by Alexander J. Motyl
A boy plays atop an SU-76 at a local military museum after a heavy snowfall in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, about 430 kms from Moscow, on January 11, 2015
The following is an interview with Rajan Menon, a professor of political science at the City College of New York and a senior research scholar at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.
MOTYL: You and Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment have just completed a book about Ukraine. What is its central argument?
MENON: The Russia-West relationship has collapsed. Russia stands isolated and damaged. But an isolated, nationalistic, and authoritarian Russia isn’t what Europe needs—and it’s certainly not good for Ukraine. Ukraine cannot afford to be in a perpetual state of war with Russia, if only because no Western soldier will ever be dispatched to die for Ukraine.
MOTYL: Do you expect Kyiv to launch radical reforms?
MENON: Crises can certainly concentrate minds and inspire tough choices, but the vested interests opposed to reform are baked into Ukraine’s system of patronage, corruption, and crony capitalism, which long preceded [deposed Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovych. [President Petro] Poroshenko and [Prime Minister Arseniy] Yatsenyuk are smart and understand what’s at stake. But voters everywhere become less enthusiastic about reform once it’s clear they will bring immediate pain and only long-term gains. It’s insufficient for reforms to be economically “correct”; they must be politically sustainable and introduced in the proper sequence, with provisions for softening their most malign effects.
MOTYL: What are the Ukrainian government’s most important policy priorities?
MENON: First, not repeating their Orange predecessors’ ruinous error of political feuding (there are already some signs of this, alas). That will alienate voters and give Russia more opportunities for meddling. Second, not dwelling on recapturing the so-called Donbas republics, to say nothing of Crimea. The loss of these lands, which have been anti-reform bastions, is a blessing in disguise for Ukraine. You yourself have said this in your articles. Ukraine is now ethnically more homogeneous: that is a huge plus given its particular circumstances. Third, sequencing reforms properly and ensuring that society’s most vulnerable segments are provided cushions. Fourth, targeting areas in which tangible success can be attained quickly so as to build political capital for the Kyiv government.
MOTYL: Every one-two months, Ukraine expects a massive Russian invasion. Is this a valid fear?
MENON: The Russian army has huge problems. People tend to tally Russian divisions, not realizing that a significant number aren’t fully staffed, equipped, or combat-ready. Moreover, the poor quality of recruits mirrors Russia’s health crisis. Russia already has thousands of troops deployed—unsuccessfully—to quell a 20-year insurgency that’s spread across the entire North Caucasus.
Ukraine is large and populous; Russian generals will be hard-pressed to sustain an army in the field, especially once their units enter regions with hefty Ukrainian majorities. Ukrainians have a history of partisan warfare and will resist. Urban warfare is a bloody business, and Russia would pay a heavy price to conquer and hold big Ukrainians cities. Russian airpower and artillery can cause huge damage, but only ground forces can seize and retain territory: that’s where Russia’s military weaknesses will become apparent. In Crimea, Russia had unique advantages (troops and military infrastructure in place plus a welcoming Russian majority) that it won’t have elsewhere in Ukraine. Politically, a full-blown Russian invasion would eviscerate Moscow’s relationship with the West, rendering Russia a raw-material appendage of China.
MOTYL: What’s the likelihood of a Russian attempt to establish a land corridor to the Crimea?
MENON: It’s not impossible, especially if the West piles on economic pressure, leaving [President Vladimir] Putin to believe Russia has little to lose and something to gain by seeking land connection to Crimea. Still, a Russian corridor from, say, Novoazovsk to Crimea, while non-trivial and undesirable for Ukraine, is not in my view a strategic catastrophe for the country.
MOTYL: How can Ukraine defend itself militarily?
MENON: First, pull back from the “republics,” declare a no-forces-zone, call upon Russia to respect it, and invite third-party peacekeepers to patrol it. Second, build a small professional (non-conscript) force whose strengths are in mobility (ground and airborne forces), anti-armor weapons and short-range ground-to-ground missiles, air defense radars and missiles, and electronic countermeasures. (Deterrence doesn’t require equivalence.) Third, slowly develop a war-fighting capability that’s designed not to seize territory or defeat Russia (impossible for Ukraine), but to deny it an easy victory and to make the cost of prevailing prohibitive. Finally, besides cultivating ties with the West, increase trade and investment with China so that it gains a strategic stake in Ukraine. Steps two, three, and four will take time to accomplish.
MOTYL: What should Ukraine and the West do to end the war?
MENON: Ukraine cannot end Russia’s military intervention on the side of the Donbas separatists. Still, Ukraine should renounce NATO membership. The alliance won’t admit Ukraine anyway, so Kyiv loses nothing by relinquishing something it won’t get. The West should stop pretending NATO expansion doesn’t bother Russia. It always has. Russia was simply too weak in the 1990s to push back. A no-NATO pledge combined with a no-forces-zone patrolled by peacekeepers and observers can bolster Ukraine’s security and allay Russia’s main strategic concern. That same “no” pledge shouldn’t apply to the EU Association Agreement.
MOTYL: What does Putin want from Ukraine?
MENON: Putin could have declared victory after taking Crimea. I’m flummoxed by his recent moves: they benefit neither him nor Russia. More broadly, Russia has been reduced to a regional power. It aspires to be dominant in what’s left of the former Soviet space. Because of the cultural and historical ties between Ukraine and Russia, many Russians can’t accept that Ukraine is a separate state seeking its own destiny.
MOTYL: Where do you expect Ukraine and Russia to be one year from now?
MENON: Ukraine will be muddling through a tough reform process—and finding that the West is better at promising than delivering tangible support. Russia will be seeking a rapprochement with the West. Russia doesn’t want to be a Chinese client: the power ratio favors Beijing so heavily that Russia will be a satrap in any alliance with China. Some European states will seek to reciprocate, making divisions within the EU and NATO on the appropriate Russia policy much more evident. In short, while the situation will improve, the pace will be slow, the trajectory non-linear.