In the Thick of ItA blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
New Report: War in Ukraine Now Offers Small Window of Opportunity for Solutions
Dr. Robert Hamilton, a retired U.S. Army colonel who’s spent much of his 30-plus-year career studying the former Soviet Union, has come back from a recent research trip to Ukraine more optimistic about possible ways to end the devastating war in the country’s east than before. Speaking last week at a Harvard Kennedy School event ahead of the release of his new report, “Five Years of War in the Donbas: Causes, Consequences and Conclusions,” Hamilton said he saw three reasons for optimism: (1) The exhaustion and frustration of people in the Donbas mean there’s a chance Kyiv could win them over by showing that it can give them a better life than the separatists; (2) Russian public opinion has shifted over the past few years, with growing dissatisfaction over the Kremlin’s engagement in expensive foreign adventures; and (3) Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has the makings of a bridge figure, dispensing with the nationalist rhetoric of his predecessor and instead offering Ukraine hope for a civic identity that transcends the country’s east-west divide. But this window of opportunity “won’t stay open forever,” Hamilton warned, and the delay of the Normandy-format summit scheduled for September was “not a good sign.”
Hamilton’s main three recommendations involve the following: abandoning “dreams of a military solution,” which a few officials voiced to him (citing the example of Croatia in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s), but which, Hamilton believes, is not available to either side; reaching out to residents of separatist-controlled areas, which would include easing current language laws and discussing what Donbas’ “special status” would really entail; and investing in eastern parts of Kyiv-controlled Ukraine while making it easier for people living under the separatists to cross the line of contact. Furthermore, in his presentation—co-hosted by Russia Matters, Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, which published the report this month—Hamilton noted that Russia, which provides a military “umbilical cord” to the separatists in Donbas, is interested in ending the war, but needs to find a way to veto Ukraine’s moves toward the West, especially into NATO. “So Russia is likely to attempt to subvert any solution that fails to achieve that aim,” Hamilton writes in the report. “It is worth exploring whether such a veto, but limited to a specific period of time, might be the sweetener required to secure Russian backing” for a realistic path forward. Harvard professor Timothy Colton, who moderated the event and cowrote a recent book on the war in Ukraine, said that due to the recent growth of popular mistrust in the official media and the switch to the Internet among Russia’s younger generation, the Russian government is to some extent losing control of the narrative around Ukraine. Yet in spite of this mistrust, the Russian government would still find ways to impede Ukraine’s membership in NATO if there were some serious movement toward it, he said. Colton also praised Hamilton for his attention to the complexities on the Ukrainian side and for thinking creatively about possible solutions instead of framing them as simply “resisting Russia” or insisting that the West should just “keep on doing what we’ve been doing."
In describing the war—which has killed over 13,000 people, caused a “migration tsunami,” cost Ukraine’s economy billions of dollars and inflicted environmental consequences whose clean-up, according to one estimate, will cost as much as that of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—Hamilton covered other important ground in his talk:
- Remaining challenges: The two biggest obstacles for Ukraine now are to overcome corruption (including in the military) and the lack of a “broad-based, civic definition” of what it means to be a nation. For the country’s leadership this would involve not just resolving inconsistencies between the constitution and current language laws but “shedding ties with right-wing militias,” who “saved Ukraine in 2014” but have become an impediment to peace, as has nationalist zealotry more broadly.
- Causes of the war: While casual observers sometimes conflate Russia’s annexation of Crimea with the war in Donbas, the two are related but discrete problems. Crimea, Hamilton noted, “was planned and directed from the Kremlin” when the opportunity presented itself; the conflict in Donbas was an “accidental war” that “unfolded in fits and starts.” Hamilton’s sense is that Russia was less in charge there, more reactive than proactive, playing catch up as actors on the ground pursued their own agendas, albeit with tacit encouragement from Moscow when agendas aligned. While Hamilton believes the war is largely about identity, it is not ethnic or linguistic identity, as those two are poor predictors of loyalties in Ukraine’s case. Instead, the identities in question are ones he has been struggling to label but has provisionally called historical-geopolitical and social-economic. The first refers to the way Ukrainians see their country’s past and future, while the second is more about social hierarchies, and both were strongly influenced in Donbas’ case by the legacy of Soviet-era industrialization there, setting the region somewhat apart from the rest of Ukraine.
- Consequences of the war: Hamilton described the conflict’s political, economic, security and environmental consequences.
- In politics, the war has broken Ukraine’s “pendulum,” which had been swinging since independence between governments with power bases in the country’s west and its east, with none gaining broad national legitimacy. The vote map in this year’s elections (see p. 17 of the report) suggests that central Ukraine may be emerging as an independent political force rather than just a fault line between east and west. The parliament has been somewhat rejuvenated, with younger members, more first-timers and more women. Interestingly, the political far right seems to be in decline, with none of its parties making it into the legislature.
- The economic consequences have been dire. While Ukraine is starting to recover in terms of macroeconomics, the microeconomic picture leaves less room for optimism, with corruption still playing an outsized role. In rebel-controlled areas, there is no silver lining, just ghost cities of “grandparents with grandchildren,” often the only residents left.
- In terms of security, Ukraine’s armed forces have become much more capable and better armed than five years ago. However, they are still no match for Russia should it ever feel threatened enough to throw the whole weight of its military into a fight with its neighbor. The war’s impact on the security of ordinary people depends largely on where in the country they are, but the conflict has fueled massive migration: Some 9 million citizens, about a fifth of the population, are not in the country and, of those, about 3 million likely won’t come back; another 1.7 million are registered as internally displaced, according to the International Organization of Migration, averaging about half the income of other Ukrainians and double the unemployment. Human trafficking is way up.
- Finally, the war has had a devastating environmental toll that few officials are seriously contemplating for now. Around 100 hazardous facilities are not under Kyiv’s control, including abandoned mines where pumps have been turned off and ground water will be rising, bringing with it contaminants like mercury and lead and likely disturbing the site of a 1979 underground nuclear explosion. There are collapsing roads and buildings and unmonitored chemical and water-filtration facilities.
Kyiv, Hamilton says, will not be able to fix these problems alone. “[T]he outside world contributed to the start of war in Ukraine by making the country the object in a geopolitical tussle between Russia and the West. Any honest accounting of the war’s history must acknowledge this,” he writes. “And any fair treatment of Ukraine after the war should seek to compensate it through significant, long-term assistance in dealing with the war’s consequences.”
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