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Extract: Frontline Ukraine

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?  What are Russia’s Motives?

Sakwa explores Russian logic and rationality in the ongoing dispute over the Crimean peninsula in this exclusive extract.

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Russia’s Motives and Evolving Goals in the Ukraine Crisis

Contentious Assessments:

The ongoing debate on Russia’s motives and ambitions reveals a lack of unity within the Russian elite.

Reassessing Russia’s Opposition to the EU Association:

It is crucial to modify the notion that Russia opposed Ukraine’s EU association. Russia sought alignment with the EEU before the planned Association Agreement signing.

Campaign for Dialogue with the EU:

Russia aimed to engage the EU in a dialogue about Ukraine’s EU association, issuing warnings about preventing poor-quality Ukrainian goods from flooding the Russian market.

Assessing Putin’s Policy: Myth vs. Reality

Imperialist Ambitions?:

Views of Putin’s policy as reflective of ‘Russia’s imperialist ambitions’ are critiqued as simplistic and erroneous.

Myth of Direct Control:

A pervasive myth suggesting Russia initially aimed to place Ukraine under direct control is discussed in the context of an opportune moment after Yanukovych’s ouster.

Annexation of Crimea and Unrest in East/South:

The lack of evidence supporting a long-established plan to separate ‘Novorossiya’ and unclear end goals after taking Crimea are explored.

Federalization and Complexities within Ukraine

Federalization as a Russian Goal:

Russia’s goal to counter the Ukrainisers’ monism through federalization is discussed, emphasizing opposition to breaking up the state.

Concerns about ‘Ukrainianization’:

Concerns about imposing a narrow form of monist nationhood and fears intensified after the aggressive Ukrainization experience and early acts of the February regime.

Russia’s Defensive Posture:

Russia is portrayed as an awkward neighbor, defensive, and not challenging international law. Neo-revisionism aims to defend international law against Western powers.

Crimea’s Self-Determination:

Putin’s denial of pre-planning the Crimean takeover, admission of Russian servicemen backing the Crimean self-defense forces, and considerations of the Sevastopol base’s strategic importance and weapon depots are highlighted.

Historical Context:

Acknowledgment of historical issues in splitting Russia and Ukraine, with Putin’s emphasis on building relations based on current geopolitical realities.

This ‘Malorussian’ thinking enraged the ‘Ukrainisers’, and one can understand 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.’ [5] 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.’ [6]

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 destabilized. Tools used for this purpose are the so-called color 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.
Russian Position Amid Ukrainian Crisis

There is little evidence of an attempt to ‘destroy’ the Russophone population. After the ill-fated first acts of the February regime and the Odessa massacre, concerns undoubtedly increased. By mid-May 2014, the Ukrainian state seemed on the verge of collapse.

Moreover, there was a clear retrenchment in the Russian position. While usually attributed to sanctions, it likely reflected domestic struggles within Russia. Putin denounced the independence referendums in Donetsk and Lugansk on May 11, withdrawing forces from the Ukrainian border. Russia reluctantly accepted the legitimacy of the May 25 presidential election.

 Russian Strategy And Federalization Goals

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.

The federalization of Ukraine was a Russian goal, aiming to temper the monism of the Ukrainians. However, breaking up the state was not part of the agenda. General Philip Breedlove suggested Russia’s strategy was to re-establish parts of the pre-revolutionary Novorossiya territories, linking from the Donbas to Odessa, then to Transnistria. Fantasies of dismembering Ukraine circulated in the Russian media but lacked official support.

Moreover, Russian actions were an angry and ad hoc response to Yanukovych’s overthrow. This installation of an anti-Russian nationalistic government in Kyiv was rooted in a swelling tide of neo-revisionist sentiment. Cost considerations would deter most imperial expansionists. Russia could have done more to calm the situation in the Donbas, but the early actions of the Maidan government were genuinely threatening to Ukraine’s pluralists. The killings in Odesa on May 2 and Mariupol on May 9 stand as a stark warning of potential outcomes. Rather than aggression, fear was the most plausible driver of Russian actions, reflecting weakness and a centuries-old fear of encirclement.

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Nishan Dahal
Nishan Dahal
Nishan Dahal, an astute editor and versatile writer, polishes the gems of storytelling and brings forth captivating narratives that sparkle with brilliance.

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