The key to anticipating Russia’s next moves in Ukraine is to understand that its policy has been driven by geopolitical considerations that have nothing to do with Russian expansionism or imperial nostalgia and only little with the need to win domestic political support for President Vladimir Putin.
Essentially, the Kremlin has been reacting to the threat of post-Maidan Ukraine’s joining NATO. The prospect of NATO forces being deployed just across the border from Kursk and Belgorod, site of the biggest tank battle in World War II, or of U.S. missile interceptors in Ukraine materially diminishing Russia’s nuclear deterrent or of the U.S. Navy anchoring in Sevastopol or the Russian Black Sea Fleet being evicted from the base it founded over two centuries ago is absolute anathema to Russia’s political and military leaders. And it was that scenario that Moscow’s actions in Ukraine have been designed to prevent.
The swift and highly professional Russian action in Crimea that resulted in the territory’s seceding from Kiev and returning to Moscow’s fold was likely based on contingency planning in place at least since 2008.
That was the moment Ukrainian leaders at the time — President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Rada Speaker Arseny Yatsenyuk — appealed to NATO to award Kiev a membership action plan to join the Western alliance.
Even though NATO’s Bucharest summit declined Kiev’s request — which was backed by the United States but opposed by Germany and France — it welcomed Ukraine’s membership at an unspecified point in the future.
President Viktor Yanukovych, who succeeded Yushchenko in 2010, formally adopted a policy of keeping Ukraine out of political-military blocs, but his forcible ouster by the Maidan in February 2014 reopened the issue of Ukraine’s strategic orientation.
Ostensibly, the Maidan protest movement centered not on NATO membership but on association with the European Union. However, Ukraine’s accession to the EU has been a highly remote prospect, given the country’s dire financial situation, its level of economic development and the huge funds needed to rehabilitate it.
Europe’s slow and uncertain postcrisis recovery and the spike in Euroskepticism underscored by the recent elections to the European Parliament make Ukrainian accession even less realistic. Yet what the Russians have concluded from watching the expansion of both the EU and NATO in Central and Eastern Europe over the past two decades is that joining the alliance either precedes or goes hand in hand with accession to the EU.
The logic of the process is that, in order to be economically integrated, a country needs first to be secured. The NATO (war)horse is put before the EU cart. The cases of EU accession by well-established and highly developed Western democracies that did not involve joining NATO — those of Finland, Austria and Ireland — are hardly relevant for post-Communist countries.
From the Kremlin’s perspective, those brought to power by Yanukovych’s overthrow are fully committed to Ukraine’s Western orientation. Yatsenyuk, of Tymoshenko’s party, is now the prime minister, as is the new Rada speaker and interim president, Oleksandr Turchinov.
Even before the ouster in Kiev, the Russian media publicized the intercepted conversations between the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the U.S. ambassador in Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt. From those, Moscow concluded that Ukraine’s new Cabinet was being put together by the Americans, who had pushed the Germans and their favorite candidates, such as Vitaly Klitschko, aside.
When the EU-brokered Feb. 21 agreement providing for Yanukovych’s delayed surrender of power was torn up by the Maidan — at Americans’ prodding, according to the Russian narrative — the Kremlin felt betrayed and went into war mode.
First, Crimea (with the port in Sevastopol) was secured and incorporated into the Russian Federation. Second, Moscow began mobilizing the notoriously passive 8 million ethnic Russians and many more Russophones in eastern and southern Ukraine, supporting local groups demanding a federal system for greater autonomy for regions stretching from Kharkov to Odessa.
Third, it challenged the illegitimacy of the revolutionary authorities in Kiev, drawing attention to the influence of ultranationalist, quasi-fascist groups that formed the core fighting force of the Maidan.
Fourth, Moscow focused on the opaque cases of violence such as the mysterious snipers at the Maidan in February, whose bullets fired up the protesters to bring down Yanukovych, and the fire in a public building in Odessa in May that killed dozens of anti-Maidan activists.
The most serious counterattack against the U.S.-backed Kiev government came in the Donbas region. Putin publicly evoked the notion of Novorossiya — New Russia — which includes eight Ukrainian oblasts, from Kharkov to Dnepropetrovsk to Odessa, as Nikita Khrushchev’s gift to Soviet Ukraine rather than properly Ukrainian.
Attempts to unite these Russophone regions of Ukraine’s southeast around a common federalized position vis-à-vis Kiev and traditionally nationalist Western Ukraine have been underway since Yanukovych’s ouster.
A federal Ukraine would help preserve Russian cultural identity in the southeast, help create a new elite accountable to the Russophone electorate and, most important, give real institutional guarantees against any moves toward NATO accession. So far, this has worked only in two territories: Donetsk and Lugansk.
To support this policy, Moscow relied on a few politicians and a number of local activists in Ukraine’s southeast who could count on mass resentment there toward Kiev’s policies and open hostility toward radical Ukrainian nationalism.
The referendum held in the Donbas in early May demonstrated real and strong support for the federalist agenda. Despite the many claims by Kiev, echoed elsewhere, there has been no evidence of Russia’s forces operating across the border in Ukraine. Instead, Russia assembled its troops on its side of the border and appeared ready to march across it to encourage the federalists and deter the central government and its U.S. backers.
The militias that sprang up in the Donbas were led by local men, some with Soviet-era military experience. While they included a number of Russian citizens, from ethnic Ukrainians to Chechens, these fighters appear genuine volunteers.
Kiev’s description of the militias as “terrorists” and its military operation, complete with artillery shelling of rebel towns, has actually aided the cause of those it calls pro-Russian separatists. Moscow, for its part, while openly sympathizing with them, can plausibly deny involvement.
The Ukrainian presidential election of May 25, which Moscow has acknowledged, marks only the end of the beginning in Ukraine.
The dramatic story continues to evolve, and the Russian policy toward Ukraine will evolve with it. This policy will be conducted at different levels and combine several elements: resumption of a top-level dialogue with Kiev about the future of the Russo-Ukrainian relationship but giving President-elect Petro Poroshenko only conditional legitimacy; continued support for federalist groups within Ukraine while demanding an end to the military operation against the militants in the Donbas, promotion of inter-Ukrainian dialogue aimed at giving more power to the regions within a federalized Ukraine, trilateral (Russia-EU-Ukraine) negotiations seeking to resolve the Ukrainian gas debt and transit issues, exploiting the transatlantic fissures on the issues related to Ukraine and Russia, and using to Moscow’s advantage the differences of interest and in perception among and within the member states of the European Union.
Russia’s strategic goals in Ukraine, of course, are broader than securely barring its NATO membership, but keeping Ukraine out of NATO is the first priority. Having lost faith in the trustworthiness of the West and its assurances, Moscow is now busy creating facts on the ground that will make the country’s move toward NATO structurally impossible.
Dmitri Trenin is the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.