Is Russia turning Ukraine into a Fragile State?


Following the Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing hostilities in eastern Ukraine, the Poroshenko government has struggled to revive the country’s economy. In 2015, the country’s economy was reduced by 12 percent and inflation reached 48.7 percent. IMF loans and EU financial packages have saved Ukraine from financial collapse. More importantly, Ukraine has faced a humanitarian crisis that has attracted little attention in the West. Almost 10,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands have fled to avoid the fighting.

According to the Fragile States Index, published annually by Foreign Policy, the country fulfils most of the criteria of a fragile state: refugees and internally displaced persons, ethnic unrest, poverty and economic decline, lack of state legitimacy, massive human rights violations, warlordism, fragmentation of ruling elites, and external intervention from Russia. Although post-Soviet Ukraine has suffered from many structural problems (e.g. corruption, high unemployment), the Russian intervention has significantly undermined Ukrainian sovereignty and has turned the country into a fragile state.

In fact, the Russian leadership has followed a ‘policy of fragilization’ vis-à-vis Ukraine by using the large Russian minority in the eastern provinces. The Kremlin has mobilised ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in order to delegitimize the Ukrainian state in the short run and possibly divide it in the long run. Putin and his local allies have capitalized on eastern Ukraine’s grievances relating to the highly centralized nature of the state, chronic corruption, and hostile attitudes toward the Russian language. Therefore, Moscow has called for the federalization of Ukraine as a means to control the country’s foreign policy orientation. More specifically, the Kremlin has supported a federal system where each region would elect its own leaders and enjoy widespread economic and cultural autonomy, including the right to develop relations with Russia.

The Russian strategy has been well-calculated because ethnic mobilization almost inevitably leads to confrontation with state authorities. If there is a military response to the rise of a secessionist movement, a cycle of violence is unleashed that can be described as follows:

Ethnic mobilization >> state military response >>  violence against civilians >> glorification of victims and demonization of perpetrators >> more violence

Such cycles of ethnic violence have provided the pretext for Russian interventions in other former Soviet republics (e.g. Moldova, Azerbaijan, Georgia). Eastern Ukraine clearly fits this model: it is an ethnically diverse region with a large Russian community that has been mobilized against state authorities; the Ukrainian government has escalated the crisis by targeting civilians; locals have rallied around the separatist leadership which has blamed Kiev for the violence; finally, ethnic Russians have taken arms to defend themselves. Therefore, Russia has a “moral obligation” to help them and enforce peace.

The use of citizen militias, volunteers from abroad, criminal gangs and possibly Russian special forces has allowed Moscow to deny any direct involvement in the conflict. Thus, the Russian leadership could still hope to play the role of the mediator between belligerents and avoid the alienation of international allies like China. In any case, the privatization of war is a new element in the Russian military thinking. The Kremlin has traditionally maintained tight control over its military; the use of proxies goes against the Russian military culture but it allows Moscow to achieve plausible deniability.

The Russian intervention has provoked a nationalist backlash contributing to the rise of the Ukrainian far right. It is only after the Russian annexation of Crimea that far right parties, like Svoboda and Right Sector, gained enough support to form their own militias. The Ukrainian authorities have attempted, rather successfully, to control militias and integrate them into the national army. Despite its limited electoral appeal, the far right has become a de facto ally of the Kremlin since both have targeted the Poroshenko government. Consequently, the Ukrainian government was forced to reintroduce mandatory conscription which is highly unpopular among the general public.

The current hostilities in the eastern provinces have only deepened ethnic Russians’ enmity toward Kiev, making it all but inconceivable that the region will ever become a normal subject of the Ukrainian state. Furthermore, the fragilisation of Ukraine could encourage the Kremlin to follow a similar strategy in the Baltic States. The time has come for a new policy of containment toward Russia.

Image: Map of the ‘2014 Russo-Ukrainian War’, ‘2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine’ or ‘2014 Russian military intervention in Ukraine’. (Includes ‘2014 Crimean Crisis’ and ‘War in Donbass’). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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