to him entirely; sanctions would continue.

Hence his current strategy: to create a puppet state, a region that is both a Russian protectorate and part of the Ukrainian body politic; over which the majority of Ukrainians have no real control, but which has powers to shape Ukrainian national policy, and which the majority of Ukrainians are obliged to pay to rebuild. And since Ukraine is, financially, dependent on the West, it is the West that would pay.

The most important thing is that the fighting should stop, to put an end to the killing and to give some relief and security to the millions of people trapped in the war zone, many of them cold, hungry and without light. Any deal that silences the guns is good in the short term.

But to stop the war permanently will be much, much harder. It demands a recognition that for all the Kremlin's lies, there is a genuine separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. It demands an acceptance that a frozen conflict is likely to be more amenable to Ukrainians on both sides of the ceasefire line than an attempt to shoehorn the rebel enclave back into a country nominally under Kiev's control. It demands a Ukrainian culture that finds a way to combine the dissonant histories of its nationalist and neo-Soviet nostalgists, its Ukrainophones and Russophones, its Greek Catholic and Russian Orthodox believers. It demands Ukrainian will and Western help for reform. And it demands a wiser, less frightened leader in the Kremlin. In that sense, Angela Merkel's instinct is right. Putin's unnecessary war is unjust. Freezing the conflict might be seen to reward aggression. But if it buys time for independent Ukraine to thrive, and Putinism to wither, it will have been worth it, for Russians as much as for Ukrainians.


  • 13 February 2015 at 1:27pm
    Sharoni says:
    "The evidence so far is that what Russia actually wants is indirect influence over the whole of Ukraine, and for the West to pay for it."

    But the West and Ukraine have understood this perfectly and it is this that's rendering the conflict impossible to resolve. There's just too many Ukranians who will not accept.

    • 17 February 2015 at 6:37pm
      Charlie_M says: @ Sharoni
      Not mentioned is how Russia is already supporting Ukraine through the loans outstanding it could but hasn't called in; through the the price of energy it charges and through its import/export connections with Ukraine, amounting to 15 to 25 percent of Ukraine GDP. Russia has good reason to want Ukraine to remain financially and economically viable. But it wants to get paid and it wants to protect its investments. Russia has good reason to expect the West seeks to draw in Ukraine and avoid taking Russia's investments seriously or protecting Russia's Ukraine debt. Russians remember Cyprus "bailout".

      Wonder how Europe would regard Ukraine if they were the debt holders and their investments were at stake. We know how EU has reacted to Greek debt and Cypriot debt. An idea comes from IMF austerity demands on Ukraine, cutbacks on public services, pensions and ongoing drubbing of Ukrainian wages and incomes.

      Besides what Russia may want there is also what the West wants and its demands on Ukraine.

  • 13 February 2015 at 3:46pm
    Jams O'Donnell says:
    "There is a dangerous false assumption" that the US and the EU are innocent of interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine previous to this crisis beginning, and that the US/EU have not, since the fall of the USSR, been pressing missiles and influence right up to the borders of Russia.

    There is a further dangerous false assumption that "we" are the good guys, who never do anything evil and that Putin is an expansionist monster, whereas the US in the 70 odd years since WWII has bombed, invaded, subverted and otherwise interfered in upwards of 60 nominally independent countries, the most recent being of course, Iraq and Syria.

    As Goebbels indicated, the bigger and more astounding the lie, the better. This article follows his guidance.

  • 13 February 2015 at 5:20pm says:
    What Russia wants is to not have an enemy alliance on its 2300 kilometre border. This point is obvious to the point of painful : )

  • 13 February 2015 at 6:36pm
    kadinsky says:
    You're right. The idea that Russia bears sole responsibility is about as convincing as the suggestion that Merkel cannot tolerate injustice.

  • 14 February 2015 at 5:19am
    Alejandro_Reza says:
    I do not know what to think of all this: Eisenstein and S. Bandera put together in the same celebratory piece by Mr. Pomarentsev, Mr. Meeks supporting the cutting of the pensions of the citizens of Lugansk while making vows for the next coming together of "nationalist and neo-Soviet nostalgists",the tone of the LRB actually undistinguishable on this issue from the tone used in right-wing publications...

  • 14 February 2015 at 6:46am
    keith smith says:
    Former contributors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt are writing far more measured and intelligent things than are appearing in the LRB at present. See:

  • 14 February 2015 at 12:46pm
    Mike_Eckel says:
    Fact: Russia is winning because they care about Ukraine more than the West does.
    Fact: when your entire system is built on sand, paranoia is easy to come by.
    Fact: "When insecurity is the taproot of a state’s revisionist actions, making threats just makes the situation worse." (Stephen Walt)
    Fact: the West will ultimately thrown the Ukrainians under the bus. Sadly.

  • 14 February 2015 at 1:51pm
    sol_adelman says:
    There is no evidence to substantiate the neo-con narrative that Putin is another Hitler, set upon reclaiming former territories of the Soviet Union. All his actions of the past year have been reactive / defensive in nature. Russians could not tolerate the prospect of NATO naval bases being established in Crimea, proud historic home of the Russian fleet. Nor could they ignore the merciless bombardment of Russian-speaking separatists in the Donbass region, by an army with a heavy neo-Nazi contingent. (The so-called Bandera Brigade from western Ukraine, whose forebears massacred Jews and communists in WWII).
    A little empathy is surely required here. Since the collapse of communism in '89-'91, NATO has continually reneged on a promise not to expand any further east than the old east Germany. To make an equation that even the chickenhawks might comprehend, imagine if the Soviets had attempted to incorporate Canada or Mexico into the Warsaw Pact at the height of the Cold War. For all our sakes, just leave the Bear be, you warmongering fanatics.

  • 16 February 2015 at 10:29am
    Alex K. says:
    " create a puppet state, a region that is both a Russian protectorate and part of the Ukrainian body politic... which has powers to shape Ukrainian national policy, and which the majority of Ukrainians are obliged to pay to rebuild. And since Ukraine is, financially, dependent on the West, it is the West that would pay."

    Very well put, but hardly news to me. Discussions of whether this is truly Putin's strategy have been going on for months, both in the Russian opposition press and international media. It probably is, and this piece is an excellent exposition of this strategy. I recall a recent report - or was it a rumor? - of Putin suggesting to Chancellor Merkel that Ukraine treat Donbass the way Russia has treated Chechnya since the "second Chechen war". That is, accept Donbass as a loyal but autonomous, both in law and in fact, dictatorship and lavishly finance its "reconstruction".

    A note on relative numbers. "...a way to combine the dissonant histories of... its Greek Catholic and Russian Orthodox believers..." Only 8% of Ukrainians are Greek Catholic; 70% call themselves (Eastern) Orthodox. These are split more or less evenly between the canonically unrecognized Kiev Patriarchate and the autonomous Ukrainian church under the nominal oversight of the Moscow Patriarchate. Neither of these is a "Russian" orthodox church - paradoxically, the Moscow patriarch's authority over the Kievan exarch is limited while Ukrainian bishops have full voting rights in the matters of the Russian church.

    Interestinly, Ukraine appears more Russophone than its officials are willing to admit: its army, including the most ardently nationalist volunteer battalions, mostly uses Russian, and Russian speakers at the forefront of the war against the separatists.

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