Foreign Affairs

What is the Future of Ukraine amidst the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict?

Matthew Kacki examines the history of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and after examining the forces at play in Ukraine today speculates on what the future of the country may be.

Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists have been embroiled in an unceasing and devastating war, that has taken the lives of 13,000 since April 2014 (UNIAN).

The conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine, followed the dramatic domestic political upheaval in 2014 as Ukraine’s relatively pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted for suspending an Association Agreement with the European Union (EU), a decisive step towards Ukrainian membership and integration with the EU. What initially appeared to be a dramatic display of internal politics, rapidly escalated to pro-Russian demonstrations against rising Ukrainian anti-Russian sentiment, and subsequently a pro-Russian armed insurgency in Donetsk and Luhansk, and the annexation of Crimea by the Russian military and its special forces.

As the conflict approaches its sixth year of bloodshed, and as the Ukrainian Presidential election nears (set for the 31st of March), what is the future of Ukraine amidst the Russian-Ukrainian conflict?

The Worldview According to Moscow

It is difficult to write about Ukraine without addressing Russia – the dominant actor in the post-Soviet sphere. In order to understand the future of Ukraine and how the Russian-Ukrainian conflict may develop, one must first understand Russia’s interpretation of international politics.

Russia’s historical and contemporary worldview can be generally stemmed from an ultra-realist and strategic-centred culture ¹. Russia’s interpretation of the world around it is akin to Thomas Hobbes’ seventeenth-century description of the ‘state of nature’, where the world is naturally an anarchical and hostile place. This interpretation has manifested into a ‘besieged-fortress’ mentality – the idea that Russia has been historically and continues to be surrounded by enemy powers and ideological adversaries, such as the European Union (EU), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the rest of the ‘Western establishment’.

Russia’s perceived status as a ‘major power’ has been constant. This can be accredited to Russia’s critical role in European affairs and its unfaltering endurance through several periods of upheaval and instability. Consider the Polish-Russian War of 1605 – 1618, where the Tsarist military was decisively defeated (despite outnumbering the Polish 5:1) and the Russian Tsar deposed. In spite of the fact the future of the Tsardom was extremely uncertain, the will of the Russian people endured to eventually oust the Polish forces and retain the Tsar’s throne. A parallel can easily be drawn between Tsarist Russia against Napoleonic France during the Napoleonic Wars of 1803 – 1815 and the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany in World War II. Hence, why Russia views itself as an indispensable major power ² vital to the future of Europe is self-evident.

Considering Russia also interprets the international system traditionally in terms of ‘great power’ politics – where only major powers can exert genuine power, it’s perception of being an indispensable major power has subsequently led to Russia believing in possessing an inalienable right to imposing its will on the surrounding territories and populaces. This has taken various historical and contemporary forms such as the direct annexation and subjection of states, forced cultural assimilation of non-Russians through ‘Russification’ and the political and economic pressure against ex-Soviet republics to persuade them to remain politically aligned with Moscow.

Does Moscow wish to restore a contemporary Tsarist Empire or Soviet Union? Nyet! Moscow’s foreign policy does not resemble the blunt imperialism of the Tsarist Empire or the Soviet Union. Besides, the concept of traditional imperialism in the contemporary international system is non-existent. Today, the extension of power beyond one’s own borders is exercised through indirect means such as economic power and strategic military bases abroad; consider China and the United States. Moscow desires to project its power in the post-Soviet space by a dynamic combination of these indirect means (amongst others).

Consolidating all these ideas, it becomes apparent Russia aspires to be the regional hegemon and predominant authority in the post-Soviet space. As alluded to, this aspiration is driven by Russia’s strategic imperative in establishing a ‘buffer-zone’ against Western encroachment, but also the “shared history, civilisation, language…” ³ and culture of the region.

International Assistance to Ukraine

Regardless of Moscow’s justifications, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and efforts towards undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity and autonomy within the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, are blunt violations of international law.

Therefore, why has the West responded limitedly towards resolving the Russian-Ukrainian conflict? While the United States and EU economic sanctions against Russia have moderately impacted Russia’s economy , it has been ineffective towards influencing Moscow to withdraw its support for pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine (Foreign Affairs). The answer to this question lies in the contemporary concept of sovereignty.

The concept of sovereignty has been consistently violated by major actors of the contemporary international system. For instance, the U.S. has violated the sovereignty of several states through its military incursions, like Iraq, but also through other forms – such as constant global surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA).  Recently, China has violated the territorial and economic sovereignty of several Asian nations within the South China Sea. The European Union has also, arguably, violated the social sovereignty of several of its member states, by enforcing an obligatory immigration quota-system. Therefore, Russia’s violations against Ukraine’s sovereignty is consistent with the actions of several other major actors within the international system.

The idea of absolute national autonomy by its political, economic and social policies is simply non-existent within the contemporary, extensively-integrated global system. This affirms that “… the concept of sovereignty… is, and always was a myth. This conceptual myth within the contemporary international system demonstrates why the West will not strive towards resolving the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Russia’s actions are ‘relatively’ normative according to the reality of the contemporary international system. Thus, Western states do not subconsciously perceive an obligation towards resolving the conflict.

As such, the journey towards EU and NATO membership is a lonely and difficult venture for Ukraine. Ukraine cannot reliably look towards the West for substantial support in its struggle against Russia. If the status-quo is maintained, Ukraine will simply remain at an impasse. Ukraine must look inwards if it hopes to prevail.

Ukrainian Presidency

The political atmosphere within the ex-Soviet sphere is defined by each states’ ruling elite and head of government. Hence, the upcoming Ukrainian presidential elections on the 31st of March may be a pivotal turning point for Ukraine and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

According to the most recent opinion polls, Yulia Tymoshenko and Volodymyr Zelenskiy – both of whom seek to challenge the status-quo, are the most favoured candidates for the Ukrainian presidency (Rating Group). Both populist candidates have expressed their aspiration towards ending the armed conflict in Donbass by diplomatic resolution and negotiations. Zelenskiy’s platform is focused on prevalent domestic anti-corruption reforms within the branches of government and the private sector. In contrast, Tymoshenko’s platform is considerably more focused on domestic-foreign policy. Both candidates maintain a pro-EU and pro-NATO stance, however, Zelenskiy’s broader foreign policy is uncertain. In contrast, Tymoshenko’s proposed foreign policy is seemingly more flexible and dynamic.

Zelenskiy speaking to Ukrainian press. (January 2019)
Source: Atlantic Council

Tymoshenko’s campaign is centred around a ‘new course for Ukraine’ and a ‘new strategy for peace and security’ (Foreign Policy Research Institute). This ‘new course for Ukraine’ may prove to be comparable to Kazakhstan’s current multilateral foreign policy, where political, economic and strategic allegiances between the West, EU and Moscow are skilfully managed to assure independence and maximise domestic benefit.

Tymoshenko has declared support for Ukraine’s accession to the European Union, however, her anti-International Monetary Fund (IMF) sentiment is contradictory to the former and suggests a prospect for renewed partial-ties with Russia. Financing and cooperation from the EU are conditional on Ukraine’s $3.9 billion agreement with the IMF, which involves Ukraine implementing Western-oriented economic reforms. If Tymoshenko’s government would explicitly obstruct these reforms (as she persistently has in parliament), the possibility of Ukrainian membership in the EU would be extremely unlikely. However, considering the immense importance of the IMF agreement in preventing Ukraine defaulting on its debts, it is unlikely Tymoshenko would explicitly obstruct the reforms in the future. Nonetheless, if these reforms were to be partially blocked or renegotiated (as suggested by her promise to reverse a Western-oriented three-fold price hike on gas) Kyiv would be inclined to re-establish economic ties with Russia. And, despite Tymoshenko’s anti-Russian rhetoric, her willingness to diplomatically resolve the ongoing conflict also indicates renewed economic ties with Russia is a prospect (albeit not as significant as prior to 2014). Hence, Tymoshenko’s foreign economic policy suggests dynamic economic ties with the IMF, EU and Moscow.

Thus, Yulia Tymoshenko’s foreign policy suggests a diplomatic approach towards resolving the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Tymoshenko has also negotiated with Putin previously in 2009 on a Russian-Ukrainian gas contract, to which Putin praised her, making her a good character for future negotiations with Moscow (Kyiv Post). Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s foreign policy, as mentioned, is uncertain – and Zelenskiy is politically inexperienced. However, Zelenskiy’s direct and enthusiastic rhetoric may be his strength towards reaching an agreement with Moscow and restoring Ukraine to political, economic and social stability.


Yulia Tymoshenko and Putin
Yulia Tymoshenko and Vladimir Putin. (March 2005)
Source: Daily Mail
The Future of Ukraine and the War

Ukraine is in a precarious position. Important actors such as the United States and relevant EU-member states like Germany, France and Poland have declared their unwillingness to directly participate within the armed conflict. A large Ukrainian offensive is also out of the question, considering the disparity in firepower between Ukrainian and Russian forces. Hence, if dialogue and diplomatic negotiations remain hostile and non-existent, the conflict will vainly continue.

For Russia, a sustained conflict temporarily serves its national interest in maintaining the strategic state of affairs in the region. If Ukraine is embroiled in an armed conflict with Russia, Ukraine cannot join NATO. If Ukraine were accepted, all NATO member-states would have to engage in an armed conflict against Russia. Such a course of action is inconceivable.  

However, a sustained conflict also minimally advances Russia’s geopolitical objectives. Since the beginning of the armed conflict, Russia has been gradually legitimising itself in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. In May 2014, state referendums were held by pro-Russian separatists in both regions, establishing quasi-republics: the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). In February 2017, Moscow began recognising identification documents, diplomas, birth and marriage certificates issued by the DPR and LPR (Reuters). On the 2nd of December 2018 following the Kerch Strait Incident, Moscow announced it would also begin issuing Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens in the DPR and LPR (Vedomosti). Russia’s gradual legitimisation within the region is advancing the “…cultural and political dominance Moscow seeks to build”(Foreign Affairs) and increases the possibility the Donbass region will remain under Russian political autonomy in the future.

Nonetheless, Russia’s actions in DPR and LPR should not be interpreted as how Moscow primarily desires to establish itself in the post-Soviet sphere. As mentioned before, Moscow desires to establish its dominance within the region by indirect means. If Moscow were to conduct similar actions in the future, it would only be a precedent for warranted NATO expansion or Western intervention in a future conflict. Besides, regional hegemony can only be achieved peacefully within the contemporary international system.

The only solution for an immediate cessation of conflict is direct negotiations and diplomacy between Kyiv and Moscow. The Ukrainian presidential election may be the precedent for actualising this. However, as with many things – it is easier said than done. Crimea undoubtedly will be an almost impossible issue to discuss.  Additionally, the cost of negotiations may be demanding for Ukraine. Significant concessions would have to be made to Russia, whether that be territory or Ukraine’s future foreign political agenda. Domestic pressure and expectations may also make for reluctant negotiations, or conversely, excessive negotiations may have a significant domestic backlash. Simply, the Russian government and the Ukrainian government must reconcile and so must their peoples – otherwise, the conflict will indefinitely persist, and Ukraine’s future will remain bleak.


¹, ², ³ Lo, B. 2015. Russia and the new world disorder, London Washington, D.C., Chatham House; Brookings Institution Press. Pp. 39, 14, 102.

⁴ Tyll, L. Pernica, K. Arltova, M.; 2018. The impact of economic sanctions on Russian economy and the RUB/USD exchange rate. Journal of International Studies, 11(1), 21-33.

Strange, S. 1994. Wake up, Krasner! The world has changed. Review of International Political Economy, 1:2, 209-219.

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