What are the geo-political reasons for Russia to establish control over Ukraine?
All is normal between the West and Russia. Freedom is being spread. Vodka is being poured and bears are being ridden into Ukraine from Russia with love. But it is important to point out, the riders of these bears are not Russian! They are obviously Eastern Ukrainian rebels rising up against the Western government in Kiev…or so that is what Putin argued for some time.
After the toppling of Vladimir Yanukovych (Putin’s Ukrainian puppet) in February of 2014, chaos, confusion, and actions unanticipated occurred. In mid-March, Putin and his Soviet cowboys saddled up and stormed into Ukraine on their pedestals of liberation and self-determination for the Russian peoples of Crimea. With the intent of annexation of the conflicted peninsula, Crimea would become a part of the Motherland…again. Both the EU and US refused to recognize this new development even though the Crimean legislature held a referendum that claimed 99.9% of Crimea’s population wanted to return under Russian control. Totally legitimate, right? But in all seriousness (or not), why did Russia feel the need to establish control in Crimea and eventually Eastern Ukraine as well?
Daniel Treisman offers three theories to explain the Kremlin’s motives. First, he considers “Putin as Defender.” To explain it simply, Putin annexed Crimea to not only curb further NATO expansion east but also to secure its control of the port in Sevastopol for its Black Sea Fleet. Overall this makes sense. To protect Russian national security interests, Putin responded as all Statist/Realists do in times of trouble… with force. However, is this truly a credible explanation? According to Treisman, Ukraine’s membership to NATO was postponed indefinitely after the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. In 2013, the NATO Secretary General said explicitly that Ukraine would not join NATO in 2014. Nevertheless, whether it was a lack of trust or more to promote security, Putin annexed Crimea regardless. For Putin, offense is his best defense. Since the collapse of the USSR in the nineties, the buffer between NATO and Russia continued to shrink until presently, NATO is practically waving to Putin from across the Ukrainian parking lot. Some would argue that in order to maintain the current buffer, a show of force was necessary in order to strike fear into the West (a fear that could lead to a much larger war with Russia).
A more probable hypothesis is the latter. Putin felt that the security of his naval base at Sevastopol was threatened after Poroshenko was elected in Kiev. Treisman argues that Putin among other key military officials feared that the new pro-western government would evict the Russians from their base in Crimea. For Putin, this would be an unacceptable loss, since other than Tartus in Syria, it is Russia’s only efficient and strong warm water port for its naval fleet. Not only this, but it is also strategically located in the Black Sea where it could address military action in the Mediterranean rapidly through the Turkish straits. Currently the relationship between Russia and Turkey is not so good (due to the Russian plane downed over Turkish airspace) and because of this, Sevastopol is a strategic necessity for Putin to react accordingly if deemed necessary. If this base was lost at the hands of pro-western Ukraine, the Russians would be forced to move to Tartus, which as explained by Treisman is small and in poor condition for operational use. If this is a valid hypothesis, then Putin’s control of Crimea at the least is geo-strategic.
Treisman’s second theory labels Putin as “the Imperialist”. It is fair to say that realist power promotes imperialist intentions. However, is it appropriate to label him this way? Some scholars have suggested that Ukraine is only the beginning. The reason why he annexed Crimea and started further conflict in Eastern Ukraine is because he intends to return the USSR to its former glory and restore the lost satellites back under Russian control. Upon collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin declared it to be “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Because of this, Putin is determined to restore the lost territories and expand Russia’s borders. For Alexander Dugin, Putin’s imperialist nature is based on a continued competition between the US. He labeled the US as the ‘Eternal Carthage’ while Russia, ‘Eternal Rome’ and the conflict between the two powers would not cease until one was completely eliminated or defeated as Carthage eventually was in 241 BC. Dugin’s newly identified ideology, ‘neo-Eurasianism’ has shaped Putin’s actions in Ukraine to some degree. By offering what appeared to be simply civilizationist motives, Dugin deems it necessary to birth a Eurasian Union where all former Soviet satellites belong including territories as far east as the Great Wall. He further believes that Putin should continue his actions in Eastern Ukraine and move south. According to one poll, 65% of the Russian population support Russia’s actions in Ukraine and believe these territories to be “basically Russian.” If this is the mentality of the majority of the Russian population (given that the statistics are correct), then what would stop Putin from further conquest in the Baltic states for example? NATO. That is what will stop him. In my opinion, I do not think Putin wants war, but only incites the fear of it to show off Russian strength. He has no problem instigating small conflicts like in Eastern Ukraine since they make him more popular at home with the ‘rally around the flag’ effect. So, to conclude with the second theory, as an imperialist, he desires control over Ukraine to exert power against the West while also distracting the Russian populace away from domestic/economic instabilities. By establishing this distraction, he can maintain and secure his position as an authoritarian leader.
Treisman’s third theory labels Putin as the “improvisor.” This simply means that in response to the ousting of Yanukovych, Putin responded reactively to the situation without much strategic consideration. Although this may sound convincing due to how chaotic the whole incident started, the military action was well-organized despite political complications. The day after Yanukovych fled, Putin declared that he wanted to start the process to return Crimea to Russia. However, when the referendum arrived at the beginning of March, it was rescheduled for March 25th to give time for the Crimean government to establish whether or not they were a self-sufficient state separate from Ukraine. This argument swiftly shifted from autonomy to annexation. With Russian troops, already on the ground in defense of Sevastopol, Putin felt “trapped” according to Treisman. He could not simply pull the troops out as that would symbolize weakness on Russia’s behalf. This not only would affect his international standing, but also his domestic popularity which at this time was exceeding 80%. Also by pulling out the troops, he leaves Sevastopol in the hands of Kiev who would most likely revoke Russia’s lease on the port. It should be noted that this could have been avoided altogether if Kiev had agreed to extend the port’s lease into the 2040s’. For the third theory, Putin desires to maintain his presence in Ukraine primarily for political reasons and to save face in front of his own people.
Another very common theory that is addressed is Putin’s declaration to protect the rights of those Russians living in Ukraine and Crimea specifically. Although I doubt this was a primary motive for intervention in Crimea, it provided a justification for the military intervention which eerily looks similar to Hitler’s action in the Sudetenland. By no means is it the same problem, but offers dangerous parallels that have yet to be addressed. After the collapse of the USSR, Russians (Soviets) were spread out across the former satellites and could no longer be protected by Russia satisfactorily. Therefore, Putin has now used this idea of self-determination to justify the means to his actions in Crimea. He is there to protect the oppressed Russian peoples and it is his duty to do so adequately by whatever means he deems necessary. Since Kiev had transformed to a pro-western government, according to Putin, those Russian sympathizers were in immediate danger and needed protection. Therefore, for a realist, this is a valid justification. Whether its Lebensraum or protection from possible threats, Putin would intervene if necessary on behalf of the Crimean Russians. Even if this is just a ploy, it definitely makes for a convincing story as it paints a shirtless Putin as an angel looking over Crimea. Nevertheless, where does this leave us?
Does Putin have an end game in mind? Will violence eventually consume all of Ukraine and spread across borders or will this limited conflict continue for years to come? Since Kiev is now a pro-western government under Poroshenko, I believe Putin will continue to use power as a means to influence Ukrainian policy. Since Russia does not have the ‘ear’ of the Ukrainian government anymore as they did with Yanukovych, Putin is expected to go to all lengths to remind them who neighbors who. Arguably, I could see multiple provinces in the East fall under pro-Russian control which could substitute as the buffer Putin wants between Russia and further Western expansion. With control over parts of Ukraine, Putin can continue to extend his grasp over the port at Sevastopol and influence Western policy making. A world war will not develop over continued aggression but may divulge into a more prominent proxy in which Cold War like sides will back their representative allies.
For the West, there needs to be a reevaluation in policy towards Russia. Pressuring Putin through sanctions, physical expansion, and in some cases military strength only provokes further tensions with the nation. Therefore, the West must coherently identify the geopolitical reasons why Russia remains in the Ukraine and what can be done to alleviate this conflict and restore a form of peace. For this to occur, the West must put down its ongoing suspicions and fears of Russian power and constructively explain what has to now happen to cooperate and collaborate as international partners. Through exclusion and punishment, the West only continues to push Russia away from the negotiating table and in times provoking it to do something drastic as we have seen in Crimea. We are no longer in a Cold War and we need to stop setting the stage to reenter one. Through policy reevaluation and a better understanding of the transformative adaptability of Russian foreign policy, the West will be able to better address international relations with the Russian bear.
https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2014-03-31/putins-brain: Alexander Dugin article