Russia’s shifting role in Ukraine crisis

Moscow will likely use its age-old tactics to preserve its influence in Ukraine.

Russia will remain a vital player in destabilising Ukraine, write the authors [EPA]

In the last three months, there has been a great deal of discussion in the media regarding Russia’s involvement in the EuroMaidan crisis in Ukraine. More recently, attention has turned to Moscow’s role in fuelling secessionist movements in Sevastopol in particular and Crimea more broadly. Moscow’s hand in the events has evolved from that of a spoiler, to a veto player during the peak of the crisis.

But now, Moscow, bruised from the surprising turn of events, seems to be returning to its more “traditional” game of influence, employing  pro-Russian and Russia-financed organisations and communities in the eastern and southern Ukraine.

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Russia’s role in the EuroMaidan crisis can best be understood by looking at four phases of its engagement: Instigation, management (financial, informational, and technological), withdrawal of political support, and lastly, a return to a veiled posturing in Crimea.

To sign or not to sign

Ukrainian authorities faced an ultimate decision to sign the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement together with the Association Agreement with the European Union (EU) during November 28-29, 2013 in Vilnius. Initially, Kiev met little hostility from Moscow regarding Ukraine’s economic, legal and political approximation to, and even eventual membership in the EU, given that Russia itself wants stronger relations with Europe. However, with the creation of its own regional integration project of Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan in 2010, Moscow’s position on Ukraine’s European aspirations hardened.

While Ukraine and Russia are frequently engaged in a variety of trade wars, the decision of Russian authorities to refuse all Ukrainian imports on August 14 of last year was unparalleled and taken as a clear signal that Russia seeks to prevent the signing of any EU-Ukraine agreements. Over the following months, the situation in trade did not improve, and Moscow’s role of “spoiler” in ongoing talks became evident. 

Ukrainian authorities were financially unprepared to deal with such a significant drop in trade with Russia, which by late November totaled some $4.2bn. In addition to economic pressures, pro-Russian forces in Ukraine – with Moscow’s help – began an aggressive propaganda campaign against the EU-Ukraine deal. Moscow’s pressure directly contributed to the decision of the Ukrainian government on November 21 to postpone the signing of the agreements with the EU.

It has been reported by a variety of insiders that Vladimir Putin offered Viktor Yanukovich a financial and technical support package that simply could not be refused. However, neither the Ukrainian nor the Russian authorities predicted that the EU agreements would become a trigger for mass mobilisation across Ukraine.

Suppressing a Western plot

Following the first brutal suppression of the protesters on the morning of November 30, during which some 69 people were injured, Ukrainians rose up in greater numbers. During December and January, Yanukovich’s regime fought its people to survive and Moscow played a guiding hand in helping Yanukovich maintain his grip on the presidency. Help from the Kremlin came in several forms, including financial, political, informational and possibly, operational.

Since the Ukrainian government opted not to sign the agreements with the EU, it failed to receive a much needed loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the EU, in part because it refused to undertake politically and economically painful reforms that the country desperately needs.

When Russia’s President Vladimir Putin met Yanukovich on December 17 in Moscow, several agreements were signed that promised to help the Ukrainian government avoid financial ruin. The most important of these stipulated that Moscow planned to bail out Ukraine by purchasing its Eurobonds worth $15bn between 2013 and 2015. In addition, Gazprom would lower the price of gas for Ukraine. Subsequently, the Ukrainian regime’s approach to protesters on Maidan noticeably hardened.

On February 8, Putin unofficially met Yanukovich in Sochi and, although it is not clear what was discussed, most likely two issues were on the table: Ukraine’s payment delay for the gas and the quelling of the protests. During the following weeks, Moscow increased its economic pressure on Ukraine by reinstating some of the trade sanctions and demanding the payment for the gas before it would release a second tranche of its economic assistance to Ukraine. A particularly important sequence of events followed.

On Monday February 17, Russian officials announced that they planned to purchase Ukraine’s Eurobonds worth $2bn. On Tuesday, Ukraine paid Gazprom and, on that same day, Ukrainian riot police began clearing protesters with lethal force. A deputy from the Party of Regions, Oleh Tsaryov, declared on Russian television that “within an hour, Maidan will be cleared of protesters”. With a strong Russian influence and potentially pressure, the executive decision was made to forcefully suppress protests.

From the beginning of the crisis, Vladimir Putin threw his full political support behind Yanukovich. This also included the dissemination of information, as Russian channels and officials helped to propagate the regime’s side of the story.

From the beginning of the crisis, Vladimir Putin threw his full political support behind Yanukovich. This also included the dissemination of information, as Russian channels and officials helped to propagate the regime’s side of the story.

In Ukraine, where many eastern and southern residents predominantly access information via Russian channels, this support was crucial in circumventing pro-Maidan news sources, that could only be accessed through the internet.

Lastly, several insiders have made allegations regarding the presence of Russian advisers in Kiev  and even Russian riot police joining forces on the Maidan. However, according to documents presented by Ukrainian parliamentarians, at least one retired senior Russian official was involved in the operational planning of the lethal suppression of the protests – the former First Deputy Head of Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the Russian Ministry of Defense.

Moscow calling

As the events in Kiev continued to intensify, Yanukovich began to negotiate with the opposition but it was still unclear whether he was willing to stop further escalation. Yanukovich was receiving numerous calls during February 21 from US and European leaders and was in negotiations with the opposition on ways to calm hostilities, but it seems that his phone call to (or from) Vladimir Putin pushed him to ultimately agree to the demands of the opposition, including returning to the 2004 constitution and agreeing to early presidential elections.

It seems that the Kremlin became the key veto player in the resolution of the political crisis in Ukraine. While  – officially – Moscow was willing to support an early election in Ukraine and a curtailing of presidential powers with the return of the old-new constitution, it is unlikely that it predicted Yanukovich fleeing the country and the eventual takeover of power by opposition forces.

These developments significantly limited Moscow’s traditional levers of influence in Ukraine and it is possible that it will be hard for Moscow to regain the kind of influence it had on Ukraine as it did before the crisis.

Russia’s last hand to play is Crimea. With a Russian military base in Sevastopol and a significant portion of ethnic Russians and pro-Russian sentiment on the peninsula, Russia will remain a vital player in destabilising Ukraine.  

Testing waters in Crimea

A number of alarming reports have appeared in the media regarding the possibility of Russian military intervention in Crimea. Recently, the US National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, warned that Russian intervention “would be a grave mistake”. Similarly, the Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Anders Fogh Rasmussen, when speaking about events in Ukraine stressed NATO’s commitment to the “principle of inviolability of frontiers”. The message was clearly aimed at Moscow.

After Ukraine agreed to renounce its nuclear weapons in 1994, the United States, the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation signed the Budapest Memorandum, providing security assurances to Ukraine that they would refrain from the threat or the use of force and instead become guarantors of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

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This security mechanism has thus far worked as a deterrent against Russia’s more aggressive approach to Ukraine, and breaching these accords would not only be greeted with a negative international reception, but also potentially a military response.

This would come at a time when Moscow is trying to build an image of a responsible global power that upholds the preeminence of state sovereignty.

Crucially, overt intervention in Crimea is further complicated by the presence of Crimean Tatars, who for centuries have called the peninsula their home and whose support for Ukraine’s independence is unequivocal. As was clearly displayed by recent protests against secession, any encroachment on their rights could also provoke Turkey, one of Russia’s key economic partners in Europe.

So instead, Moscow  – at best –  will return to its well-known tactics of attempting to maintain its influence through political, economic and humanitarian engagement, and  – at worst – will attempt to push Crimean “independence” by propping up protests, helping secessionist forces infiltrate or take over administrative buildings and governance functions a la Maidan and force a referendum.

This might be Moscow’s last chance to keep Crimea and to maintain its influence in Ukraine, but whether the Kremlin will take the risk remains to be seen.

Nadiya Kravets (DPhil, University of Oxford) is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ukrainian Research Institute and the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. She specialises in relations between post-Soviet republics and their foreign and security policies, and is working on the monograph about Ukraine’s relations with Russia since Independence.

Olga Onuch is a Newton Fellow in Comparative Politics at Nuffield College, at the University of Oxford. She is also Shklar Research Fellow at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, at Harvard University. She specialises in the comparative study of protest politics, political behavior and institutions, in democratising states in Latin American and Eastern Europe.