Aurel Braun is a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto and a centre associate of the Davis Center, Harvard University. His forthcoming book is Russia, the West and Arctic Security.
Last week’s celebrations of 25 years of independence in Ukraine were bittersweet. Domestic problems aside, fighting escalated in eastern Ukraine with Moscow-controlled separatist rebels, Crimea remained firmly in Russia’s grip as the Kremlin increased its military presence there, Russian forces massed on Ukraine’s border and the Putin government provocatively accusing the Kiev government of seeking to invade Crimea. A worried President Petro Poroshenko warned just days before that he could not exclude the possibility of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Not surprisingly the question then that has preoccupied analysts and policy makers alike has been whether there will be a full-scale Russian invasion. Yet this may be the wrong question. The more relevant question may be whether the Kremlin is pursuing a policy to undermine Ukraine’s independence through “other means” that are subtle, insidious and ultimately extremely corrosive.
Certainly, according to Ukrainian sources, Russia already has significant forces engaged in covert operations in eastern Ukraine, and now large permanent forces close to Ukraine’s eastern borders. The Kremlin’s aggressive actions since 2014 show that it is prepared to resort to violence. Most importantly, President Vladimir Putin, who is moving Russia relentlessly toward becoming a Eurasian dictatorship, cannot afford to have on its borders a Ukraine that is a prosperous modern democracy that eventually may integrate with Europe.
Nonetheless, for the moment this is unlikely. Not only does Russia have its hands full in Syria, and with domestic issues, but an all-out attack may induce even a reluctant and divided West to institute devastating sectoral sanctions. Moreover, Russia has at its disposal “other means” to try to achieve its strategic goals in Ukraine and has been using them to considerable effect.
First, Russian military pressure, threats and accusations have been designed to coerce Kiev into accepting an imposed federalism that would make the country difficult if not impossible to govern.
Second, constant turmoil and violence induced by Russia distracts the Kiev government from instituting some of the necessary, painful reforms required for modernization and democratization.
Third, the Kremlin’s actions are significantly damaging the Ukrainian economy. Flare-ups in August, for instance, dramatically drove up Ukraine’s euro bonds by 44 basis points, inducing global investors to demand ever higher yields on assets they might buy in Ukraine.
Fourth, Russia can unfreeze conflicts at will on Ukraine’s borders, including Moldova, which makes Ukraine far less attractive to most foreign investors.
Fifth, Russia, as part of its hybrid warfare, which in addition to military, economic and cyber, also employs psychological warfare against Ukraine to induce a sense of encirclement and despair.
In short, Russia’s “other means” are subtle but extremely corrosive and it is this threat that should raise alarm bells in the West.
To be sure, Ukraine must do its part to counter this corrosive policy from the Kremlin. This means that the Kiev government must overcome decades of failure to institute fundamental economic reforms, it needs to address endemic and damaging corruption, and Ukrainian political parties must learn the art of political compromise and be vigilant against various forms of extremism.
The West, however, needs to have a much more effective policy toward Ukraine and Russia. It must be prepared to institute meaningful disincentives for Russian pressure and aggression, and avoid the impression of normalcy that Mr. Putin will seek at this weekend’s G20 meeting. The West also needs to keep open a viable pathway for Ukraine to eventually join the European Union and NATO if that is the free will of the Ukrainian people. Further, the West should provide generous financial support as vital reforms are now being instituted in Ukraine, and the West, and particularly the EU, should do much more to open up markets to Ukrainian products.
To do all the above the West needs to appreciate that kowtowing to Russia or distancing itself from Kiev plays right into Moscow's strategy.
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