Kremlin’s willful ignorance of Ukraine's pro-Western trajectory has led to the current crisis
Maria Popova is Associate Professor, Jean Monnet Chair at McGill University. Her current research focuses on conspiracism, anticorruption, and rule of law reforms in Eastern Europe, with an emphasis on Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Romania.
What do you think about the escalating situation in Ukraine? Is there a risk of Russian invasion?
I believe there is some risk. The main risk comes from the failure of Putin and his inner circle to understand the reality of Ukrainian domestic politics. The Kremlin is led by the narrative about the West instigating and backing Ukraine's pro-European, pro-Western orientation. The Kremlin thinks it might be possible to take over more extensive parts of Ukraine with Ukrainians being happy with this "liberation". The Kremlin believes many, if not most, Ukrainians hide their true preferences for closer relations with Russia. In short, Kremlin’s willful ignorance of the fact that Ukraine has been moving in a pro-European, pro-Western direction for a decade or even longer has led to the current crisis.
What do you think Russia's ultimate goal in Ukraine? Do you think it can occupy it?
It is essential to distinguish between Kremlin's stance and what the Russian public wants or thinks about Ukraine. I believe there might be a disconnect between the two, or, at least, we do not know how the two relate. Russia is a consolidated authoritarian regime, and it is difficult to understand where the Russian public stands on these issues. However, it is more clear what Kremlin's position is from its messages. Last year, Putin came up with the historical treatise where he claimed that Russians and Ukrainians have always been one people. That suggests that Kremlin's ultimate objective is the reincorporation of Ukraine into Russia in some form or another. It could be through actual occupation and incorporation that cancels Ukrainian independence and sovereignty or by firmly putting Ukraine under the Russian sphere of influence in a similar way to Armenia and Belarus. The outcome, of course, depends on how the current situation would develop, but I think it is pretty evident that the Kremlin wants to make sure that Ukraine doesn't continue its pro-European course.
I heard that the Kremlin had provided support to local inhabitants. Hence, such an approach makes reintegration with Russia easier, right?
The situation with Donbas is a complicated one. On the one hand, it would be the easiest for Russia to recognize the independence of LNR and DNR and then ultimately to move to annex them. The West would likely gradually acquiesce to such a scenario as in some way, this is the “minor incursion” scenario Biden let slip. But on the other hand, this is not Russia’s preferred course of action because the regions are already pro-Russian. Why take full financial responsibility for them? I think Russia is after is a way to influence what Kyiv does more than what happens in LNR and DNR.
Do you think it is time for Ukraine to reconsider NATO's aspiration?
That's a good question. For sure, Ukraine will be walking a tightrope for the foreseeable future. At the same time, given that most Ukrainians are leaning towards the pro-European and pro-NATO direction and given that Ukraine is a stable, competitive regime that does take into consideration where the public stands, it is premature to abandon such aspirations. Ukraine has to keep navigating the complicated security situation in the future.
Do you think Ukrainian leadership moved Ukraine in a positive direction regarding democratic development?
I think there are some mixed results. On the one hand, there are some positive developments in terms of the continuing reform of the judiciary. Reforms are going slowly and painfully—for example, we have the crisis with the Ukrainian Constitutional Court. Still, there have been some moderate successes with the Anti-Corruption Court and the High Council of Justice reforms. Civil society and all pro-judicial reform groups in Ukraine cooperate with international experts involved in these processes to push the Ukrainian government towards establishing an independent judiciary. There have been some promising developments in that realm.
On the other hand, the Anti-Oligarchization Law and the Poroshenko prosecution are problematic. It is not sufficiently clear that the Law is a genuine move against the system of oligarchic control in Ukraine, rather than the basis for leverage against individuals who are not on good terms with the presidential administration. Poroshenko’s prosecution is also problematic because he leads a popular party and putting obstacles to his continued participation in politics does not help Ukraine’s democratic development. Time will tell how this will play out. Finally, the government shutting down certain oligarchic media outlets is a threat to press freedom in Ukraine. Disinformation is clearly a problem to be combatted, but in a democratic setting it is preferrable to fight it with facts-based reporting than with administrative and legal measures.
Despite these problems, it is essential to note that Ukraine is a highly competitive regime with substantial political openness and a lot of progress has been made over the last three decades.
What should Ukraine do to strengthen this democratic development?
A substantial boost to government legitimacy can come from success in reforming the Ukrainian judiciary. If this situation ends up being perceived as a success and the general rule of law reforms, such a success will be a significant step forward. A considerable part of Ukrainian society has been calling for it for a long time.
Do you think Western leadership has done enough to support Ukraine militarily and economically?
There is some gradation in support from different Western players and the extent to which they are committed to supporting Ukraine. There has been discussion around the fact that some countries are more cautious than others. In the last few weeks, we have seen from Italy, France, Germany, and even Canada, traditionally a strong ally of Ukraine, reluctance to provide military support. How to best achieve deterrence, though, is a complicated question and disagreement is to be expected. What is more concerning is that some allies may decide to achieve de-escalation through making concessions to Russia to the detriment of Ukraine’s interests. So far, the West has done the right thing to support Ukraine's sovereignty. I hope there won't be fatigue from the long diplomatic process and concessions on what the West would accept from Russian demands in the long term.
Maria, is there anything else you would like to add?
The Ukrainian government has been doing a good job communicating its message to Western allies and the broader world. It will need to continue to be at its best in the upcoming negotiations over the Minsk Accords process. Implementation of Minsk strictly on Russia’s terms has the potential of undermining Ukrainian sovereignty even without a shot fired or the NATO door closing.