Professor Taras Kuzio PhD, Department of Political Science, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and Non-Resident Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins University - SAIS.
Member of editorial boards of Demokratizatsiya, Communist and Post-Communist Studies and Eurasian Geography and Economics.
Is it true that Russia has been developing plans to destabilize Ukraine from the early 1990s?
I think the best way to understand it is that Russia has never come to terms with an independent and sovereign Ukraine within the borders it inherited from the USSR after it gained its independence in 1991.
It has always been the case under both Presidents Boris Yeltsin and then Vladimir Putin. The only difference between them is that former Russian President Yeltsin never invaded Ukraine. For instance, throughout the 1990s, the Russian parliament issued statements claiming Sevastopol and Crimea belonged to Russia.
But in terms of Russia not willing to recognize the existence of sovereign Ukraine, there is no difference among Russian leaders regarding this issue since 1991. Putin has continued the same line saying that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” and that Ukraine's historical destiny is with Russia. Such views are long-standing among Russians, and the only difference is what Russia has done under Putin to implement these views. Specifically, with Putin's election in 2000, he became increasingly nationalistic after the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. When Viktor Yanukovich came to power in Ukraine in 2010, Putin believed he would make him his satrap and after his re-election in January 2015 take Ukraine into the Eurasian Economic Union. However, these plans failed because of the Euromaidan Revolution of Dignity in 2013-2014.
So what do you think Russia's ultimate plans are in Ukraine?
We have to understand that Russian leaders do not have any specific strategy regarding Ukraine. Strategic thinking has never been something commonly found among Soviet or post-Soviet leaders in Russia. It has always been short-term tactical policies. One has also to understand that Russians, including Putin, do not understand Ukraine. There is more expertise on Ukraine-related matters in Warsaw, London, and Washington, DC than in Moscow.
Russians do not understand Ukraine because of myths and stereotypes about Ukraine and its people. All the time, you can hear on Russian TV that Ukraine is an artificial and bankrupt country. Because of that, Russians cannot develop a coherent strategy and tactics towards Ukraine. The only step they are undertaking is wearing Ukraine down in the Donbas region. Also, the Crimean issue is a non-negotiable and closed question for Putin, while the situation in the Donbas is used to force Ukraine to surrender to his demands. Also, the idea of compromise seems unlikely as it is a sign of weakness or defeat for Putin. As a result, a peace perspective looks remote. Moscow doesn't understand how Russian-speaking Ukrainians can be Ukrainian patriots because for them, if you speak Russian, you are automatically to be assumed to be “Russian” and wanting Ukraine to be part of the Russian world.
Do you think Russia will conduct a military operation against Ukraine soon, or will it continue to resort to hybrid warfare techniques to further destabilize the country?
I do not think that Russia will launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, as that would be simply a wrong-headed step for them to undertake. It is impossible to do so for many reasons. For instance, unlike Moldova or Georgia, Ukraine has a vast territory to occupy. Also, Russia would have to use half or two-thirds of its troops to invade and occupy Ukraine. Thus, it would mean that it would have to withdraw the Russian army from the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Russia’s border with China.
Moreover, Ukraine has changed since 2014 when Russia had local support in Crimea and partly in the Donbas region. Also, a full-scale invasion would lead to a collapse in relations between Russia and the West, leading to more severe sanctions against Russia. Nevertheless, Russia will continue to station its troops on the Russian side of the border with Ukraine as a security guarantee for the two Russian proxy DNR and LNR. Thus, if Ukraine tried to militarily re-take the LNR and DNR, Russia could potentially invade - as it did in Georgia in 2008 when Tbilisi attempted to militarily re-take South Ossetia. As a result, as long as the Russian troops are located along the Ukrainian border in the Donbas region, there could not be any successful peace process by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Because if Russia gives back control of the border to Ukraine, it will not be able to guarantee security to the LNR and DNR, leading to their collapse and reintegration with Ukraine. Hence, Russia will continue to resort to low-intensity hybrid war leading to Ukrainian soldiers being killed every day as well as resorting to economic and financial pressure against Ukraine.
Thanks to Petro Poroshenko's presidency in 2014-19, Ukraine revitalized its military-industrial complex and built a stronger army that is better trained and equipped than it has ever been. It will be a far more difficult war for Russia to defeat Ukraine if it decided to militarily invade Ukraine.
When I visited the Donbas war zone in June 2019, I noticed that 60-70 percent of soldiers are Russian-speaking Ukrainians were from eastern and southern Ukraine. What the war has done is that it has led to a growth of patriotism among Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Hence, the longer the war goes on, the more difficult it becomes for the Kremlin to return Ukraine to the Russian World. Moreover, Russian soft power against Ukraine has collapsed or been removed by Poroshenko. For instance, the influence of Russian media (television and social media) has dramatically declined in Ukraine since 2014. At the same time, Ukraine is rapidly integrating into Europe, especially in such spheres as the economy, transportation, and tourism. Ukraine’s trade with the EU is now about 45% of trade and with Russia only 8%. EU member Poland is now Ukraine’s biggest trading partner – not Russia.
Will the conflict be resolved in Donbas?
I am not very optimistic about its resolution, as Putin considers the concept of compromise as a weakness. Thus, it seems unlikely that he will negotiate a peace deal with Zelenskyy. Remember that even back in 1994, when Leonid Kuchma was elected Ukrainian president, it took three years for Yeltsin to travel to Kyiv and sign a treaty recognizing Russia’s border with Ukraine. It was a difficult issue for Russia to compromise with Ukraine even then. And the situation persists today as Russians are completely arrogant, racist and chauvinistic towards Ukraine and Ukrainians. I doubt that Zelenskyy's efforts to secure a peace deal will materialize as the Ukrainian public is against a sell out or capitulation, according to the recent polls. Nearly three quarters of Ukrainians believe their country and Russia are at war. This view is not only found among Ukrainians in western Ukraine but also Ukrainians residing in eastern and southern Ukraine.
What is your view of Zelenskyy's presidency? What would you advise him to do?
I think he cannot undertake change much in the foreign policy domain and can only continue Poroshenko's policies. Also, I do not believe he will be successful in the peace process apart from small steps such as exchanging prisoners. Also, he won't be able to change Ukraine’s trajectory towards integration with the EU and NATO, which Ukrainian public opinion supports.
However, he could achieve more in the domestic domain, such as fighting high-level corruption. In this regard, he would have to deal with his “Ihor Kolomoyskyy problem”. He has to decide what to do about the fact he and his corrupt allies stole US$5.5 billion from Privatbank which Ukrainian taxpayers had to cover from the budget. Hence, how he chooses to address his “Ihor Kolomoyskyy problem” will be an indicator as to whether he is serious about fighting high-level corruption, or if he is only pretending to do so. A true indication of fighting corruption is to put in jail those from your team, such as Kolomoyskky, as it easy to put in jail your opponents.
Ukrainians are not Russians and they are very impatient to receive results in this sphere.
Zelenskyy has to start putting oligarchs and high-level officials in jail by spring 2020 or his popularity will rapidly collapse. He no longer has any excuses as he has a large parliamentary majority and a functioning Anti-Corruption Court.