KYIV: Ukrainian citizens study maps of local bomb shelters as Russia strengthens its forces on land and sea, while the United States imposes sanctions and issues tough statements. But the question remains: what are the objectives of Russian President Vladimir Putin in this crisis. What, people ask, does the former KGB lieutenant colonel hope to gain by threatening a full-scale invasion of his neighbor and former vassal state?
Whether war between Ukraine and Russia breaks out or not, the fact remains that Putin has a deep desire to “make Russia great again” – if necessary by invading its neighbors and destabilizing the entire region. Understand that the primordial imperative of Putin’s reign can be the singular element in the formulation of a policy towards Moscow.
Russia was expected to invade Ukraine within days. The speculation followed weeks of escalating tensions between the two countries, an increase in the number of airspace violations by the Moscow military and a general feeling in the capital that armed conflict could erupt. at any time. The build-up of Moscow forces at the border is the largest since Russia captured Crimea in 2014.
Speaking to Deutsche Welle, Ukrainian Ambassador to the UK and former Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko described the degree to which the level of fear in Ukraine has increased in recent days.
“What we fear most is a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Today, the Kyiv authorities released the bomb shelter map to the public, just in case. People began to buy imperishable foods. So that is how high expectations and fears are in Ukraine. “
What has been credited with holding back (for now) such a nightmare scenario is an 11am phone call between Putin and US President Joe Biden on April 13. The two leaders have reportedly agreed to a bilateral summit in the coming months to discuss how to defuse. these tensions. The next day EUCOM Commander USAF General Tod Wolters told the House Armed Services Committee that there was only a “low to medium” risk that Russia would launch. an invasion. (Of course, generals and other leaders often misjudged an adversary’s intentions.)
The growing presence of the Russian military on the border with Ukraine in both the eastern Donbass region and in the Crimea – as well as parallel naval reinforcement – have observers wonder for how long this “weak atmosphere” to medium ”will continue to be the case.
Moscow’s military presence on Ukraine’s borders is expected to “reach 56 battalion tactical groups with 110,000 troops,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Andrii Taran told the European Parliament’s Security and Defense Sub-Committee. The head of the defense ministry also assessed Russia’s naval deployments in the Black and Azov seas as being designed to “block important trade routes in international waters”. The lion’s share of Ukraine’s $ 103 billion in foreign trade last year was transferred through commercial ocean freight.
According to the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, the Russian Navy will have assembled an armada of 50 warships by the end of April – thanks to additional ships arriving from the Caspian and Baltic fleets. And the ships of the Baltic and Caspian units are equipped to organize amphibious landings at the Ukrainian cost.
A bad neighborhood
The current crisis with Ukraine is the continuation of a long post-Soviet Russian tradition of unhappy interactions with the former USSR republics that it borders:
- In 2007, Russian hackers waged a cyber war against the small Baltic nation of Estonia for 22 days.
- In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia; it still occupies two northern provinces which were taken in the initial stages of the fighting.
- Russia’s little Slavic neighbor Belarus remains locked in a military alliance with Moscow-controlled Russia – the country being periodically occupied by Russian troops during war exercises.
- The Transnistrian region of the Republic of Moldova has remained independent – largely thanks to Russian support in the 1990s for a separatist movement.
But it is Ukraine that has been the number one target of Putin’s new-age imperial ambitions. He has always refused to recognize the legitimacy of Ukraine’s independence, claiming that Ukraine is not a “real country” and that it will always be part of the “Russian world”. This prompted Putin to make some notable attempts to force Ukrainians to comply with his wish to continue being a docile colony of Moscow.
Most notable was the shutdown by Russia of Ukraine’s gas tap in the winter of 2006. This came a year after the resumption in January 2005 of a previously fraudulent presidential vote rejected by the Ukrainian Prime Minister. of the time, Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Moscow candidate Putin preferred. Four years later, Putin won when the former prime minister finally managed to become president of Ukraine.
Yanokovych openly began to take measures that benefited Russia far more than its own people. Two major examples were its brute-force restructuring of Ukraine’s defense industrial sector to better integrate it into Russian industry, and then parliament’s push into scrapping plans for Ukraine to join the NATO alliance.
At the end of 2013, a last-minute reversal of Yanukovych’s promise to put Ukraine on the path to EU membership resulted in winter on fire. This Maidan revolution forced the pro-Moscow president to flee the country in early 2014. Shortly after his abdication, Russia invaded the still occupying Crimea and started a seven-year war in the eastern region. of Donbass in Ukraine which continues at a low boil to this day.
Putin’s near-obsession with Ukraine remaining under Moscow’s control is motivated by several factors.
The first and most important of these is that Ukraine is the centerpiece of its 30-year crusade to compensate for the collapse of the USSR, heralding the end of Russia as an imperial power.
The late Zbigniew Brzezinski, Polish-American statesmen and former national security adviser to the Carter administration, once observed: “It cannot be overemphasized that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to exist. be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.
Second, there is the economic decline of Russia. Already in a financial mess due to years of low oil prices, he is now reeling from the impact of COVID-19 and a host of other ailments; The year 2020 was marked by a weak economic performance in 11 years. These conditions have resulted in an increasing number of anti-Putin protests in which he is openly denounced as a thief and a criminal.
This virtually destroyed all of Putin’s remaining possibilities of offering an attractive “eastern alternative” to Ukraine’s aspirations to join the EU. Ukraine isn’t alone in wanting to stay out of Moscow’s orbit, either. In other neighboring republics, a slew of pro-Moscow leaders have been dismissed or suffered significant setbacks.
This fueled Putin’s other phobia – born in his time in the former East Germany where he witnessed the collapse of the Berlin Wall, later followed after his return to Leningrad by the humiliating end. of the USSR itself. In the words of Russian analyst Masha Gessen, these events reinforced “Putin’s opinion that large numbers of people on the streets signal the end of a regime.”
Although they won’t publicly admit it, Putin and his cronies have long realized that the regime in Russia was going to be progressively more difficult to maintain – and could even end up collapsing. Thus, their goal for some time has been to “undermine the EU’s political project because it goes against their world view,” Tara Varna, head of the European External Relations Council (ECFR) told Paris, in a 2019 interview.
Another ECFR analyst, Gustav Gressel, said Russia considers Europe “too weak to be a superpower” and will not survive. “Russia is only waiting for the time to come when the EU and NATO collapse,” he explained.
But events of the past two years have shown no sign that the EU or NATO would collapse before Putin’s ruling order does. This appears to have left the use of military force as the only remaining option for Putin. This is what prevents Putin from massing troops and warships around Ukraine’s borders when the country poses no military threat to Russia. The threat Ukraine poses is that it will still exist as a state and as a people with a national identity, long after the collapse of the Purin regime.