Ukraine Is Ground Zero for the Crisis Between Russia and the West

As Trump and Putin meet in Helsinki, the confrontation reflects a larger—and for now probably unbridgeable—divide.

A damaged dome in the yard of an Orthodox church damaged by shelling in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, in 2014
A damaged dome in the yard of an Orthodox church damaged by shelling in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, in 2014 (Antonio Bronic / Reuters)

UKRAINE—To land in Kiev is to reach ground zero of today’s confrontation between Russia and the West. The start of the Ukraine conflict is, depending on one’s chronology, the defining moment of their crisis. It’s here that, in the spring of 2014, Moscow organized a referendum of dubious legitimacy to annex Crimea; that Russia used troops whose existence it denied to help rebels seize parts of Donbas, in the country’s east; and that those rebels, who said they were acting on behalf of a public with whom they didn’t check, proclaimed the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in that region. All of this followed the ouster of Ukraine’s president in what the West called a revolution and Russia denounced as a coup. Today, Crimea remains firmly in Russian hands. The self-styled People’s Republics are largely cut off from the rest of the country by a line of contact that brings daily hardship, exchange of fire, and death to people on both sides.

In a broader sense, the Ukraine conflict is a microcosm of what the West sees in Russia and Russia sees in the West. For Europe and the United States, it was typical Vladimir Putin. Moscow’s intervention was driven by fear of so-called color revolutions—the popular uprisings that brought down numerous Russia-friendly governments in the former Soviet sphere—and its refusal to see those former Soviet republics drift toward Europe or NATO. It involved the use of raw, physical force (with echoes of Russia’s role in Georgia before Ukraine, and in Syria afterward); blatant violations of sovereignty and unilateral changes to international borders; reliance on armed proxies; and forms of hybrid warfare. The Kremlin justified its meddling by tarring opponents with broad brushes (opponents in Ukraine were portrayed as neo-Nazis much as those in Syria are painted as terrorists; in both cases, the characterizations are true of only small minorities) or by obfuscating the Russian military’s role.

Russia’s interpretation differs starkly, but arguably is no less heartfelt. It’s a narrative of repeated Western attempts at humiliation and encroachment on Moscow’s sphere of influence. Of demands that it conform to a Western vision of global security. Of promises betrayed, none more jarringly than what the Russians took to be a vow not to expand NATO eastward. Western outrage, indignation, and sanctions validate Putin’s faith in that narrative more than they shake it. They are taken as evidence of hypocrisy by countries that invaded Iraq and Libya, armed sectarian rebels in Syria, flattened Mosul and Raqqa in the name of fighting terrorists, altered Europe’s postwar borders by recognizing Kosovo, and meddled in democratic elections as far back as the 1940s in Italy or as recently as 2000 in Serbia. For the West, the Ukraine incursions were a page out of Putin’s playbook. For Putin, they’re Russia’s payback.

In its sustained gridlock, Ukraine’s crisis reflects the wider, presently unbridgeable Russian–Western divide. Kiev and Moscow in principle have endorsed the Minsk agreements, which remain the only legitimate framework for resolving the conflict. They provide for a cease-fire; local elections in Donetsk and Luhansk; a special, self-governing status for those regions; their reintegration into Ukraine; amnesty for the rebels; and withdrawal from the country of all foreign armed formations. But the parties’ purported acquiescence comes with heavy misgivings. Authorities in Kiev, along with a large number of Ukrainians, consider it a deal struck at gunpoint. Provisions on special status and pardon are especially hard to swallow. Russia for its part has evinced little interest in implementing the deal’s security provisions, in withdrawing troops it denies are even there, or in allowing Ukraine to reinstate control over their common border.

Adding to the sense of paralysis is the fact that Kiev is no more in a hurry to reintegrate Donbas citizens than Moscow is willing to assume responsibility for them. For the government of Ukraine and many in the west of the country, rebel-controlled territories are considered a repository of millions of hostile voters who could tip electoral outcomes toward politicians friendlier to Moscow. For the Kremlin, they could represent a financial burden they’d rather others handle. A Ukrainian politician described Donbas to me as a suitcase without a handle—something you can neither carry nor rid yourself of. All of which makes it hard to escape the uncomfortable feeling that both sides are fighting over an agreement neither likes for the sake of territory inhabited by people neither wants.

Finally, the outsize role President Donald Trump plays in Ukraine is a microcosm of the role he plays on the larger Russian–Western stage: an object of some hope, some fear, and considerable bemusement. He has blamed Russia’s Ukrainian land grab on President Barack Obama’s weakness—thereby suggesting he would be stronger—while in the same breath expressing admiration for his Russian counterpart. He has earned gratitude from Moscow’s foes by providing Ukrainian government forces with offensive weapons, while throwing them into despair by hinting that Russia could legitimately hold on to Crimea. His recent attacks on the Nord Stream pipeline project (which could deal a devastating blow to Ukraine by providing Russia with an alternative route for its gas exports) provoke elation among some Ukrainians, while his simultaneous jibes at NATO fill them with angst. Many Ukrainians don’t know whether this White House will save or doom them.

The impact of the conflict on ordinary citizens, meanwhile, is adding up. More than 4 million people live in the conflict area of Donbas, experiencing food insecurity, unemployment, and lack of health care. On both sides of the front line, roughly 600,000 live in unsafe settlements, exposed to daily shelling, land mines, and restrictions on freedom of movement as well as basic services. On both sides, civilians despair that a dividing line with no preexisting cultural or political basis will fast become an almost irreversible fact of life.

Authorities in Kiev are doing far too little in response. They could take steps to show that they consider residents of separatist-held areas full citizens—victims rather than perpetrators of the conflict. They could facilitate access across the line of contact and ensure that those who live in the separatist republics avoid bureaucratic hassle and can receive government benefits. Instead, Kiev restricts their freedom of movement and access to state subsidies and services. The Ukrainian government’s use of force is often indiscriminate, causing harm to unarmed civilians. It has failed to commit to amnesty even for people (teachers, doctors, and the like) who are mere employees on the wrong side of the line and are in need of reassurance about their future. Too often officials brush aside any criticism as mere echoes of Russian propaganda.

Ukrainian leaders proffer their reasons: They do not wish to do anything that could provide a scintilla of legitimacy to separatist authorities or bankroll separatist rule. But neither the de facto authorities in the breakaway republics nor their sponsors in Moscow much care about how well or poorly residents fare. They hardly aspire to be models of good governance. It’s Ukraine’s own citizens who are made to pay the price. At this rate, if and when the time for reintegration comes, people on the eastern side of the line of separation are likely to view the return of Kiev’s writ to Donbas with more fear than relief.

For now, such talk generally falls on deaf ears. Officials in Kiev argue that they did not provoke the conflict: They say it is a war not among Ukrainians, but between Ukraine and a belligerent Russia. Its resolution, it follows, is out of their hands. Traveling across the country, one hears abundant theories about how the U.S., Russia, or the two together might end the conflict. For example, that Trump and Putin will strike a deal. That they will trade Syria for Ukraine or Crimea for Donbas. That sooner or later Russia will implode as did the Soviet Union before it, and the occupied territories will fall back into Ukraine’s lap. Or that Trump will flex his muscles, make Ukraine’s fate a priority, and get Putin to bend.

Fine theories all, but with little if any basis in fact. Putin has neither the will nor the capacity to expel Iran from Syria (the presumed Russian quid for the U.S. lifting-of-Ukraine-sanctions quo). Trump’s possible intent and erratic statements notwithstanding, it’s hard to imagine an American president formally acquiescing to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in exchange for its withdrawal from Donbas. Russia has undeniable structural weaknesses, but is nowhere near the brink. That leaves Ukrainians with Trump. But a Trump who cares sufficiently about the future of Ukraine would be a different kind of Trump, and a different Trump is one thing he repeatedly has shown he cannot be.

Ukrainian officials I spoke with are right that, for this crisis to be truly settled, fundamental issues that divide Moscow and the West will have to be addressed. But they are wrong if they think that it will happen soon enough, that time is on their side, or that deep internal divisions in a nation lacking a strong sense of identity played no part. They can wait for Putin to crumble or for Trump to mutate. There are far wiser and safer bets than those, and bets over which they enjoy greater control: reaching out to people on the other side of the line, addressing the humanitarian situation in Donbas, and initiating an inclusive national dialogue on what a necessary future settlement might look like.