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Argument: What the West Gets Wrong About Russia’s Intentions in Ukraine What the West Gets Wrong About Russia’s In...
In the midst of the Trump impeachment drama, it is easy to forget a more geopolitically pressing issue in Ukraine: Russia’s ongoing involvement in the eastern part of the country and Ukraine’s stalled partnership with the West to push it back. Ahead of next week’s meeting in Paris of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, France’s Emmanuel Macron, and Germany’s Angela Merkel, during which the four leaders will try to strike a cease-fire deal, it is time for the United States to tune back in—especially because there are indications that some influential voices in Moscow are in favor of softer approach. That is, a more flexible interpretation of the 2015 Minsk II agreement meant to end the fighting in the Donbass, with more careful treatment of Ukrainian concerns. That could, in turn, boost the chances of peace.
Part of the United States’ issue is that it misdiagnoses the problem in Ukraine. Hardly a day goes by without some observer suggesting that Russia invaded Ukraine because Putin sought nothing less than that country’s complete subjugation to Moscow. That misunderstanding has, in turn, encouraged Russia hawks in the United States who have advocated sanctions over engagement.
The truth about Russia’s activities in Ukraine is more nuanced. Rather than annexation, the Kremlin’s initial goal in supporting pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine was to secure legal autonomy for the Donbass region within a federal Ukraine. Russia would then hold sway over a prominent piece of territory within Ukraine, which would effectively give Moscow a veto vote in Kyiv over the country’s strategic rapprochement with the West. Multiple statements from Putin himself confirm that Russia considers Ukraine’s federalization as an attractive tool to block the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration and that securing the Donbass’s loyalty is to guarantee Russian preferences.
The Kremlin may be hawkish when it comes to Ukraine, but it is not crazy. Putin surely knew that invading and occupying Ukraine—not to mention creating a permanently simmering conflict—would have been too bloody and too expensive. Nor would an invasion have helped Russia cement influence over Ukrainian politics at minimal geopolitical cost.
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