The election of Petro Poroshenko complicates matters for Russia, which must find a new way to resolve the crisis in Eastern Ukraine. Here’s how the rest of the year might play out.


Ukrainian presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko, speaks to press at a polling station during the presidential election in Kiev. Photo: Reuters

In the run-up to the presidential elections, Petro Poroshenko positioned himself in the Russian media as the candidate who would resume dialogue with Moscow. On May 26, the situation changed. Kiev intensified the punitive operation in the Donbas region, and Ukraine’s president-elect announced plans to hold his inauguration in Donetsk.

Moreover, Poroshenko stated that he intends to secure the return of Crimea to Ukraine, primarily through legal measures. In doing so, the new president is essentially closing the window on dialogue with Russia.

The problem, however, is that Poroshenko’s options are limited. The leading role in Ukrainian politics belongs to pro-Maidan activists. Poroshenko can seek a dialogue with Russia as long as it does not conflict with them. This remains the determining factor in Russian-Ukrainian relations.

Moscow's strategy

Russia’s policy in Ukraine hinges on curbing the new authorities in Kiev. Following the coup of February 22, the Kremlin fears that radical nationalists could gain control of the Black Sea ports and the military-industrial complex of southeastern Ukraine.

Suffice it to recall that in the Soviet Union only two republics — the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) — had the capability to manufacture the full range of the nation’s military arsenal, including nuclear weapons and their means of delivery. The industrial potential of Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Krivoy Rog, and Zaporozhye could allow the new Ukrainian government to beef up the country’s armed forces.

Another issue is Ukraine’s integration with NATO or, at least, an extended format of interaction with the alliance. There are two aspects of concern for Russia. First, the provision of security guarantees to the regime in Kiev by the United States; and second, the appearance of U.S. infrastructure (including missile defense shields) in the east of Ukraine, which would be even more dangerous, since Russia does not have a clearly demarcated border with its neighbor.

In mid-April, Moscow managed (partly spontaneously, partly intentionally) to establish a three-pronged approach to restraining Kiev: the first line is the return of Crimea and Sevastopol to Russia; the second is Donbas, where the Donetsk and Lugansk people's republics were proclaimed; and third is the support for the federalization of Ukraine in Kharkov, Zaporozhye, and Odessa.

A fourth line could even be the Geneva agreement of April 17, which calls upon all parties to the conflict in Donbas to refrain from the use of force, to disarm militias, and start political dialogue.

Kiev’s strategy

In late April, the regime in Kiev, with the backing of Washington and Berlin, tried to launch a counter-offensive. With no hope of regaining Crimea, Oleksandr Turchynov’s administration targeted the weak “third line” by suppressing proponents of federalization in Kharkov, Zaporozhye, and Odessa through violence.

The Odessa tragedy enabled Kiev to switch the world's attention from Donbas. On May 2, Turchynov’s administration commenced large-scale military operations in the southeast of the country.

The statements made by Poroshenko on May 26 reveal Kiev’s strategy. The immediate task seems to be a crackdown on Donbas and to present the result as a “victory over Russia,” while the long-term objective is to increase the pressure on Crimea.

Recalling the Russian-Georgian “five-day war” of 2008, Kiev is hardly likely to confront Moscow openly. But Ukraine could fan the flames of protest among the Crimean Tatars, and then might sponsor sabotage and terrorist activities on the peninsula.

In parallel, the U.S., supported by Germany, might increase the pressure on Russia through economic sanctions and their influence in international organizations. And all this could complicate the situation for Russian diplomats.Thus, the provision of assistance to Novorossiya by referring to the illegitimacy of the Kiev regime will be complicated. The Kremlin needs to adjust its strategy in relation to Ukraine.

Scenario 1: Diplomatic agreement

The most favorable scenario would be to wrap up the conflict in Donbas by means of a diplomatic agreement. Moscow is seeking to end the military operations in Donbas and to start UN or OSCE-brokered talks.

That would recognize Novorossiya as a subject of those negotiations, and such agreement could stipulate that a referendum be held on the federalization of Ukraine.

However, the paths to achieving such a compromise are few. Poroshenko does not consider the military operation to have failed and intends to expand its scope. To consolidate his power, he needs a military victory, or at least the semblance of one. Ukraine's new president is also counting on U.S. diplomatic (and possibly military) aid.

The Russian side expects progress to be made during the negotiations scheduled for the June 6 meeting in Caen (France). At this event, dedicated to the 70th anniversary of Normandy, the Ukrainian issue is due to be discussed by representatives of Russia, the U.S., France, and Britain. British and French diplomats could act as mediators, since Paris and London are anxious about the increased interaction between Washington and Berlin.

Kiev, however, is trying to narrow the format of the agreement to a memorandum without specific commitments. The situation may change if the military failures mount up and the Ukrainian army suffers serious losses.

Scenario 2: A Ukrainian Nagorno-Karabakh

This scenario is possible if the fighting in Donbas becomes drawn out. Poroshenko’s position could be undermined in two ways: First, by a wave of protests in Ukraine triggered by rising losses among security personnel; and second, by media revelations about the mass destruction and casualties wreaked in Donbas.

The latter could swing EU public opinion away from Kiev, while support for the Poroshenko administration from the White House would be hindered by the lack of a clearly defined external enemy.

Defeat in a military conflict could lead to the overthrow of Poroshenko — as military setbacks in the early 1990s toppled President Zviad Gamsakhurdia of Georgia and President Abulfaz Elchibey of Azerbaijan. But even if its grip on power were maintained, Poroshenko’s administration would have to recognize Novorossiya as a subject of negotiations.

OSCE involvement in the negotiation process would lead to the creation of a new “Minsk Group” [a group of co-chairs of OSCE member countries leading the process for a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan — Editor's note] and endless negotiations on the status of Novorossiya.

In this scenario, it would be a challenge for Kiev to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine’s borders as they stood on May 24.

Scenario 3: Russian military intervention

Presently, the chances of Russian military intervention are slim. However, in the event of a humanitarian catastrophe in Donbas, that could change.

A “march on Kiev,” used by the U.S. media to provoke alarm, is improbable. The Russian army is more likely to conduct a limited operation, for example, a no-fly zone over Novorossiya or limited strikes against Ukrainian security forces. The purpose of the operation would be to force Kiev to withdraw troops from Donbas and, perhaps, set up a demilitarized zone to the east of the Vorskla River.

Such a conflict would require Moscow to steel itself against a tougher response from Washington. Russia would have to accept a new package of U.S. sanctions and adopt some retaliatory measures (e.g., withdraw from the agreement on cooperation with NATO on Afghanistan). Russia would have to come to terms with the ultimate demise of the Russia-NATO Founding Act and the large-scale deployment of NATO forces in Eastern Europe.

Russia, moreover, would be forced to watch the fragmentation of Ukraine. The situation there could begin to resemble the events in Georgia in the early 1990s.

A key task for Russia is to build a dialogue with Poroshenko, while simultaneously understanding the limited nature of his power. It is a difficult task, given the lack of hard facts about what is really happening in Ukraine.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.