What are Russia’s motives and ambitions in annexing Crimea?
The unfolding crisis in Ukraine has brought the world to the brink of a new Cold War. As Russia and Ukraine tussle for Crimea and the eastern regions, relations between Putin and the West have reached an all-time low. How did we get here?
Released today, Richard Sakwa’s Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands unpicks the story of Russo-Ukrainian relations and traces the path to the recent disturbances through five ‘revolutions’, which have forced Ukraine, a country internally divided between East and West, to choose between closer union with Europe or its historic ties with Russia.
In this exclusive extract, Sakwa explores Russian logic and rationality in the ongoing dispute over the Crimean peninsula.
One of the most contentious issues in the current Ukraine crisis and the annexation of Crimea is assessing Russia’s motives and ambitions. The task is made all the harder since the goals have undoubtedly shifted over time, and there was no unity within the Russian elite on what, fundamentally, it was trying to achieve in Ukraine. Policy has changed and evolved in response to the dramatic events.
Nevertheless, a number of entrenched views – some would call them myths – need to be examined. The idea that Russia opposed Ukraine’s association with the EU needs to be modified by an understanding that the struggle prior to the planned signing of the Association Agreement sought to align Ukraine with the EEU, but not necessarily to force Ukraine to join it. In part, the campaign was an attempt to get the EU to engage in a genuine dialogue about the conditions on which Ukraine would sign up to association with the EU, including security issues. This campaign was conducted in a typically heavy-handed and alienating manner, with bans, boycotts and the like accompanied by some ferocious rhetoric from Sergei Glazyev and others, but some genuine issues were raised. Above all, Russia repeatedly warned that it would take measures to stop poor-quality Ukrainian and relabelled EU goods flooding into the Russian market once better-quality EU goods had free access to Ukraine. The compatibility of two free-trade areas is a matter that should, and could, have been sorted out calmly by technocrats on both sides but instead became politicised.
Further, there is the view that Putin’s policy reflected ‘Russia’s imperialist ambitions and aspirations to restore the former Soviet empire’. These ‘assessments are quite simplistic and often erroneous regarding the interpretation of the sources of Russia’s behaviour and intentions’.  There is a pervasive myth that Russia from the first sought to place Ukraine under its direct control, rather than merely trying to influence its decisions. If this were indeed the goal, then the moment following Yanukovych’s ouster on 22 February would have been ideal. The Ukrainian military reforms between 2010 and 2012 left the armed forces in a state of disarray, and defence of a legitimately elected president could have acted as the rallying call. On 22 February, at a meeting in Kharkov, the PoR called on local councils to take power. Yanukovych had rather unwisely left Kiev to attend the conference, and soon after fled to Rostov, from whence he urged intervention to crush the Maidan revolution.  If Russia really did want to place Ukraine under Russian control, then there could have been no better time than this.
Third, there is little evidence that the annexation of Crimea followed by unrest in the east and the south was part of a long-established plan to separate ‘Novorossiya’ from Ukraine. Russia undoubtedly probed and exploited Ukrainian vulnerabilities, but its end goals were not clear. Once Crimea was taken, there was every incentive to stop there, but the movement within Ukraine for ‘federalisation’ gathered pace, raising genuine concerns about the imposition of a narrow form of monist nationhood on the rest of the country. There had already been the aggressive, and incompetent, Ukrainisation experience of the Yushchenko period following the Orange Revolution, and the early acts of the February regime raised fears, intensified after the 2 May Odessa massacre, of an even more militant version coming to power. As Andranik Migranyan argues: ‘if Russia preserved Crimea and the rest of Ukraine fell under the control of anti-Russian nationalists in Kiev, under the command of Washington, the outcome of the fight for Ukraine would obviously be serious defeat for Russia.’ The Russians would be forced out of the country, and the rest would be ‘forcefully ‘ukrainianized’’. No one has any illusions about the national-linguistic policy of the incumbent powers in Ukraine, should they prevail in the South and East of the country.’ 
The terrible point was that Russia was not a challenger at all. It was certainly an awkward neighbour, a difficult friend, testy and insecure, and beset by myriad internal difficulties and dreadfully unsure of its place in the world. But it was not a challenger in anything like the way that the Wilhelmine Reich had become in 1914, let alone Hitler’s Third Reich in 1939. It was a conservative and defensive power, in thrall to an increasingly traditionalist domestic ideology and certainly not challenging the bases of international law. Indeed, the very essence of its neo-revisionism was the proclaimed defence of the international law that it believed the Western powers regularly flouted. In his Direct Line session of 17 April, Putin insisted that Russia ‘had never intended to annex any territories. […] Quite the contrary, we were going to build our relations with Ukraine based on current geopolitical realities.’ It was only when the situation changed that the Russian Security Council agreed to support the ‘self-determination’ of the Crimean people. Putin insisted that the Crimean takeover had not been ‘pre-planned or prepared’, but he now admitted that ‘Russian servicemen did back the Crimean self-defence forces’, drawn from the ‘more than 20,000 wellarmed soldiers stationed in Crimea’. He also noted that in addition to the strategic importance of the Sevastopol base, there were ‘38 S-300 missile-launchers, weapons depots and rounds of ammunition. It was imperative to prevent even the possibility of someone using these weapons against civilians.’ In broad terms, he argued: ‘The intention to split Russia and Ukraine, to separate what is essentially a single nation in many ways, has been an issue of international politics for centuries.’  Of course, it was precisely this sort of ‘Malorussian’ thinking that so enraged the ‘Ukrainisers’, and one can see why.
On the other side, as Dmitry Trenin puts it:
The Kremlin absolutely could not ignore the developments in Ukraine, a country of utmost importance to Russia. The armed uprising in Kiev brought to power a coalition of ultranationalists and pro-Western politicians: the worst possible combination Moscow could think of.
Responding to the challenge entailed long-term conflict with the US, with Ukraine ‘the main battleground of that struggle. The main goal is to bar Ukraine from NATO, and the US military from Ukraine. Other goals include keeping the Russian cultural identity of Ukraine’s south and east, and keeping Crimea Russian.’  Putin repeatedly returned to the strategic challenge posed by developments in Ukraine. Meeting the press on 24 May, for example, he stressed:
Some of the events in Ukraine directly threaten our interests, first of all with regard to security. I’m talking about Ukraine’s potential accession to NATO. As I said earlier, such an accession could be followed by the deployment of missile strike systems in Ukraine, including Crimea. Should this happen, it would have serious geopolitical consequences for our country. In fact, Russia would be forced out of the Black Sea territory, a region for legitimate presence in which Russia has fought for centuries. And those who started the coup in Kiev – if they are indeed experts – should have thought about the consequences of their unlawful ambitions.
He rejected the notion that the breach over Ukraine represented the beginning of a new Cold War, arguing: ‘No one is interested in that and I don’t think it will happen.’ 
Addressing the Russian Security Council on 22 July, Putin reprised the standard Russian account:
Today we hear of ultimatums and sanctions. The very notion of state sovereignty is being washed out. Undesirable regimes, countries that conduct an independent policy or that simply stand in the way of somebody’s interests get destabilised. Tools used for this purpose are the so-called colour revolutions, or, in simple terms – takeovers instigated and financed from outside.
In his view, this was the case with Ukraine: ‘People came to power through the use of armed force and by unconstitutional means.’ He admitted that an election was held, but,
for some strange reason, power ended up again in the hands of those who either funded or carried out this takeover. Meanwhile, without any attempt at negotiations, they are trying to suppress by force that part of the population that does not agree with such a turn of events. At the same time they present Russia with an ultimatum: either you let us destroy the part of the population that is ethnically, culturally and historically close to Russia, or we introduce sanctions against you. This is a strange logic, and absolutely unacceptable, of course. 
There is little to suggest that there would be an attempt to ‘destroy’ the Russophone population, but after the ill-fated first acts of the February regime and the Odessa massacre there were undoubtedly increased concerns that, at the minimum, political and cultural marginalisation would be intensified.
By mid-May 2014 it looked as if the Ukrainian state was on the verge of collapse. At that point there was a clear retrenchment in the Russian position, usually attributed to the sanctions but more likely reflecting domestic struggles within Russia. Putin denounced the independence referendums in Donetsk and Lugansk held on 11 May, and Russia withdrew its forces from the Ukrainian border, then went on, albeit grudgingly, to accept the legitimacy of the presidential election on 25 May. Moscow had a clear strategic objective in taking over Crimea, above all the retention of the Sevastopol naval base, but this was lacking in the Donbas. Although Putin mentioned Novorossiya in his televised dialogue with Russian citizens on 17 April, he recognised the complexities of Ukrainian society, where even the predominantly Russian-speaking parts maintained an allegiance to Ukrainian statehood (although of a more pluralist sort), while the mixed Russo-Ukrainian Surzhyk-speaking regions had their own traditions that were distinct from Russia’s. If there had been a plan to create a Novorossiya dependency, then it would have appeared in speeches and policy statements earlier, if only to gather support for such a project among the relevant Ukrainian and Russian publics. Russia, quite simply, lacked any official plans to create such an entity, although of course it was part of the rhetoric of the roiling mass of domestic nationalist movements.
The federalisation of Ukraine was certainly a Russian goal, to temper the monism of the Ukrainisers, but breaking up the state was not part of the agenda. General Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR) suggested that Russia’s strategy was to re-establish parts of the pre-revolutionary Novorossiya territories arching across from the Donbas to Odessa, and then to link up with Transnistria, which would be definitively torn from Moldova. Fantasies of dismembering Ukraine and gaining either a friendly protectorate state on its borders or even the outright annexation of territories were certainly played out in the Russian media, but did not gain official support. If indeed Ukraine had collapsed, then Russia would undoubtedly have moved in, as would other states, to protect civilians, installations (especially nuclear power plants) and to re-establish order. Instead, Russian actions were an angry and ad hoc response to Yanukovych’s overthrow and the installation of an anti-Russian nationalistic government in Kiev, but rooted in a swelling tide of neo-revisionist sentiment. Cost considerations alone would have deterred all but the most intrepid of imperial expansionists. Russia could have done more to calm the situation in the Donbas, but the early actions of the Maidan government were no less inflammatory, and indeed genuinely threatening to many of Ukraine’s pluralists. The killings in Odessa on 2 May and Mariupol on 9 May stand as a stark warning of what could have happened elsewhere. As Mary Dejevsky points out, fear rather than aggression was the most plausible driver of Russian actions.  Even Obama after the annexation of Crimea noted that the move reflected weakness rather than strength, accompanied by Russia’s ‘centuries-old fear of encirclement’. ■
Frontline Ukraine is out now.