Russian Strategy in Ukraine: Putin’s Goals


-Sebastien Roblin
Ukraine—once merely the topic of news articles about entrenched corruption and failed democratic reform—has been sucked these last 7 months into a vortex of civil war and international geopolitics.  Peace has ostensibly broken out  in recent weeks following a treaty, although not yet at key points of the Ukrainian battlefield—and meanwhile, acrimony and saber rattling prevail between Russia and the West on a scale unknown since the Cold War, while a wall of economic sanctions now divide the two.  How did this come to pass?
I would argue we should look at the development of the Ukrainian conflict not as an accident of passions but as the outcome of Russia assuming calculated risks in pursuing its strategic goals.  Putin has employed deception and proxies to secure objectives which seemed achievable, and escalated with more overt force–though at a significant cost–where initial ventures did not prove adequate. 


So what are Russia’s goals?

We can identify two distinct desired outcomes in Russian foreign policy regarding Ukraine.  The first is, and has long been, to keep Ukraine in Russia’s “sphere of influence.”  In its history, Russia has suffered repeated, devastating invasions from the West—from Poland and Sweden in the 17th and 18thcentury, Napoleon in the 19th, and Germany in the 20th.  Nearly all the Western powers (including England, the United States, and France) intervened unsuccessfully on Russian soil against the Bolshevik revolution.  Therefore, Russian foreign policy has long been obsessed with maintaining a ring of “buffer states”—friendly governments that not only pose no threat to Russian security, but that also interpose a geographic obstacle to invasion. Unsurprisingly, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of the European side of the Soviet empire was eager to stop serving as a buffer, with the notable exception of authoritarian Belarus.  (The Asian wing of buffer states, by contrast, have remained largely loyal Russian allies with the exception of Belarus and, briefly, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan). But as these East European states peeled off to join the EU and NATO, the Eastward expansion of these organizations into former Russian territory was perceived in Moscow with alarm, even during the 1990s

Ukraine is the largest of the European buffer states—and the one most closely intermingled in population and geography with Russia.  Power has flitted back and forth between the pro-Western and pro-Russian factions in Ukraine (based in the country’s West and East respectively) since it was granted independence, and the lumbering and corrupt nature of Ukraine’s democracy prevented either from governing for long with popular support, as was witnessed with the ultimate demise of the pro-Western Orange Revolution of 2004.  When in the winter of 2013 the pro-Russian President Yanukovych rejected a European trade pact in favor of a Russian trade union, what should have been a decisive Russian victory was undone by a mass protest movement (Euromaidan) culminating in a massacre on February 20th of 88 protesters by mysterious uniformed gunmen, followed by the flight of Yanukovych’s government in February and the ascension of the pro-Western faction to power.  To the Russians, this was as an illegal Western-sponsored coup that had the sinister effect of expanding European and American influence in their back yard.


Defending their Citizens Abroad
The second, newer goal of Putin’s intervention has been to reclaim territories that the Russians long had privately felt ought to be theirs.  When Russia began expanding into an empire between the 17th and 20thcentury, regions inhabited by diverse ethnic groups were occupied and colonized by Russians—and on some occasions, this was accompanied by resistance and ethnic cleansing of the natives, such as the depopulation of Ukraine as a result of Stalin’s agricultural policies and the expulsion of the Tatars from Crimea during the 1940s.  The Socialist Republics instituted under the Soviet Union recognized the traditional inhabitants of certain regions such as Ukraine or Georgia, but their political independence from Moscow had always been minimal.  Thus, many communities in Eastern Ukraine have a majority Russian population.
Image courtesy of World History 2005. Note that modern Ukraine includes territory acquired by Russian between 1584 (modern Eastern Ukraine)-1796 (Crimea, Western Ukraine).


The fact that the USSR’s administrative divisions were peeled off into separate countries when the Soviet Union broke up is felt to have been unfair by many Russians, as Putin explained in his Crimea address, and left many of the countries in Russia’s periphery with large Russian populations, some of which have resided there for several hundred years.  Of course, other ethnic groups in these regions feel that these territories belong to them historically, and that the Russian populations are there as a result of Russian imperialism.


Conflicts involving ethnically Russian populations in former Soviet republics have repeatedly seen the intervention of the Russian military on their behalf, another policy that began well before Putin became head of state.  The same tactics that we see today in Ukraine were employed in civil wars in Georgian Abkhazia, Georgian Ossetia, and Moldova during the 1990s: an influx of Russian military equipment and “volunteers” in support of separatist movements, the issuing of Russian passports to the citizens of the break-away regions, and the ultimate intervention of Russian peacekeepers deployed in such a manner to shield separatist rebels from the national governments of the states in question.  (The Russians, for their part, argue that NATO’s intervention on behalf of Bosnia and later Kosovo was done to similar effect and under a similar humanitarian pretense.)  After the Russian intervention, these conflicts froze into lasting stalemates, with the separatists establishing their own de-facto governments recognized by Russia alone. 


Ukraine, unlike Georgia or Moldova, had not experienced violent conflict between the Ukrainian majority and the Russian minority before 2014; though tensions and some separatist sentiment pre-date recent events, violent incidents against Russians were rare and there was certainly no insurgency before the Russian seizure of Crimea. But from Putin’s perspective the rejection of Russian hegemony that occurred with the triumph of the Maidan protests in 2014 was an unacceptable slap in the face which furthermore left Ukraine with bitter internal political divisions.  Certainly the United States and Europe had supported the protests rhetorically, but Putin perceived the protest’s victory as a foreign-driven conspiracy which could potentially end the tolerable economic and military partnership between Russia and Ukraine and open the latter up to the deployment of NATO military forces on Russia’s border.  (There is debate as to what extent Putin believes his own propaganda, or whether the conspiracy rhetoric is purely for domestic consumption; I think there is a convincing case to be made that the former is true.)


Russia had seen its goal of keeping Ukraine in its sphere of influence politically defeated in the most public manner, and that country spin further out of its orbit than ever before; it was then that Putin resolved he would pursue with military force and covert operations what political and economic incentives had failed to secure.


The Unstoppable Military Option
Putin’s decision to employ force was based on a correct and rational understanding of United States and European military realities: namely, the U.S. and E.U. were under no obligation to defend Ukraine, Ukraine is geographically exposed to Russia and distant from Western forces, and nobody is insane enough to risk war with Russia, a nuclear power able to strike anywhere in the world, over an ailing former-Soviet satellite state.  Ukraine itself, having been previously run by a pro-Russian government, had not oriented its military to defend against a Russian invasion.  Hawks in the United States have not hesitated to criticize the lack of military response from the West, but NATO would hardly be protecting the security of its own member states by starting a war over a territory it had never been in a position (politically, logistically, or militarily) to defend in the first place.


Of course, Putin anticipated that Western retaliation would come in the form of political and economic sanctions.  However, the weight of such sanctions and international opprobrium could be mitigated if he could muddy the political waters of the conflict and achieve his objectives swiftly and bloodlessly with the apparent popular support from the locals of Eastern Ukraine.  The trick, then, was to achieve his goals using no more force than necessary and admitting as little responsibility as possible, with the understanding that NATO would not possibly intervene against his proxies, and that the Ukrainian opposition would fold just like the Georgian Army did in 2008 under Russian pressure.


Putin’s use of deception and covert operations proved skillful, and he correctly evaluated NATO’s unwillingness to intervene, but he did not anticipate how hard the Ukrainians would fight to hold onto their territory after the initial surprise of the Crimean invasion, and has ended up paying a far higher cost than first envisioned.  Ultimately, though, Putin has retained the ability to militarily escalate as far as he wishes, and has shown himself unready to publically back down in the face of the economic and political consequences.


The next part of this piece will evaluate how Russia pursued its two goals through the seizure of Crimea and supporting Russian separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine, and how it was found necessary to fall back onto more forceful contingency plans as a result of Ukrainian resistance.

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