Through the Looking-Glass: Russian Motive in the Ukraine Crisis

The crisis in Ukraine, which grew out of national divides created by the ouster of then-President Viktor Yanukovich, has been followed closely by media outlets around the world. These outlets pay much attention to events as they unfold, doing their best to report breaking news on a variety of topics, including the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the role of Russian troops fighting alongside pro-Russian rebels, ceasefire negotiations and their ensuing violations. However, while these outlets may be excellent sources of timely information, they often neglect to pay proper attention to the driving forces behind the events on which they report. When these forces, namely Russian motive and strategy, are discussed, they are often done so simplistically, with territorial expansionism being portrayed as the culmination of Russian motive and strategy.

Image courtesy of ВО Свобода © 2014 some rights reserved

Image courtesy of ВО Свобода © 2014 some rights reserved

This insistence that Russian strategy is centred on territorial expansion does not fit with Russia’s behaviour thus far. For example, because Russia’s military is numerically superior to Ukraine’s, even after the substantial military build-ups necessitated by the crisis in eastern Ukraine it seems unlikely that Ukraine would be able to hold off Russia for long in a traditional conflict. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has claimed, albeit in a private phone call with José Manuel Barroso, that Russia could capture Kiev in two weeks if he so wished. While it could be argued that Russian leadership ruled out direct military conflict out of fear of reprisals from the West, the prospect of armed conflict would, according to some scholars, likely not be readily be embraced by either the European Union (EU) or the war-weary United States.[1] Likewise, the threat of sanctions would be insufficient to deter a direct Russian invasion, as evidenced by the negligible effects of current sanctions on Russia’s foreign policy. Therefore, the fact that Russia has opted not to conduct a direct invasion of Ukraine, which would be the most efficient method of acquiring additional territory, suggests that Russia’s actions towards Ukraine are driven by a motive other than that of territorial expansion.

Having established that ‘territorial expansionism’ is an overly simplistic description of Russian motive and strategy towards Ukraine, it seems prudent to compare Russia’s current involvement with Ukraine to some of their previous interactions with Georgia and Moldova. The self-proclaimed independent state of Transnistria is a separatist region that is internationally recognized as part of Moldova and benefits immensely from Russian support. Moreover, Russian politicians actively encouraged Transnistrians to seek their independence during the Transnistria War of 1992, a war in which the Russian army also assisted and trained separatist forces. While this certainly draws similarities to the current crisis in Ukraine (the active involvement of Russian “volunteer” forces, in addition to the previously-mentioned Russian role), Russia’s conflict with Georgia in 2008 is probably a more enlightening comparison. The Russo-Georgian conflict started over Georgian actions against Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgian territories that proclaimed themselves to be independent republics. Claiming to be acting in defence of Russian-speakers in Georgia, the Russian army invaded Georgia and occupied the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, territories in which Russian military forces have been present ever since. In this case, the Russian invasion was justified by the Russian government as peacekeeping, and Russian soldiers were labeled peacekeepers. At the start of the current crisis, pro-Russian rebels, having seized buildings in Donetsk, Lugansk, and Kharkiv, called for Russia to send peacekeepers to protect them and insure the survival of their self-proclaimed independent republics, as they had done in the Georgian case. However, Russia has not officially sent peacekeepers or publically provided anything more than “humanitarian aid”, which clearly implies that Russia is pursuing a more subtle and tactful approach than before.

Moreover, while Russia’s conflicts in Georgia and Moldova share some qualities with the current crisis in Ukraine, the current violence in Ukraine has been widely accepted as having a greater impact on global politics. In much of the discussion on Ukraine, a great deal of attention has been paid to Ukraine’s attempts to create ties with the EU. While these attempts are undoubtedly significant, both Georgia and Moldova pursued similar steps to European integration as Ukraine, yet Russian actions against Ukraine have arguably surpassed those against both Georgia and Moldova. Indeed, a large part of the reason why the crisis in Ukraine has garnered so much worldwide attention is due to Ukraine’s importance to stability in Eastern Europe. Because Ukraine is one of Europe’s larger states and a conveyor of around twenty per cent of Europe’s gas supplies, it has immense political and strategic importance, leading some to label its security as a prerequisite for peaceful relations between Russia and Europe.[2] Given this understanding of the importance of Ukraine’s security, why has Russia taken actions to destabilise Ukraine? Simply put, Russia sees the destabilisation of Ukraine as preferable to a Ukraine that is part of either the EU or the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). This outlook moulded Russia’s base motive—a desire to keep NATO and the EU out of Russia’s ‘near abroad’—and played a significant role in determining how Russia would attempt to coerce Ukraine to remain apart from western powers.

Harkening back to the examples of Georgia and Moldova, where Russian forces currently occupy or guarantee the security of self-proclaimed independent republics, it is easy to see what Russia hopes to accomplish in Ukraine. These frozen conflicts in Georgia and Moldova serve as constant reminders to their governments of Russia’s military might, and the fate that would befall them should they seek further integration with the West. Doubtlessly, the separatist efforts in Ukraine—and their substantial Russian backing—are designed to do the same to Ukraine. This “spectacle of dominance” aims to ensure that Russia’s ‘near abroad’ is comprised of states plagued by conflicts controlled by Russia, rendering them “the 21st-century equivalent of vassal states.”[3]

However, as was previously mentioned, Russia’s strategic approach to Ukraine is undeniably different and worthy of much discussion in and of itself. In the spring of 2014, self-appointed pro-Russian officials in Crimea seize government buildings and hold a referendum to secede from Ukraine with the backing of ‘little green men’—covert Russian soldiers—and Russia later incorporates the Crimea back into Russia (to whom it had belonged until 1954). This marks a significant departure from Russian actions in both Georgia and Moldova, as the formal annexation of Crimea demonstrates real control of what had previously been another sovereign state’s territory, as opposed to the de facto control that Russia exercises over South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Transnistria. The decision to pursue a “legitimate” seizure of Crimea, in the eyes of the Russian state, is, at least in part, due to the fact that Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based out of Sevastopol, a Crimean port city. By incorporating Crimea into the existing Russian state, Putin succeeded in guaranteeing the relative safety of Russia’s naval power should Ukraine succeed in becoming a part of the EU or NATO.

Having achieved this aim and provided for the safety of Russia’s naval power, Putin proceeded to attempt to halt Ukraine’s drift toward western alliances by creating frozen conflicts as in Georgia and Moldova. Though pro-Russia separatists had been combating government forces since April 2014, Russia only became directly involved after the Ukrainian government forces began having operational victories. According to the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), direct Russian involvement began in late June and early July with artillery fire from across the Russian border, before growing into the combat deployment of Russian troops in mid-August, which has been more or less constant since then.[4] Despite these allegations of direct Russian involvement in the fighting in Ukraine, Russia has continuously denied that it is so much as facilitating the separatist forces, so who is to say that the Russian military is decidedly involved in Ukraine? Russians, as it turns out. The Open Russia organisation, started by the famous Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorovsky, has compiled information on the deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine, including where there units are based in Russia. While these soldiers could, hypothetically, be volunteers serving in Ukraine on their own volition, the Moscow Times has reported that “More than a dozen Russian military units linked by media reports to the fighting in eastern Ukraine have refused to disclose their casualty figures […]”,[5] which strongly indicates that they are attempting to conceal losses sustained during the fighting in Ukraine.

Part of the need to conceal Russian involvement in Ukraine stems from the afore-mentioned ‘spectacle of dominance,’ which only works as long as Russia retains an air of indisputable military supremacy, but another part comes from Russia’s desire to control the peace process. By playing the role of a third party, which is only possible by continuously denying its own involvement in Ukraine, Russia designates itself as the ‘intermediary’ between the separatists and the Ukrainian government. This position allows Russia to manipulate the peace process to provide for the continued existence of the self-proclaimed independent republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. This can be seen through the multiple attempts to create a lasting ceasefire between rebel and government forces. According to both the United States and Ukraine, Russia has used several of the cease-fires to either regroup for renewed offensives or to transfer weapons to pro-Russian forces. Russia, for its part, has accused Ukraine of violating the cease-fires. On the whole, however, the main effect of the attempted cease-fires has been to prolong the conflict by allowing the reinforcement of separatist forces, preventing the government from achieving a decisive military victory. One example of cease-fires being merely a strategic consideration designed to delay a Ukrainian victory is the Minsk cease-fire agreement in September, which was broken the following day when the shelling of Mariupol began. By constantly angling for peace, Russia is able to better guarantee the continued existence of instability in Eastern Ukraine, creating another frozen conflict in Russia’s ‘near abroad.’

Returning once more to the importance of frozen conflicts and the ‘spectacle of dominance,’ it is important to consider how far Russia will go to support its aura of regional supremacy. The fact that Russian forces are already sustaining noticeable losses, and less-capable separatist forces are sustaining even greater losses, may force Russia to change its tactics in Ukraine. Here, of course, it is important to note that while Russian tactics may change, their motive and aim will remain the same—to keep the West out of Russia’s ‘near abroad.’ Should Russia’s current brand of meddling in Eastern Ukraine prove incapable of creating an enduring frozen conflict in Ukraine, it is possible, though unlikely, that Russia would attempt a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russian law provides for the military to be utilised in the defence of Russian citizens or ‘compatriots’, categories under which many in Eastern Ukraine find themselves. While this legal justification for formal military action in sovereign territories would likely not be accepted by the international community as in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations’ ban on offensive wars, the West would have a very hard time denouncing Russia’s actions, as any formal Russian invasion of Ukraine would be couched in the language of the US-created ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P). Moreover, much of the Russian population supports the government’s efforts to increase their influence in the ‘near abroad.’ Because of this support, and the claims of hypocrisy that the West would face if it denounced Russia’s actions to protect its citizens and ‘compatriots’, it is not inconceivable that Russia’s involvement it Ukraine will grow. Should this happen, and should Russia succeed in creating a frozen conflict in Ukraine, Ukraine will undoubtedly face a harsher geopolitical reality than it does today.

A Ukraine home to a frozen conflict controlled by Russia would lose much of its rightful autonomy as a sovereign state, to the point where it would exist as a state beholden to Russia’s every whim. Such a future is on the cards for Ukraine, which would be rendered unable to join an alliance to guarantee its own security, either out of fear of total Russian invasion/occupation or simply because no alliance would be willing to accept a state that could not even provide for its security within its own borders.[6] Likewise, Ukrainian acquiescence to Russian interests would, while preventing the creation of another frozen conflict, leave Ukraine just as vulnerable to Russia as states like Georgia or Moldova. Given these two options, a war with Russia that Ukraine would almost certainly lose or to submit to Russian strategic interests, Ukraine is in quite a dire place.

There are other options though, other outcomes that could secure a brighter and safer future for Ukraine. First among these, and by far the most straightforward, is for Ukraine to continue with the path it is on, fighting pro-Russian rebels and Russian forces on its eastern boarder. While Ukraine has largely succeeded thus far in holding off the separatist forces, prolonged periods of armed conflict have dire effects on even the strongest nations, and it is unclear just how long Ukraine will be able to sustain operations in the contested eastern regions. Perhaps the most amenable solution, to all parties, is for the Eastern European states not already irreversibly aligned with NATO and the EU to form their own alliance free of the West and free of Russia. While such an alliance would certainly not carry as much weight as one based around a great power, it would better provide for the security of those states situated near Russia’s boarder while also, theoretically, retaining their neutrality in relations between the West and Russia. This course of action maximises stability in Eastern Europe by eliminating the raison d’être of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine by keeping western institutions like the EU and NATO at an unthreatening distance from Russian territory. Moreover, this course of action saves the Ukraine the humiliation of caving to Russian demands while simultaneously removing Russia’s rationale for backing the separatist movement and increasing Ukraine’s security through regional alliances. As stated at the beginning of this article, Ukraine acts as a linchpin of stability in Eastern Europe and between Europe and Russia. Ukraine, therefore, has the ability to inspire other states in the region to form together in a regional alliance to protect their own mutual interests and, given the precedent set by Russia’s actions in annexing Crimea, other states have motivation to join.

In the end, it is simply necessary to recognize the complexities of the current crisis in Ukraine. Russia’s earlier involvement in creating frozen conflicts in Georgia and Moldova lend credence to the notion that Russia’s main motivation in its dealings with Ukraine is not a desire for greater territory, but rather a desire for greater security. Though seemingly counterintuitive, Russia, by destabilising Ukraine, incurs moderate security threats while preventing what it perceives to be the existential threat of western expansion into its ‘near abroad.’ However, this policy is based on Russia’s ability to create frozen conflicts while maintaining the ‘spectacle of dominance.’ Should Russia prove unable to maintain its image of effortless dominance, the nature of Russian involvement in Ukraine would change to a more active and public role, confronting Ukraine directly with an existential threat. Presented with this eventuality, it seems that the optimal strategy for Ukraine to pursue to find a permanent solution to the conflict is to give up integration with the EU and NATO and to form a regional alliance of non-Russian states. The reasoning being that the neutrality of such an alliance in relations between Russia and the West would cause Russia to no longer consider these states a threat, while also allowing them to better provide for their own security. While this brief examination of the crisis in Ukraine merely scratches the surface of the complexities of said crisis, hopefully it sheds some light on otherwise neglected facets of relations between Ukraine, Russia, and the West. As to how the conflict will end? Only time will tell…

[1] Dunn, Elizabeth Cullen and Michael S. Bobick. “The Empire Strikes Back: War without war and occupation without occupation in the Russian sphere of influence.” American Ethnologist 41, no. 3 (2014): 409.

[2] Karatnycky, Adrian and Alexander J. Motyl. “The Key to Kiev: Ukraine’s Security Means Europe’s Stability.” Foreign Affairs 88, no. 3 (2009): 106-107, 115.

[3] Dunn, Elizabeth Cullen and Michael S. Bobick, op. cit., 406, 410.

[4] Sutyagin, Igor. “Briefing Paper: Russian Forces in Ukraine.” Royal United Services Institute (2015): 1.

[5] “Russian Military Units Linked to Ukraine Hide Casualty Data — Report.” Moscow Times, 12 February 2015.

[6] Dunn, Elizabeth Cullen and Michael S. Bobick, op. cit., 410.