Three years ago, ‘little green men’ appeared in Crimea, a prelude to Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea on 18 March 2014, and its so-called hybrid war in the Donbas. These developments are no longer a horrifying novelty but rather a wearisome and deceptively stable set of facts often overshadowed by others scarcely foreseen several years ago: ISIL/Daesh, refugee crises, the disunity of Europe, and the changing of the guard in the United States. During the same period, scepticism has deepened about the ability of Ukraine to reform itself.

Nevertheless, far more than in 2014, the conditions are in place to secure an ultimate outcome to the conflict consistent with Ukrainian and Western interests. Such an outcome will elude us if we diminish the issues at stake, underestimate Ukraine's strengths and fail to grasp the constraints on Russian policy and action.

Unidentified soldiers – 'little green men' – guard the Crimean parliament building next to a sign that reads 'Crimea Russia' (2 March 2014)

The issues at stake

The issues at stake today are as great as they were three years ago. When Russia intervened by force in Ukraine, it repudiated the principles and accords that ended the Cold War. In place of the Helsinki-based system, which recognised the equality, independence and territorial integrity of all member states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Russia extolled the Yalta system and spheres of influence in Europe.

In his speech to the Russian Federal Assembly of 18 March 2014, President Vladimir Putin also called for the restoration of 'historic Russia' and its borders. Later that year, Foreign Minister Lavrov speaking at the Valdai Club on 23 October 2014 stated that 'Moldova and the Baltic states should consider events in Ukraine and draw conclusions'. Accommodation to Moscow's agenda would not only be seen as betrayal in Ukraine. It would unsettle confidence across Europe.

Although Ukraine's Revolution of Dignity of 2013-14 has not led to systemic modernisation or in-depth reform of the Ukrainian state, the war has rallied the country. The majority of Ukrainians have not treated the war as a referendum on their political leadership, but as an attack on their homeland. Were Ukraine the 'basket case' widely portrayed, it would have collapsed in spring 2014. Instead, by July, a mainly volunteer force regained control of 23 out of 36 districts seized by the Russian-backed insurgents, making Russia’s “Novorossya” project obsolete.

Putin has done more than any leader, Russian or Ukrainian, to strengthen Ukrainian national identity. So far, even two major Russian offensives have not broken the spirit of the country or its fighting forces, who are notably more capable today than in 2014. Some 1.7 million refugees are being absorbed and integrated, largely by local and civic organisations. Their resettlement in places as far away from Donetsk as the western cities of Vinnytsia and Uzhhorod is breaking down regional barriers and knitting the country together.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko meets with servicemen, during a visit to a defence post located on the troops’ contact line with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, near the rebel-held town of Gorlivka, north of Donetsk, Ukraine (5 December 2016) © REUTERS

This is bad news for Russia and its separatist proxies. The so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics comprise only four percent of Ukraine's territory and are in a ruinous state. While the non-elected self-declared “leaders” of these republics wish to expand their holdings, Moscow’s end game is different: to undermine Ukraine, undermine confidence in Ukraine and secure its neutralisation and 'federalisation', first de facto and then by binding agreement.

As employed by Russia and the “leaders” of the separatist republics, 'federalisation' means absolute autonomy as well as a veto over Ukraine's foreign policy. No existing federation observes such principles, least of all the Russian Federation, where even public talk about such matters is punishable by a five-year prison term. In sum, Russia's minimum objective is ambitious: to block Ukraine’s path to the West. If that aim is not achievable, the republics lose their utility to Russia.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Russia is also somewhat constrained militarily. On two occasions (August 2014 and January 2015), Russia's battle groups intervened in the Donbas with devastating effect. But as Ukraine's military capability improves, Russia's options narrow. Its battle groups are not occupation forces, despite its maintenance of regular forces in the Donbas which still direct most military actions of the militants. Even if Russia abandoned its chosen path of plausible deniability of its military presence in the Donbas, the risks and burdens of seizing and holding large parts of the east would be enormous. Russia is already burdened by the costs of Crimea’s annexation, its military involvement in Syria and its ambitious, long-term programme of defence modernisation. Even the establishment of a land bridge to Crimea is highly problematic. The aim of Russia’s military activity is political: to intimidate and secure concessions that might not be granted otherwise.

Nevertheless, Ukraine’s gains are far from firm and they can be reversed, either by military action or from within.

The challenges ahead

It is widely recognised that profound internal transformation is prerequisite to Ukraine becoming ‘a full member of the European family of civilised nations’1. Fewer realise that it is also vital to Ukraine’s security. Ukraine is fighting a war with an aggressive nuclear power, and it is doing so with constrained and mismanaged resources. Ukraine’s vibrant civil society, which has repeatedly demonstrated its determination to keep the state on a reformist Euro-Atlantic path, will likely not be prepared to continue to risk livelihood and life while tolerating the profligacy of those who block progress and subordinate the national interest to their own.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is seen here with newly appointed Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman (right) after a ceremony on 9 May 2016 commemorating the end of the Second World War. Upon taking office, Groysman described “corruption, ineffective state management and populism” as threats equal to “the enemy to the east of our country”. © REUTERS

What Ukraine needs is a competent and accountable state. What it has is a hyper-bureaucratised labyrinth that allows real power to be exercised in the shadows. To his credit, President Poroshenko has upheld the fundamentals of political democracy in Ukraine, but he has not promoted a deep reform of the system of power or taken meaningful measures against oligarchic interests. In this free but opaque environment, Russia continues to work intensively to destabilise the country via hybrid methods.

Part of those have been to cultivate two perceptions in Ukraine: first, that Russia will widen the war (Russia continues to maintain a large concentration of forces in close proximity to the Ukrainian border); second, that the West will grow tired and walk away.

The way to counter the first anxiety is to transform today’s fragile balance of forces into an effective deterrent. As noted above, some measure of deterrence already exists. But its strength depends too much on forces in the field whose proficiency and resourcefulness lie at the lower tactical level (battalion and below). Yet the operational level of command is deficient. Command-and-control is hyper-centralised, forces are stovepiped and cohesion inadequate. The former has proved its worth against Russian commanded proxy forces. But Ukraine requires armed forces capable of waging high-intensity, combined arms warfare on a highly fluid battlefield. They are unlikely to emerge without systemic transformation of a defence system that has suffered years of financial and organisational neglect. This enterprise requires demonstrative political will, tenacity, capable leadership and the promotion of talent.

The second anxiety will not be addressed until the West adopts a more robust approach to the two Minsk accords. Both were the products of Russian military coercion rather than equable agreement. The Implementation Package (Minsk-II) contains provisions that are abstruse, ambiguous and weighted towards Russian and separatist interests. This would be insufficient reason to renounce the accords, which have afforded Ukraine a modicum of stability and maintain a baseline of unity in the West. So, the commitment to Minsk implementation should not be put in question.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) meets NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on 18 February 2017 at the Munich Security Conference. NATO supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the country’s reform efforts. © NATO

Nevertheless, there is no reason to allow Russia to impose its own interpretation of what the accords grant to the republics and require from Ukraine. Their clearest provisions brook no ambiguity: complete cease-fire, unrestricted access for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission and (following OSCE-supervised elections) ‘reinstatement of full control of the state border by the government of Ukraine’.

Although Minsk-II calls for a process of accord [soglasovanie] on local elections and ‘special status’, it does not require Kyiv to accept the republics’ diktat. Minsk allows properly elected leaders to maintain ‘militia’ [militsia], the Russian term for normal police, but does not license the current unelected authorities to maintain opolchenie, the militarised ‘militias’ presently waging war on Ukraine (Point 11, Note 1).

‘Federalisation’ is not mentioned in the accords, and neither are the militants’ (and Russia’s) claims for veto rights over the country’s foreign and defence policy orientation. Ukraine does not violate them by standing firm on these points or any demand beyond the Minsk provisions. The West should stand firmly with them. To those who demand further compromise, there should be one answer: Minsk was the compromise.

Finally, Crimea should not be excluded from the broader discussion on conflict settlement. Until Russia begins talks with Ukraine to settle the moral and legal status of the peninsula based on a mutual accord, sanctions must stay in place. Russia should not be granted legitimacy in Ukraine or elsewhere while it remains in blatant breach of international law. This point of principle applies not just to Ukraine, but the broader and long-term stability of Europe and other regions.

Changing misperceptions

Two misperceptions have dogged the Russia-Ukraine conflict from the start. The first is that Russia holds all the cards. By now, Ukraine has shown that this is not the case. Russia’s military instrument is dangerous and credible, but its utility is finite and, with the right steps on the part of Ukraine and the West, it may diminish.

The second, still deeper misperception, is that time favours Russia. So far, it has not. In November 2014, a prominent regime ideologist told the author that ‘by next winter, there will be no Ukraine’. Ukraine was stronger two years later than it was then. Yet time is not a strategic actor. It must be used.

Moscow still appears to believe that with enough military and political pressure, Ukraine will fall apart. Ukraine and the West have yet to change that perception. The conflict will not be resolved until then.

1Volodymyr Horbulin (then Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine), ‘Ukraine’s Place in Today’s Europe’, Politics and the Times (journal of the MFA of Ukraine), October-December 1995, p 15.