It has become clear to anyone anywhere in the recent days that Ukraine has become the object of aggression on the part of Russia which has occupied Crimea in violation of all norms of international law. What are Russia’s objectives and what further scenarios Vladimir Putin has for Ukraine? Can the West stop Russia and force it to withdraw its troops from Crimea? We discussed these issues with a senior fellow of the Chatham House Royal Institute of International Affairs (UK) James Sherr, who has been researching the security sector in Ukraine for almost 20 years.
Russia has invaded Ukraine. What are its objectives?
“Russia’s minimal objective is to make Ukraine ungovernable. Its maximal objective is to secure Ukraine’s subservience with the consent of the West. Its overarching objective is to persuade Kyiv, Brussels, and Washington that nothing of importance can happen in Ukraine without its approval. To these ends, it will seek federalization (which in today’s conditions means de facto disintegration) and a ‘special status’ for Crimea, which would establish a regime of joint sovereignty or, alternatively, ‘independence’ under Russian ‘protection’ on the Abkhaz/South Ossetian model. Don’t be surprised if ‘solutions’ of this kind are proposed in the days and weeks ahead.
“Over the past several weeks, Ukraine has been the target of what chekisty call kombinatsia: the combined use of means to achieve a combination of ends. The means being employed are deliberately fluid. The ends are probably more fluid than people think. A key purpose of the current military operation is razvedka boem: military engagement for the purpose of assessing an adversary’s intentions and strength. Note the Kremlin’s response to the State Duma’s authorization to employ troops in Ukraine: Putin ‘will make these decisions in view of how the situation develops.’ Those decisions, in my view, will depend entirely on the reactions of Ukraine’s new political authorities, the forces they have at their disposal, and Ukraine’s Western partners. Depending on what you do and we do, Russian military forces will either expand their operations on Ukrainian territory, or dig in, or withdraw.
“What we are seeing now is Putin’s Plan B. It was executed following the failure of Plan A: Operations Bumerang and Volna (which, not incidentally, took place with the assistance of a former First Deputy Head of GRU RF). Yet the invasion of Ukraine, first by stealth and then in force, is not an improvisation. Serious planning probably began on January 24, the day the RF Security Council strengthened the powers of the General Staff. The following day, CGS Army General Gerasimov announced that an all-day session of the General Staff Academy had worked out a ‘complex of measures required to transfer the country to a wartime footing.’ He also declared that the internationalization of the ‘armed struggle’ in Ukraine had already begun under Western auspices. I believe that when Yanukovych met Putin in Sochi on February 4, he was given an ultimatum: crush the rebellion, or it will be crushed by others.
“This sequence appears to resolve a mystery: Yanukovych’s last-minute decision to sign the EU brokered agreement on February 20. According to Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski, Yanukovych had been stubborn throughout the meeting. Then he spoke to Putin by phone. Then he gave in. Translation: Plan A was finished, and Yanukovych could be discarded. The euphoria that followed his departure from Kyiv is all too reminiscent of the euphoria that followed the Soviet Army’s brief withdrawal from Budapest in 1956 and just before the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. The commonalities of these events are planning, deception and guile.
“Whilst Ukrainians are struggling with Plan B, there is every possibility that Plan C will be launched: an oblique political maneuver that produces a ‘settlement’ behind the country’s back. Lenin is always worth citing: ‘Who but a fool would believe that we could have defeated our enemies without our supporters in their camp?’ Everyone in Ukraine’s new coalition of powers is an implacable foe of Yanukovych and the clans associated with him. Not everyone is a foe of Russia or Putin personally. The ‘resolutions’ of the 2006 and 2009 energy crises are not forgotten in Moscow. They are worth recalling in Kyiv. If there are fissures in the new summit of Ukrainian power, Putin will look for them and find them.”
How do you assess the West’s response so far?
“The first high-level responses were disheartening. Yet within 24 hours there was a metamorphosis. Secretary Kerry, who has now characterized Russia’s actions as ‘brazen aggression,’ has warned that the United States and its ten most significant allies are prepared to ‘go to the hilt to isolate Russia economically,’ that all other options ‘are on the table,’ and that a failure by Russia to take ‘immediate and concrete steps’ to reverse course will have ‘profound’ consequences. NATO’s Secretary General, who has a reputation for being soft on Russia said aggression ‘threatens peace and security in Europe.’ That is about as tough as official language gets.
“This stunning transformation prompts me to say, not for the first time in Ukraine, that the Western political cultures not based on a ‘vertical of power,’ but ‘bottom-up’ communication. For weeks, government and independent experts, civilian and military staffs (some of them in 24 hour crisis management centers) have been monitoring developments, exchanging assessments and producing analyses and recommendations for decision-makers. In normal times, messages get ‘sanitized’ as they move up the chain. But in times of crisis, raw and sharp assessments are gratefully received. I have seen this happen on several occasions, and it is happening now.
“Nevertheless, Ukrainians are right to remain skeptical until the West delivers. What is needed from us are measures towards Russia that are asymmetrical, systematic and impose real discomfort. In some countries, where business exposure in Russia is high (e.g. the UK and Germany), the measures might be more limited and less visible than some would like. In others (like the US), they might be dramatic. I do not exclude a military component of the kind outlined by Admiral James Stavridis, former SACEUR in the online magazine, Foreign Policy. Overall, I believe there will be a qualitative change in the West’s conduct, and Russia will feel it.
“Equally essential on the West’s part is the swift revival and upgrading of the entire NATO-EU support mechanism for the modernization and reform of Ukraine’s defense, security and law-enforcement structures. The long-term needs are serious. The immediate needs are obvious.
“Desperately important, as we know, is an emergency package of financial assistance. One part of this package must be provided immediately, so that the government and banking system can continue to function. The second, larger component, is required to restore solvency. That part will come with conditions that Ukrainians will not like, but which they should welcome. Without them, the economy will continue to hemorrhage money on a large scale. Over the past four years, the economy has lost the ability to produce reward for honest work. Until the tax system encourages entrepreneurship, until property is safe, until the system of hidden subsidies and preferences is removed, Ukraine will have no future that Ukrainians can be proud of. Neither the EU nor IMF expects Ukraine’s new authorities to solve these problems soon. But they must begin to solve them.
“Finally, Ukrainians can expect national and international help in finding and returning the billions that have been stolen from the country.”
How do you assess the response of Ukraine’s new authorities?
“They are learning quickly. They have a lot to learn. Aggressors do not give discounts for hesitation. Since the time the Crimean parliament was seized (February 27), it took almost three days to declare that Russia had committed an act of war and institute mobilization. Ukraine’s Armed Forces, already disorientated, became demoralized. Cowards in the West were given a shield behind which they could hide. Now something positive is happening. But who really is in charge?
“There was a disturbing inconsistency in the government’s first appointments. Professionals were appointed to economic portfolios, zealous amateurs in security and defense. There are some worthy exceptions to this pattern, but not many. The country cannot be run on Maoist principles. Ukraine cannot afford to have its defense and security system led by people who do not understand their jobs or have little knowledge of how institutions work and how they should be managed. There are outstanding defense and security professionals in Ukraine: patriots, democrats, some of them quite young, all of proven ability. Where are they?
“De-professionalization defined the Yanukovych regime as much as kleptocratic authoritarianism. If Ukraine is serious about building a European democracy, it needs to rebuild professionalism. It should do what all good democracies do – separate structures of executive authority from structures of accountability and oversight. The former should be run by people with outstanding qualifications, the latter by representatives of the people, people with outstanding qualities. Combining these functions invariably leads to incompetence and corruption. It is time that Ukraine emerged from these legacies.”