On Ukraine’s Presidential Election, Suspect Referendums, and Why Sanctions Aren’t Changing Putin’s Behavior

As Ukraine prepares for a presidential election in ten days, pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine continue to assert their right to split from the country. Talks on Wednesday sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe ended in Kyiv with only an “agreement in principle” to continue the talks in Donetsk, capital of the restive region of the same name that separatists have declared a sovereign republic. Here’s some of what Brookings experts have been saying about the continuing crisis.

Clifford Gaddy, a senior fellow and co-author of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, told Deutsche Welle that western sanctions on Russia “have caused pain” and have made an impact on Russia’s economy, but they will not change Russia’s behavior. “They are completely ineffectual,” he said, “And stronger sanctions won’t do it either.”

They can endure more pain than we possibly can dole out to them and more pain than these sanctions will cause us because they will. It’s Russian history, it’s Russian culture, it’s the Russian psychology. There is basically a cult of suffering that is part of the national narrative, the national identity. Nobody has ever forced Russians to their knees and accept being submissive to an outside power. They will fight to the last man.

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“Both the United States and NATO have been clear that neither is prepared to go to war with Russia over Ukraine,” Senior Fellow Steven Pifer told MintPress News. “However,” he continued, “there is concern—both here and in Europe—in that when Vladimir Putin used force to take Crimea from Ukraine in March, that really broke a fundamental rule of the post-World War II order in Europe, which is that big states shouldn’t use military force to take territory from small states.”

Bruce Jones, senior fellow and author of Still Ours to Lead: America, Rising Powers, and the Tension between Rivalry and Restraint, writes of Russia in the context of the “BRICs” countries—Brazil, Russia, India and China (and sometimes South Africa). He says they all, even Russia, “recognize that the United States, buttressed by its allies, is still an enduring economic and military heavyweight.” He explains:

That’s almost certainly true even of Russian President Vladimir Putin who saw the Western order spreading into Ukraine and Russian interests losing out. But Russia is the odd man out in the BRICs grouping. Russia is only a “rising” power in that it’s been recovering from the astonishing depths of economic collapse that accompanied the end of the Soviet Union. Already a high-income country and already possessing key geopolitical tools—a large army, nuclear weapons, and a veto in the UN Security Council—Russia’s focus for the past fifteen years has been on restoring its devastated economy. Its integration into the western-led order has only ever been hesitant and partial and it’s the only one of the BRICs that actively tried to use the global financial crisis to weaken the West. This endeavour was blocked—by China.

“Of all the BRICs,” Jones, writes, “only Russia appears to have finally decided to weight strategic rivalry over the economic and transnational interests that drive restraint.”

Read the full piece here.

Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, spoke on PBS NewsHour after the referendum in Donetsk and Luhansk, saying that “I’m not sure people knew what they were voting for.” He added that, “By all appearances:

this was a referendum organized by the separatists; the separatists ran the vote; there were no credible observers; lots of reports of multiple voting. The central electoral commission of Ukraine refused to give them updated voted lists so they were not working off any new voters’ lists. I suspect that a lot of the people who turned out did vote yes, but the biggest figure to question is the turnout figure, because there have been several polls in the last two or three months that have shown that even in eastern Ukraine, 70 percent of the population does not want to leave Ukraine.

Pifer also guessed that Russia and the separatists will attempt to disrupt the upcoming presidential election in eastern Ukraine to “cast doubt on the election” and deny “the Ukrainians the ability to have a more stable and legitimized democratic president.”

On European Union and U.S. sanctions, Pifer observed that while they are having an impact on Russia’s economy, they “have not yet succeeded in their primary political goal which is to get Vladimir Putin to change his political course with regard to Ukraine.” More robust sanctions are needed, Pifer said.

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Here’s some of what scholars are saying on Twitter:

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research and commentary archive on Ukraine