conducted by Madalina Sisu Vicari

Q1. On 31 August, the Verkhovna Rada-the Ukraine’s parliament-passed a bill which amends the constitution and establishes the local government decentralization. Though supported by the two main coalition’s parties, the bill has been heavily contested by the other three coalition members, which have been claiming that the bill would allow the introduction of autonomy to Donetsk and Luhansk.  The final reading of this bill was postponed for December 2015.  Once adopted, would this bill impact on Ukraine’s further political stability and could it influence to the crisis outlook?

MM: I think, we should distinguish here two aspects. First, as many Ukrainian and Western experts have suggests, Ukraine as a country striving to be a modern European state, needs decentralization and creation of real and strong self-government as important element of the reform process. If handled properly this would strengthen Ukraine and its independence, also building its resilience vis a vis Russian aggression. Second, demand of constitution reform and providing parts of Donbas (effectively under Russian occupation now) with some kind of special status (interpreted by Moscow as a broad autonomy) was imposed on Kiev by the so called Minsk 2 agreements.

As I understand Ukraine’s government (with special role of president Poroshenko) tries to address both aspects. So first to make reforms that would forwarded Ukraine’s European integration process and second, to satisfy (at least formally) demands – both from Moscow and Berlin – to implement Minsk 2 agreements. However there are many obstacles here. First, is that government in Kiev is afraid of loosening its control over Ukraine’s regions in the process of decentralization. Second, it wants to avoid being pushed into creation of asymmetric autonomy for Donbas, which could give Moscow political leverage over Ukraine’s internal and external politics. Third, to avoid accusations of “state treason” from those part of the  Ukrainian society (and political forces) who are more radical in their attitude towards Russia. The result is taking some measures which seems half heartened and criticized by various actors for different reasons. It is difficult to predict the outcome now. Reform, even imperfect one, is necessary. But it will inevitably create political tensions. Especially while there is a whole net of interests of various pressure groups within Ukraine.

Q2. On September 2, Ukraine’s National Defence and Security Council approved the country’s new military doctrine, which establishes Russia as Kiev’s military opponent. How that would further impact the relations between Kiew and Moscow, especially with regard to the situation in the East of Ukraine?

MM: These provisions of the Military Doctrine are hardly surprising. There merely constitute a fact. Russia is a direct threat for Ukraine and Russia occupies more than 7 % of Ukraine’s land territory. On the other hand one should not exaggerate the consequence of this doctrine. As often happens, especially in the post Soviet area, such documents are more policy instruments (aimed to demonstrate positions, send warning signals etc.) rather than constitute serious basis for actual state policy. So I take it as a part of broader Ukraine’s PR campaign aimed against Russia and partly for domestic consumption. Strange reality is that – despite of de facto state of war with Russia – Ukraine maintains diplomatic relations, political dialogue and economic exchange with  the aggressor state.

Q3. Which is the most likely scenario regarding the conflict in the Eastern Ukraine?

MM: I prefere the term Russian-Ukrainian war which reflects its nature (it’s not only military conflict but also in the sphere of politics, economy, energy, information etc.). I don’t know what will be the final outcome and I doubt anybody (including the parties involved) know that. In the short term perspective I assume Russia will refrain from any major military escalation in Eastern Ukraine, resorting more to political, economic and propaganda measures. Moscow feels vulnerable due to the economic crisis and don’t want to risk further sanctions. It badly needs relaxation of Westen sanctions and wants “normalize” relations with major Western (especially European) partners. Russia believes that the serious economic crisis in Ukraine will be followed by social and political crisis, which will hamper Ukraine’s European integration and in longer term – open up perspectives for “pragmatic” turn of Ukraine to cooperation with Russia. At the same time Moscow believes that “Ukraine fatigue” in the West and its disappointment with the pace of Ukraine’s reforms will lead to the tacit acknowledgment by the West of Ukraine’s participation in Russia’s sphere of influence. On the other hand current status quo (with most Russia’s goals in Ukraine not achieved) is unacceptable for Moscow and it wants to break the deadlock. That’s why Russia bluffing with “major war” while blaming Ukraine for non-implementation of Minsk 2. It remains to be seen what happens if the Moscow  tactics described above won’t be successful. So the question is how impatient Russia will be and what instruments it will have.

Q4. Recently, some analysts expressed the standpoint that there is a  risk of military confrontation between NATO and Russia, due to the increased military activities of both Russia and NATO. How real is this threat and which might be the consequences?

MM: Definitely neither NATO nor Russia want military confrontation. Putin is not mad, even if Kremlin has actively used “mad man strategy” as a psychological warfare against the West. The problem is that with the high intensity of military provocations from the Russian side, there could be some unintended consequences. One can easily predict that some incident (with Russian military plane downed over the territory of some of the Baltic states or with the crash between Russian military plane and European civilian aircraft) will escalate into local conflict with potential of further escalation. Moscow could decide to test NATO cohesion by some limited military challenge only if it would perceive NATO as deeply divided, weakened, indecisive, hesitant and strongly risk-averse. So it’s up to us to do all to persuade Russia, it’s not the case.

Q5. The aforementioned Ukraine’s military doctrine calls for the country to pursue the NATO membership. Which are the  main factors that impede Ukraine to join the North Atlantic Alliance and how its NATO membership could change the crisis prospects?

MM: Ukraine as a democratic European country has a full right to strive for membership in NATO. My personal opinion is that if European reform in Ukraine succeeds, having Ukraine in NATO would be an asset and should be supported. On the other hand the political realities are that there is no (and there won’t be in a foreseeable future) political consensus in NATO necessary to accept Ukraine as a member. Whatever we can say about limited successes of Russia in recent years, Russian-Georgian war 2008 gave a serious blow to the idea of further NATO’s eastward enlargement. It was only reinforced with the current Russian-Ukrainian war. Both Germany and France made clear they won’t support Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership. But it doesn’t mean Ukraine cannot enhance it cooperation with NATO and its member states. On the contrary. Such cooperation, if reaches high intensity, may benefit both Ukraine and NATO.

Marek Menkiszak is the head of the Russian Department at the Center for Eastern Studies (OSW), Poland, a prominent institution which analysis the political and economic processes in Russia, Germany, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states, the Visegrad Group states, the Balkan states and Turkey( . He researched and published extensively on Russia, the CIS area and European security issues.