In Ukraine’s Election, Pro-Russian Candidates Can’t Win
By occupying the regions of the country that most favor it, Moscow has undermined its own position in Ukrainian politics. Here’s why it still won’t leave.
Whatever happens in the second round of Ukraine’s elections later this month, a pro-Russian candidate will not become Ukraine’s next president. Five years after Russia annexed Crimea and launched a war in the country’s Donbass region, the Kremlin’s influence in Ukraine is at the lowest level in at least a century.
True, Russia continues to control 7 percent of Ukraine’s territory, which neither incumbent Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko nor his second-round opponent, the comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, has a strategy for retaking. Even though the country’s military has improved since 2014, Ukraine can’t retake the territory by force given Russia’s massive military advantage.
In the other 93 percent of Ukraine, however, things have not gone in the Kremlin’s favor. For Ukrainian politicians focused on consolidating their country’s independence and national identity—and that includes Poroshenko and most of the country’s political class—the status quo is tolerable. They would prefer to get Crimea and the Donbass back, yet Russia’s ongoing occupation has its benefits too. In seizing those areas, Russia chopped off the two regions with the least developed sense of Ukrainian identity. And with them gone, no pro-Russian candidate could win a Ukrainian election. Long gone are the days when candidates such as former President Viktor Yanukovych, who was openly sympathetic to Russia, could win a majority of votes.
Things won’t change anytime soon. The ongoing confrontation with Russia—the humiliation of having lost Crimea, the sporadic fighting along the line of control, the lives disrupted and destroyed by the division of the country—reminds Ukrainians daily why they want to build a nation wholly separate from Moscow. That, too, is a boon for Ukraine’s politicians, whose inability to tackle corruption or improve the economy have otherwise disappointed the hopes of the 2014 revolution that brought them to power.
It is less clear what Russia is getting from the status quo. The Kremlin has proved willing to bear the costs of occupation, paying for soldiers’ salaries, tolerating the collapse in Russia-Ukraine trade, and putting up with Western sanctions that will persist until Moscow agrees to return the Donbass to Ukrainian control. Why? There are several potential explanations.
One is that Russia wants to send a message to other post-Soviet states about the costs of anti-Russian revolutions. The Kremlin’s continued occupation of the Donbass sends a clear message: Russia is willing to punish neighbors that presume they can topple their governments or cut deals with the West.
Yet Russia’s neighbors do not seem to have gotten the message. Just last year, Armenia tossed out its pro-Russian government, installing a younger crowd that wants better ties with Europe. Fearing blowback, the new Armenian government has insisted that its revolution is not anti-Russia. But the country is tacking closer to the West all the same.
Another possible explanation is that, even if Moscow couldn’t prevent other revolutions, it could at least prevent Ukraine from integrating with the West. Specifically, the frozen conflict will prevent Ukraine from being able to join NATO. But even if Russia withdrew from the Donbass tomorrow, NATO membership still seems far off for Ukraine. European countries such as Germany and France have long been skeptical, suggesting that the benefits of inviting Ukraine into the alliance would not outweigh the costs. If U.S. President Donald Trump thought that “aggressive” Montenegro’s membership in NATO might provoke World War III, as he told the TV personality Tucker Carlson last year, he seems unlikely to welcome Ukraine into the alliance.
European Union membership for Ukraine is no more likely in the short term. But here, too, the Donbass is not the most important factor. More significant is the EU’s own expansion fatigue. Ukraine, with 44 million people, would be the most populous country to join the EU since Spain joined the then-European Communities in 1986. Integrating countries such as Romania and Bulgaria caused plenty of difficulty. Ukraine is significantly bigger, and it would be significantly harder to integrate. Existing member states aren’t eager to take on that challenge now.
But even if formal membership in NATO and the EU is still distant, the occupation of the Donbass has accelerated Ukrainian integration with the West in other ways. Ukrainians received the right to visa-free travel to the EU in 2017, something that Russians can only dream of. And NATO countries are training Ukraine’s military, which is now the strongest it has ever been.
A third rationale for Russia’s ongoing occupation of the Donbass might be to cause problems for Kiev in the hopes that Ukrainians would cast off their Western-oriented government and try to rebuild ties with Moscow. The Kremlin long hoped that time was on its side, considering the deep fractures within Ukrainian society and the inability of Ukraine’s political class to address them.
And sure enough, Russia’s occupation of the Donbass does exacerbate all of Ukraine’s problems. But Ukrainians have not cast out their leaders and opted for a government that is friendlier to Russia. Instead, they blame Russia.
So, too, does the West, which looks no more likely to change course than the government in Kiev. Western countries have seen momentous political shocks over the past five years, but support for keeping sanctions on Russia until it leaves the Donbass is as strong as ever. In the United States, Congress enshrined sanctions on Russia into law in a nearly unanimous vote in 2017.
Europe has seen major political transitions since the EU imposed sanctions on Russia in the summer of 2014. François Hollande, the French president who along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel negotiated the 2015 cease-fire in Ukraine, left office in 2017 with historically low approval ratings, but his successor has kept France’s policy toward Russia unchanged. Merkel was buffeted by a political crisis over refugees and the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party. But her center-right political party remains resolutely in favor of sanctions. The center-left Social Democratic Party of Germany has, if anything, moved toward a more hawkish position on Russia under new Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. In Brussels, the consensus in favor of sanctioning Russia looks as durable as ever.
If the West is unwilling to lift sanctions on Russia, and if Ukraine is unlikely to tack back toward Russia, what is the Kremlin doing in Ukraine? Well, Russian President Vladimir Putin couldn’t leave Crimea even if he wanted to. The Russian government has formally annexed the territory, and Putin has staked his political career on forcing his country into a confrontation with the West over the issue. True, some Russians are beginning to question whether the annexation of Crimea has brought as many benefits as promised. But almost all Russians would oppose giving it back.
The Donbass, however, is different. Russia pointedly chose not to annex the territory, hoping Kiev could be coerced into taking it back as a Trojan horse, in a way that would give the Kremlin leverage in Ukrainian domestic politics. Yet with Ukraine’s presidential election proving that there is no scope for pro-Russian policies in Ukraine’s capital, all the reasons for continuing the Donbass occupation look increasingly stale.
The Donbass is no longer paying dividends. Ukraine is united against Moscow, NATO is rebuilding Kiev’s military, Russia still faces revolutions along its borders, and sanctions are here to stay. Yet having staked everything on a confrontation with the West over Ukraine, the Kremlin shows no sign of changing course. Confused about the logic of sticking around in the Donbass? The Kremlin is confused too.