Ukraine must think globally in its hybrid war with Russia

The poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has sparked lively debate throughout the Western world about the need for a fundamental rethink in relations with the Putin regime. New sanctions are reportedly being discussed, while the future of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project hangs in the balance. The incident has all the makings of a geopolitical watershed.

As the international community grapples with the Navalny poisoning, Ukrainian officials are conspicuously absent. Despite being at the epicenter of the post-2014 spike in tensions between Russia and the West, Ukraine has so far played almost no role in the present round of diplomatic deliberations over how best to handle the Kremlin.

This lack of involvement is misguided. It is rooted in the Zelenskyy government’s short-sighted desire to avoid anything that might further antagonize Moscow. In reality, Kyiv needs a far more pragmatic foreign policy that recognizes the long-term nature of Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine and acknowledges the necessity of positioning Ukraine as a key player in global efforts to counter the Kremlin.

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The events of the past six years have demonstrated that Ukraine is doomed to live alongside a hostile Russia. This is the simple truth, no matter who occupies the president’s office in Kyiv. Ukraine’s historical, cultural, economic, and geographic closeness to Russia mean that Moscow will never willingly allow Kyiv to embrace a path towards Euro-Atlantic integration.

Even strict neutrality would be unlikely to suffice. From a Kremlin perspective, the mere existence of an independent and democratic Ukraine poses an existential threat to the Putin regime and to the future internal cohesion of the Russian Federation.

The long-term character of the current confrontation between Russia and Ukraine is well understood in the Kremlin. This can be seen in Russia’s present approach towards Ukraine, with Vladimir Putin in no great rush to seize control of the country. Instead, he is happy to let the bloody stalemate and partial occupation in the east of the country grind on indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Moscow is also playing a longer game, fueling internal divisions and seeding anti-Western sentiment within Ukrainian society as part of a strategy to derail today’s Euro-Atlantic trajectory and gradually reclaim lost ground over the coming decade as Ukraine grows less united and more internationally isolated.

In Kyiv, President Zelenskyy and his inner circle often seem oblivious to Russia’s true intentions and appear to believe the conflict can be resolved in the near future. Their talk of achieving peace “by the end of this year” still resonates with the more credulous elements of the war-weary Ukrainian electorate. However, this optimistic outlook is grounded in dangerously wishful thinking rather than hard geopolitical reality.

Ukraine urgently needs to abandon misleading expectations of an imminent breakthrough towards a sustainable peace. Instead, Kyiv must embrace more pragmatic positions reflecting the likelihood that today’s hybrid war will last for many more years to come. In the foreign policy realm, this means bolstering opposition to Russian aggression around the world. In order to defend itself at home, Ukraine must seek to play a far more prominent role in international efforts to expose the realities of Putin’s imperial ambitions and revisionist agenda.

Recent developments surrounding the Navalny poisoning illustrate how Ukraine could benefit from a generally tougher international approach to Putin regime. It is clear from the reaction of European politicians that the poisoning has had a dramatic impact on attitudes towards Russia. After years of relative caution and euphemistic language, we are now witnessing unprecedented demands for action and outspoken denunciations of Moscow's conduct.

This changing mood could lead to a whole range of inconvenient measures for the Kremlin. At risk are Moscow’s energy ties to the EU and access to international financial markets, while official and unofficial Russian state representatives face the prospect of enhanced personal sanctions.

Ukraine could emerge as a major beneficiary of the outrage over Navalny. The many anti-Russian measures now under consideration all align closely with Ukraine’s own national interests. More importantly, the chorus of condemnation that the poisoning has provoked creates considerable opportunities for Ukraine to remind the international community of Russia’s ongoing war in eastern Ukraine and occupation of Crimea.

Why, then, has Ukraine remained on the sidelines?

Kyiv's passivity is partly due to misplaced concerns over creating additional tensions with Moscow, but there are other factors involved. Ukraine’s lack of engagement also reflects a certain distaste for Navalny himself, who gained notoriety among Ukrainians for declaring that he would not seek to reverse the 2014 Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea.

This skepticism towards Navalny is both understandable and justifiable, but it is hardly in Ukraine’s national interests. A degree of pragmatism is required in order to identify what would best serve Kyiv’s objectives. Navalny may represent a less than ideal alternative to Putinism, but the anger over his poisoning creates a set of circumstances that are in Ukraine’s favor and should therefore be encouraged.

The Navalny poisoning scandal is just one of many Russia-related international issues where Ukraine could potentially improve its own geopolitical position via greater involvement. The list includes Belarus, Syria, Libya, and anywhere else where Russia is seeking to expand its influence.

By doing so, Kyiv can hope to weaken Moscow’s position while also consolidating international opposition to Russian aggression against Ukraine itself. In a very real sense, the global campaign of hybrid hostilities currently being waged by Moscow is an extension of the struggle to subjugate Ukraine that began in early 2014. Ukrainian foreign policy should aim to underline this point at every opportunity.

If Ukraine is to survive as an independent nation, it must learn to think globally in its hybrid war with Russia. There can be no quick fixes or compromise peaces with a Russia that regards Ukrainian statehood as an accident of history and treats democracy as a hostile ideology. Instead, Kyiv should seek to keep Ukraine at the heart of international efforts to confront the Kremlin.

Now is an ideal time to embrace this broader foreign policy outlook. The recent reaction to the Navalny poisoning suggests that international patience with Putin is finally running out. Nobody has more to gain from this than Ukraine.

Oleksiy Goncharenko is a Ukrainian lawmaker with the European Solidarity party. A Ukrainian-language version of this article was originally published by Ukrainska Pravda and is republished here in English-language format by the Atlantic Council with the author’s permission.

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Image: Ukrainian military cadets attend a ceremony to mark National Flag Day in Kyiv on August 23, 2020. (REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)