The EU-Asia Summit in Milan, Italy, delivered little, if any, tangible progress to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. Relations between Russia and Ukraine’s major European allies remain just a few degrees above a new Cold War-style ice age. And with only a preliminary gas deal achieved between Kiev and Moscow this may be quite literally true for Ukrainians as winter approaches.
Agreements achieved in Minsk between Russia and Ukraine and between Kiev and the separatists over a military de-escalation, the withdrawal of combat troops, and the establishment of a buffer zone have made some incremental progress, but a ceasefire that was meant to have been in force since September 5 has been frequently breached – in particular during the protracted battle between separatists and Ukrainian forces for the airport in Donetsk.
The official death toll of the conflict now stands at almost 4,000 (the real figure is likely to be significantly higher), while refugees and internally displaced people number in the hundreds of thousands.
To all intents and purposes, Ukraine has quickly become Europe’s most fragile state. Unable to exert effective control over its two easternmost regions, and with a free-falling economy heavily dependent on IMF support (projected to be US$19 billion over the next year), the country is now heading into parliamentary elections scheduled for October 26.
In advance of the polls, a lustration law (which seeks to “purify” Ukraine from any remnants of the past) has just come into effect, and tensions between the various contending parties are increasing as voters become more and more disaffected.
All this shows how, instead of helping to resolve Ukraine’s long crisis of state weakness, the events of the past year have greatly exacerbated it.
Building the future
More than ever, Ukraine is in search of a unifying national identity – and the current anti-Russian sentiment is as insufficient as the 1990s ideas of economic nationalism were.
This is in stark contrast with the situation in the separatist-controlled areas, where Russia has capitalised on the limited reach and capacity of the Ukrainian state.
In contrast to the chaos of the spring and summer, there is now a very well co-ordinated and resourced Russian-sponsored state-building effort under way in Donetsk and Luhansk, the so-called “Novorossiya”. Far more than an idea built on Russian nationalism, Orthodox Christianity and Soviet-style egalitarianism, effective state structures have actually begun to take shape.
Where Russia clearly has delivered on its promises is in relation to the proliferation of armed gangs across eastern Ukraine. Initially helpful in the Kremlin’s destabilisation efforts, they were increasingly difficult to control from Moscow, impossible to co-ordinate, and increasingly lawless as political motivations were overtaken by criminal agendas that undermined the whole Novorossiya project.
Rather than simply sending in officials to organise the nascent security apparatus in Donetsk and Luhansk, regular, well-trained Russian troops and policemen (often with Ukrainian passports issued in Donetsk and Luhansk) now form the core of a new and effective security force, which is at last replacing the hotchpotch of rebel troops who frequently robbed local residents and businessmen.
Economically, Novorossiya’s banking system has effectively been integrated with that of Russia as have major parts of the infrastructure, especially the electricity and gas pipeline networks. This is obviously good news of sorts for people living there as they will be less affected if Russia and Ukraine cannot find a long-term resolution to their gas dispute or if the current preliminary agreement falls apart.
It is equally good news for many factories in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, many of which already work directly through Russia in terms of supplies and exports that now go through those stretches of the Russian-Ukrainian border that the Ukrainian state does not control anymore. As these factories declare zero activity in Ukraine, Kiev additionally loses out on what was substantial tax revenue from a region that used to deliver around 25% of GDP.
Beyond building institutions, Moscow’s state-building efforts also extend to significant socio-demographic changes. While western Ukraine continues to receive internally displaced persons from the east and while Russia has accepted many refugees from there, Novorossiya is being advertised widely across Russia as an opportunity for a new life and upward social mobility – especially for Russians from Siberia and the far east, including many who have begun to settle in Donetsk and Luhansk with their families.
For Russia, the gain is twofold: radical nationalists who pose a potential threat to the regime can be pushed out of Russia, both neutralising a domestic threat and infusing the mythical Novorossiya with a hardcore of residents unreservedly committed to the Russian state- and nation-building project.
The exact consequences of these developments may not be clear for some time. Ukraine’s economic and political crises are likely to continue and deepen in the aftermath of the elections – and even more so during the winter months, when the state and its citizens will be at their most vulnerable.
This may weaken Ukraine’s resolve to retake Donetsk and Luhansk by force, but it could also drive the embattled government to desperate measures.
The prospects for a Ukrainian military victory are as dim as ever, yet the likelihood of a workable autonomy deal with the separatists will also decrease over time. The number of people with a stake in the status quo and/or closer integration with Russia is increasing because of both demographic changes and the visible success of Russia’s state-building effort.
In many ways, the exact outcome doesn’t really matter: Russia has clearly demonstrated to the West that it will never allow Ukraine to drift further out of its own sphere of influence. That has all but destroyed any Ukrainian hopes of tighter Euro-Atlantic integration.
As the situation in eastern Ukraine stabilises and the country hopefully muddles through the winter, Western attention will soon enough turn to other crises around the world where co-operation with Russia is essential. That much we have seen before: who, after all, remembers Crimea?