Ukrainian troops in the Donbass
Recent Russian actions in Ukraine should come as no great surprise to those with even a rudimentary knowledge of post-Cold War Russian history. The Crimean annexation and the currently unfolding Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine fit in with a pattern of aggressive Russian behavior along its periphery over the past decade and a half.
Since Vladimir Putin’s ascent to power in 1999, Russian claims to its Cold War-era sphere of influence have increased markedly. In recent years, revenues from the export of the country’s abundant natural resource reserves—chiefly petroleum and natural gas—have allowed the Russian military to revamp and strengthen itself, and Mr. Putin to back up his country’s territorial claims with a real and present threat of force. As Nikolas Gvosdev of the US Naval War College pointed out earlier this year, “The intention [is] to be able to throw force around in the region and create ‘facts on the ground.’” Russia’s heavy-handed responses to Chechen violence in the early 2000’s, its role in the cyber-attacks carried out on Estonia in 2007, and its 2008 invasion of Georgia can all be viewed through this lens—training exercises for a revitalized Russian military.
Of all the former Soviet satellite states, Russia considers Ukraine to be the one with the most strategic and historic importance, and finds European and American attempts to pull it westward—both politically and economically—an unacceptable intrusion into Russia’s backyard.
The very name of the country—Ukraine—is derived from the Slavic ukraina, which translates roughly as borderlands. Indeed, for several hundred years, large swaths of what is now Ukraine have moved in and out of direct Russian control, but have nonetheless always been considered by Russia as part of its frontier. Specifically with reference to Crimea, this part of Ukraine has long been considered of great strategic importance—due to its sea access and naval bases—but also cultural importance—due to its status as a vacation destination for Russia’s political elite.
Russia has long seen itself as a Eurasian power, uniquely positioned to be the natural hegemon of the world’s largest contiguous landmass. Ukraine is the European anchor of a Eurasian Russia and to lose it would be highly detrimental to Russia’s aspirations to return to the ranks of the great powers, a desire expressed both explicitly and implicitly in Russian foreign policy white papers over the past two decades. While Russia’s desire to hold onto Ukraine is the short-term goal, in the long-term, Russia seeks to be accorded a level of respect befitting its self-proclaimed regional hegemonic status—meaning it is consulted by other world powers on major global issues, and granted a sphere of influence around its borders.
Such expectations and desires are evidenced in clear fashion by Russia’s recent involvement in the Middle East. Weapons sales to Syria and Iraq, nuclear technology sales to Iran, and heavy diplomatic involvement in the Syrian civil war all demonstrate Russia’s desire to return to the fore of global politics.
As a Russian-backed separatist movement now turns into an outright invasion, Russian calculations have become as transparent as the little green men of Crimea. Arrogant as it may have been, Putin’s claim recently that, if he so desired, Kiev could be taken in two weeks was no great exaggeration. A military occupation of Ukraine is not the goal, however. If eastern Ukraine gains autonomy as part of a ceasefire deal, or remains in a perpetual state of low intensity conflict, Ukraine will undoubtedly be unable to join the EU and/or NATO. Such an outcome—as occurred in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008—would undoubtedly suit Russia just fine, as Russia is ill-disposed to take on the economic and political responsibility that the annexation of such a significant new portion of territory would imply.
The steady creep of the EU and NATO into Russia’s perceived sphere of influence—particularly in Eastern Europe and Georgia—the U.S.’s presence in Central Asia since 2001, and a host of other perceived slights and threats have come to a head with the crisis in Ukraine. Russia has drawn a line in the sand and dared the West to cross it. Whether Western powers respond to Russian aggressiveness with increased ties with Poland, the Baltic states, and other Central Asian countries remains to be seen. With the Ukrainian military on the run, one has to wonder who is playing chess and who is playing checkers.
 (the previous portion of this paragraph, as with much of the blog, is derived from: Brzezinski, Zbigniew. The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives. New York, NY: Basic, 1997. Print; and Mankoff, Jeffrey. Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009. Print)
Chris Newton is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame, pursuing a one-year fellowship with AVSI Foundation in Juba, South Sudan.
Image Attribution: “OSCE SMM Monitoring the Movement of Heavy weaponry in Eastern Ukraine” by OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, licensed under CC BY 2.0