The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is a tragic consequence of the crisis in Ukraine. The reactions of the parties involved in the conflict now are making the possibility of a peaceful resolution more remote by the day. Nevertheless, the tragic event itself will not change the course of events in Ukraine unless everyone begins moving toward the ultimate goal of longstanding peace in the region. That objective, though, is complicated by both short-term political problems and long-range strategic issues.
Russian President Vladimir Putin could seal Russia’s border with Ukraine, end direct support of the separatist cause, cease the propaganda campaign against the Ukrainian government, and warn Russian citizens and renegade military officials that supporting the cause in eastern Ukraine would be a punishable offense in Russia.
Despite American and Ukrainian assertions, however, the exact nature of Russia’s influence over the separatists in Donetsk is questionable. Putin can divide and conquer his opponents in the short term, but a long-term solution to the crisis may require Putin to surrender Crimea. This would give Putin more pro-Russian voters influencing Ukrainian elections, but surrendering Crimea might enable challengers within his own camp. Putin’s popularity has increased due to the annexation of Crimea. The attachment to Crimea runs deep in Russian society and challengers would paint Putin as a modern-day Nikita Khrushchev, whose own risk taking ended the premier’s rule.
Putin’s willingness to compromise depends on what Ukraine and its supporters are willing to offer. The issue of the Russian language in Ukraine will have to receive some symbolic treatment. Furthermore, parliamentary elections will need to be held as soon as possible so that Ukrainians and Russians in the eastern and southern parts of the country feel that people are representing them in Kiev.
Since the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine has needed a national unity government. The recent resignation of Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s government offers Ukraine a chance to end the crisis. Yatsenyuk shot from the hip on a regular basis, while President Petro Poroshenko has increased the rhetorical war by comparing the downing of the Malaysian flight to the events of 9/11. The consequences of those words are not lost on Moscow. Although there is overwhelming evidence the missile that shot the plane down came from rebel-held territory, the analogy to 9/11 is wrong and insulting.
Terrorists by definition intentionally target civilians, but right now there is no evidence that this applies to the Malaysian flight. That being said, Russia and the rebel leadership are compounding the problem by denying responsibility for what appears to be a tragic mistake.
Washington has tied itself to the current leadership, so it too must exert its influence to force Ukraine to end the anti-Russian rhetoric and to set a date for new parliamentary elections. For its part, Washington must resist playing the Russian bogey-man card, too. It may serve domestic political needs, but it increases the salience of conspiracy theories in Russia.
To avoid the problem of moral hazard, Washington’s messages to Kiev must be delivered in a public forum. This will give Moscow the political space to apply pressure on eastern separatists and accept compromises.
In the long-term, however, there are more serious issues that make a sustainable peace a problematic achievement. Ukrainian membership in NATO has become even more complicated since the annexation of Crimea. Are Kiev and Washington willing to take NATO membership off the table and thus weaken the legitimacy of NATO?
EU membership is less controversial, but there are practical considerations that will only become more controversial as Ukraine moves toward full EU membership. The economy of eastern Ukraine is heavily oriented toward the Russian market and significant parts of the Ukrainian labor economy — most notably in the coal and agricultural industries — could be losers in a final membership agreement. Russia will likely use those levers and its energy influence to thwart Ukraine’s progress toward EU membership.
Both these issues also are connected intimately to deep psychological attachments felt in both countries. Russian leaders have had difficulty accepting the loss of superpower status and the idea that Ukraine is an independent country. In Ukraine, pro-Russian and anti-Russian supporters are balanced by centrist forces that want to maintain friendly relations with Russia and the West.
These divisions are rooted historically in geographically distinct areas. The actions of Russia may have influenced Ukrainians in the central and eastern regions to move more decidedly in support of the anti-Russian camp, but we still do not if that has happened or if the political shift is permanent. Russians may care little about Ukrainian preferences, but even then Russia’s cultural, economic, and political influences in Ukraine are significant.
Maybe generational shifts will change these conditions, but they would have to occur in both countries and we will not know the results for another decade or two.
Will Washington and western Ukrainians resign themselves to these facts? Making strategic compromises are the key to a sustainable peace. The right compromises — no NATO membership and a carefully crafted EU membership agreement — will not isolate Ukraine, undermine the influence of Western ideas, or mean the rise of a Russian Empire bent on taking over the world.