What should we expect from Ukraine and Russia in 2015?
My guess is: more of the same. And that’s both the good news and the bad news.
Ukraine will consolidate its democratic institutions, while Vladimir Putin’s Russia will consolidate its fascist regime. Although Ukrainians will complain more than Russians, their country will actually be getting stronger, while the hypercentralized state structure centered on Putin’s cult of the macho personality gets weaker. Democratically ruled peoples whine publicly; dictatorially ruled peoples whine privately. The fact that 80-plus percent of Russians are likely to continue to support Putin won’t mean that 80-plus percent are happy with life in Putin’s crumbling realm.
Economically, both countries will be in for trying times. Ukraine’s GDP will contract, unemployment will rise, and inflation will increase—but for the right reasons, as Kyiv embarks on reforms that, while not quite as radical as most economists would wish, will be radical enough to begin the long and arduous task of transforming Ukraine into a genuine market economy. Russia’s GDP will also contract, unemployment will also rise, and inflation will also increase—but for the wrong reasons, as the ossified Putin regime pays heavily for having not diversified or developed its doomed economy. Energy prices, the ruble, its gold reserves, and foreign and domestic investment will collapse as Russian capital takes flight and pressure from Western sanctions continues. The economies of both the Russian-occupied Donbas enclave and the Crimea will contract even more, making life increasingly unbearable for their inhabitants, who will continue to flee both eastward and westward, thereby pushing both regions closer to literal no-man’s-lands.
Socially, both countries will see a rise in popular activism. Ukrainians will take to the streets to protest against radical reforms that inevitably lower their already low living standards. Russians, even those who continue to dote on Putin, will take to the streets to protest against empty store shelves, government corruption, and the steady flow of body bags from the occupied Donbas. As Putin’s repressive apparatus responds with more arrests and head-crackings, expect a determined minority—perhaps Russians, almost certainly non-Russians—to respond with acts of terrorism.
The war in eastern Ukraine will go on, despite the best efforts of the West and Kyiv to reach a negotiated settlement. For one thing, Putin’s proxies in eastern Ukraine are out-of-control warlords for whom war has become their only raison d’être. For another, Putin will want no permanent peace, as that would only stabilize Ukraine. A large-scale military assault aimed at capturing all of Ukraine, or even establishing a corridor from Russia to the Crimea, is probably out of the question, as the Ukrainian armed forces are strong enough to deter it. But low-level fighting of the kind that has characterized the Donbas for the last few months seems a sure bet. Equally likely is a continuation of terrorist attacks within Ukraine, which Ukraine will survive while Putin’s reputation as an exporter of terrorism will only grow.
Ukraine will continue to insist that the Russian-occupied territories are occupied only “temporarily,” and Russia will continue to insist that its war against Ukraine is really only an internal Ukrainian squabble, but the end result of Russia’s continued occupation of both the Donbas enclave and the Crimea will be the continued, if uneven, consolidation of Russian rule. Faced with tough economic circumstances at home, Kyiv will continue to reduce its economic relations with, and financial subsidy of, the occupied territories. The burden of supporting the increasingly desperate inhabitants will fall on Russia, which will have to decide whether it prefers to make hay from a humanitarian catastrophe of its own making or actually to help save the victims of its imperialist policies. My guess is that Putin the great humanitarian will opt for catastrophe.
All in all, barring some unexpected deus ex machina, Ukraine’s state, society, and army should get stronger, while its economy should be on the mend. Russia’s state and economy will weaken, its army will discover the limits of its strength, and its society will grow more troublesome for Putin. Ukraine and Russia will be moving in diametrically opposed directions. Time is on Ukraine’s side, and decidedly not on Russia’s, because time favors democracy and not fascism.
Under conditions such as these, the Putin regime could actually disintegrate. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has recently accused Western leaders of wanting “regime change” in Russia. They don’t. But they should. Replacing Putin’s fascism with democracy as soon as possible would be the greatest thing for Russia, Ukraine, and the world.