By Jose Miguel Alonso-Trabanco
The 2004 Orange Revolution, a wave of street protests that fueled the rise of a pro-Western government in Kiev, will likely be remembered by future historians as the very first modern episode in the drama that would eventually lead to the current Ukraine War. This turning point was enthusiastically supported by the West as a meaningful ideological victory for liberal democracy and ‒ above all ‒ as a geopolitical milestone in the Eastward march of both NATO and the EU. Needless to say, the shockwaves were powerfully felt in the Kremlin. Until then, Boris Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin, had been seeking some sort of accommodation with the West. Moscow offered flirtatious overtures to NATO, unilateral diplomatic concessions, and even support for the American military intervention in Afghanistan. Such gestures were seen in Washington and Brussels as a sign of weakness. After all, conventional wisdom dictated that, in the post-Cold War era, Russia was rapidly fading into irrelevance so disregarding what it had to say or what it wanted was an affordable luxury. Considering that Russia was a mere shadow of the impressive power once held by the Soviet Union, Moscow was not being taken seriously anymore.
All that changed in 2004. Back then, Vladimir Putin and his entourage ‒ in which the presence of former KGB spooks has always been prominent ‒ experienced a rude awakening. From their perspective, the Orange Revolution was little more than a regime change operation masterminded by the CIA and NGOs bankrolled by the State Department in order to aggressively encircle Russia. Perhaps NATO was not eager to conquer Russia like Napoleon and Hitler did; however, Moscow believed that, under suitable circumstances, such intentions might emerge in a foreseeable future. They were convinced that the end of the Cold War had not extinguished the validity of the geopolitical theories of Sir Halford Mackinder about the need of sea powers from the marginal crescent to control the most pivotal areas of the so-called Eurasian ‘heartland.’
Ominously, in the 2007 edition of the Munich Conference on Security Policy, President Putin delivered a speech in which he outspokenly characterized the neoconservative crusade to enforce a unipolar world ‒and particularly, NATO expansion in Eastern Europe ‒ as dangerous for stability within the international system because said phenomenon could increase the likelihood of confrontation, diminish mutual understanding amongst great powers, and fuel military tensions. Putin’s statements were largely dismissed in the West at the time but, in hindsight, they sound like a warning of what was to come. A handful of Western experts (George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer) voiced similar concerns about the recklessness of trying to corner Russia, but their opinions were the exception rather than the rule. These Realist thinkers believed that the materialization of a strong Russian backlash was a matter of time.
Without Ukraine under their suzerainty, the Russians would be forever caught in an uncomfortable defensive position with little strategic depth in case of conventional attacks or nuclear strikes. Moreover, Russia’s push to reassert itself as an imperial power would be feeble without the subordination of Ukraine. Thus, the incorporation of Ukraine into NATO and the EU would leave Russia increasingly alienated, isolated, and vulnerable. Hence, the Russians felt they had to do something about it. Accordingly, they mobilized their political proxies and every resource at their disposal in Ukraine so that a pro-Russian leadership could take over there as soon as possible. Moscow even weaponized the delivery of natural gas supplies to European consumer markets through its vast network of pipelines. Additionally, the Russians started challenging Washington’s foreign policy agenda in the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Levant, Africa and even the American hemisphere in order to show that they meant business but also to gain bargaining chips. They eventually managed to turn the tables in Ukraine with the election of Viktor Yanukovych. Nevertheless, their victory was short-lived. The 2014 Euromaidan movement overthrew Yanukovych’s government and replaced it with a pro-Western regime. Predictably, such setback turned out to be a nightmarish existential crisis for the Kremlin. By then, the Russians were convinced that the US was determined to strangle them, so their subsequent response has followed a trajectory of incremental progression. In hindsight, Moscow’s strategy has evolved to face changing circumstances in three major phases:
Phase 1: Mounting Pressure
In the aftermath of Euromaidan, Russia launched a campaign of hybrid warfare against Ukraine. First and foremost, this included the use of force ‒ as shown in the outright annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and overt support for pro-Russian separatist militias in the Donbass ‒ with the purpose of compromising Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sowing a degree of chaos so that Ukraine could not be absorbed by Western structures in the near future, as well as to remind Kiev that Russian interests could not be overlooked. Furthermore, it also featured unconventional methods like economic pressure, displays of military muscle-flexing, religious influence, the dissemination of propaganda, the mobilization of Russia’s political tentacles in Ukraine, and ‘active measures’ such as agitation and clandestine attempts to instigate a coup. This is also the geopolitical background in which the development of infrastructure projects to supply Russian natural gas to European nations via pipelines that bypass Ukraine must be understood. Although this course of action managed to complicate Ukraine’s accession to NATO, it did not diminish Kiev’s willingness to join the Atlantic alliance. Ultimately, said strategy failed to achieve favorable regime change.
Phase 2: Ultimatum
In 2021, a massive concentration of Russian troops, military platforms, and weapons in close proximity to the Ukrainian border took place. The Russians did not even bother to conceal this move, which was interpreted by many as a sign of an imminent attack. However, such conspicuousness did not make much sense if what was originally intended was a large-scale attack because such a move sacrifices the element of surprise. On the other hand, however, it is entirely logical if the point of said preparations was to issue a credible threat or ultimatum. After all, as noted by Hans Morgenthau, diplomatic requests unbacked by force are not even credible. In fact, Moscow formulated a set of demands, including the guarantee that no more states from the post-Soviet space ever join NATO or host military activities undertaken by the transatlantic alliance, the withdrawal of offensive weapons from neighboring European countries, the removal of NATO military infrastructure placed in Eastern Europe since 1997, and a series of restrictions related to both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Considering the maximalist character of those demands, they could not have been realistically granted by the US and NATO, but the Kremlin’s manifested interest in holding bilateral talks with the United States in Geneva indicated that perhaps a negotiated settlement that took into consideration Moscow’s concerns might have been acceptable. Yet, what the Russians were asking for was nothing less than revising the post-Cold War global order to carry out a structural redesign of the European security architecture, something that would require a great power concert similar to the Congress of Vienna. Moscow badly wanted to be treated as a great power that deserved to be recognized as such by Washington and Brussels, and also as a regional hegemon whose sphere of influence ‒ especially in Ukraine ‒ had to be respected in a multipolar world. Nonetheless, Moscow lacked the strength or critical mass needed to twist Washington’s arm or convince NATO to voluntarily relinquish many of the positions it had gained in recent decades, at least not without a fight. The Russians not only lacked the upper hand, they were in no position to impose anything. Thus, this was seen as in the West an act of blackmail meant to justify an invasion that would happen anyway. Nevertheless, this ultimatum was likely the last card that the Russians could play with and, once its ineffectiveness was demonstrated, they had run out of options and they were running out of time as well. The only possibility for the Kremlin to get what it wanted in Ukraine was sheer force. Even if the Russians likely never discarded the idea of launching an invasion all along, it must have been a difficult decision. Then again, the teachings of seminal authors like Sun Tzu and Machiavelli emphasize that, in order to get important things done, one must be willing to walk a dangerous path which can lead to either worldly glory or utter ruin. Indeed, statecraft can often be a deadly business.
Phase 3: Invasion
On February 24 2022, Russia initiated a “special military operation,” a euphemism conceived to sugar-coat the overt invasion of Ukraine. Kinetic force would now be used as an instrument serving Moscow’s agenda, a game-changing decision of unprecedented proportions in recent decades of European history. At first, it looked like the goal of the Russian military intervention was to overthrow the Ukrainian government in order to replace it with a pro-Russian regime and return Kiev to Moscow’s strategic orbit as a satellite, liquidate the Ukrainian Armed Forces and staunchly nationalist militant groups like the Azov Regiment, and trigger a diplomatic crisis that would unravel the internal cohesiveness of NATO. However, there is a clearer perspective now. The Russian endgame goes well beyond regime change through ‘shock and awe,’ a Blitzkrieg offensive or surgical strikes. The facts on the ground strongly suggest that what Moscow seeks to accomplish through hard power is the outright dismantlement of Ukraine as a functional national state, even if the whole endeavor takes months or even years. Such strategic pursuit is reflected in the obliteration of infrastructure, the elimination of industry, attacks that have targeted cultural sites, the intentional massive exodus of Ukrainians, and the demoralization of the remaining Ukrainian population. These actions have also aligned with the systematic rhetorical denial of legitimate Ukrainian statehood. Furthermore, Russia’s heavy-handed use of military power projection ‒ mainly airstrikes, artillery and infantry in the envelopment and siege of key positions ‒ is a feature, not a bug. In contrast, nuclear saber-rattling and firing hypersonic missiles to destroy buildings in a spectacular way are measures designed to remind the West that a direct military intervention on behalf of Ukraine would provoke Armageddon, but they are not aimed at Ukraine per se.
For many contemporary observers, this might sound difficult to grasp or perhaps even baffling. However, the historical record offers enlightening precedents that can provide a sharper understanding about the Kremlin’s rationale in the Ukraine War. For instance, after several dramatic clashes the fateful outcome of the Punic Wars was the obliteration of Carthage by Roman forces. After a bloody siege in which Carthage itself was levelled and many of its inhabitants were killed, the survivors were sold into slavery and the territory previously held by the Carthaginians in the Maghreb was annexed by Rome. This victory fueled the undisputed rise of Rome as the greatest power of the Mediterranean world, a position it held for centuries. Furthermore, the ancient Central Asian kingdom of Khwarezm was literally reduced to rubble by Genghis Khan in a disproportionate retaliation for executing Mongolian diplomatic envoys. The annihilation of Khwarezm was so comprehensive and the amount of bloodshed so staggering that, aside from professional historians, few are even aware that it ever existed.
Yet, there are also more recent examples that point in a similar direction. In fact, as American analyst David Goldman has observed, Vladimir Putin’s course of action in Ukraine mirrors the approach followed by Cardinal Richelieu towards Pomerania. In the context of the Thirty Years War, the ruthless devastation and carnage unleashed there by the crafty French statesman ‒ a legendary figure still remembered as a leading practitioner of raison d’état ‒ responded to an interest in undermining the Austro-Spanish Habsburg Empire (which until then was a superior foe) so that France could emerge as a leading European power under a new correlation of forces. On the other hand, after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the so-called “Morgenthau Plan” ‒ formulated by Henry Morgenthau Jr., US Secretary of the Treasury ‒ contemplated the deliberate demilitarization of Germany, its territorial dismemberment, the dispersion of local population, and the removal of German industrial capabilities so that country’s economy adopted a low-key agrarian profile instead. Although it gained some traction at first, it was not implemented because Washington realized that a prosperous, reindustrialized and strong West Germany would be far more useful as a bulwark ‒ and maybe even potential spearhead ‒ against the bloc headed by the Soviet Union.
Said episodes show that Russia’s path in Ukraine is hardly innovative. After all, Russian strategic thinking wholeheartedly embraces the classical Machiavellian principle that it is better to be feared than loved if one cannot be both. Hence, the Kremlin’s ongoing strategy is undeniably merciless and risky, but it is not necessarily irrational. In fact, it arguably serves multiple purposes:
- Punishing Ukraine for having chosen a pro-Western path, a historical ‘aberration’ that Russia deems unforgivable.
- Sending a strong double message to other post-Soviet states: 1) it is unwise to mess with Russia and expect to go unpunished and 2) this is what Western security guarantees are worth.
- Rollbacking the expansion and presence of NATO ‒ either formal or informal ‒ in countries that have traditionally belonged to Russia’s sphere of influence.
- Making sure that Ukraine cannot pose a meaningful threat to Russian national security for decades to come, especially as Russia experiences a severe demographic downturn.
So far, it is unknown how far the Russians are prepared to go, especially considering the availability of resources, internal political dynamics, tactical setbacks, and the apparent logistical underperformance of Russian troops. At first, it looked like they wanted to take Kiev and maybe even attempt to create a direct corridor to reach Moldova, but the redirection of their efforts to the east and the southern coastline likely indicates that those areas are being targeted because they are strategically significant, particularly if partition or even an outright annexation are seen as convenient for Russian national interests. Moreover, both possibilities could conceivably co-exist. It is too soon to tell, but a possibility worth taking into account is the incorporation of the Donbas into the Russian Federation proper and the parallel establishment of a ‘Novorossiya’ as a new state similar to Kosovo, Abkhazia, or South Ossetia.
Without those territories, what is left of Ukraine would be little more than an indefensible and economically diminished statelet with no viable future. Furthermore, the Russians would not even need to conquer it all. After all, the costs of trying to take and occupy Western Ukraine ‒ an area whose population has long harbored Russophobe attitudes for generations ‒ would be superior to the benefits, since it would probably lead to a protracted military quagmire and a nasty bloodbath. If the Russians indeed bisect Ukraine, due to their historical background and sociocultural profile and as a result of the ensuing chaos, Galicia would likely be swallowed by Poland whereas Transcarpathia would be hypothetically annexed by Hungary. As long as Russia manages to establish its suzerainty over the area East of the Dnieper River, the Kremlin would not mind those developments because, although beneficial for the individual national interests of Warsaw and Budapest, said territorial reconfiguration would sow discord within both the EU and NATO. Indeed, poisoned apples can be helpful in the practice of statecraft. Besides, the materialization of this scenario would provide a valuable opportunity to reformulate European security architecture, a process in which Russia needs to make its voice heard in one way or another.
Based on the counterintuitive concept of ‘constructive destruction,’ Russia could then remake the portions of Ukraine under its control in accordance with its military, geopolitical, strategic, economic, and demographic interests. Perhaps what Moscow has in mind is a polity that resembles Belarus; i.e., a heavily Russified state closely aligned with the Kremlin in all meaningful respects. Likewise, it could be transformed into both a defensive buffer and a forward position to keep Western forces at bay. This creation could be integrated to regional institutional frameworks controlled by Moscow, such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Moreover, the Russians could harness Beijing’s interest in pivotal transnational corridors that enhance geoeconomic interconnectedness with Europe as essential components of the Belt and Road Initiative in order to rebuild Ukraine ‒ or what if left of it, anyway ‒ in a manner that is beneficial for the Eurasian axis of continental powers. Considering its industrial and agricultural comparative advantages, its abundance of natural resources and its privileged position for logistics and trade, Ukraine would certainly be a tempting prize for China. As a remarkable precedent, it must be borne in mind that the Great Stone industrial park, located in Belarus and developed thanks to Chinese capital and the active involvement of heavyweight Chinese firms, is one of the most important hi-tech investment projects in Europe.
Russia’s strategy towards the Ukraine has been adjusted in a versatile and flexible way to address changing circumstances during the last couple of decades. The incremental nature of Moscow’s approach from relatively subtle measures to the overt use of military strength is a sign of despair but it also illustrates that the Kremlin believes that the associated risks and costs are worth taking because what is at stake is a vital matter for Russian grand strategy and national security. However, the implementation of a strategy does not guarantee that the intended outcomes will be successfully reached. After all, war is dangerous gamble and once the first shots are fired, there is no way to tell how things will play out. No plan remains unchanged after the proverbial die has been cast. The available means might not suffice to pursue the intended outcomes and the expected goals might not be realistically achievable in the timeframe originally contemplated. The resulting fallout can also be a lot messier than expected. Moreover, the Ukraine War is an exceedingly complex conflict that is being fought in many overlapping battlefields. Finally, there are dozens of things that could go wrong and the prospect of miscalculations, escalations, and accidents increases both uncertainty and the dangerousness of the war.
Furthermore, even if the Russians manage to prevail, that does not mean the conflict will subside. Their triumph would encourage them to challenge the status quo in other contentious flashpoints such as the Baltics, Moldova, or Poland, in an effort to galvanize their revisionist agenda by forcibly attempting to overturn the unfavorable balance of power that emerged from the post-Cold War era. In other words, tensions would not diminish. The Atlanticist maritime powers ‒ mainly the US and the UK ‒ are aware of this, which is why they are investing a great deal of resources in order to make sure that that Russia bleeds dry in Ukraine until it implodes or, at the very least, make sure that a pyrrhic victory comes with prohibitive costs, even if that means that Ukraine is literally demolished in the process. For Washington and London, it is imperative to undermine Russia’s geopolitical projection before it develops some sort of partnership with Germany, and using Ukraine as cannon fodder against Russia is a practical way to make it happen without engaging the Russians themselves in a direct confrontation. All they need to do is to support Kiev with generous supplies of intelligence, weaponry, diplomatic backing, and cash.
Nevertheless, if the Russians experience a full-spectrum strategic defeat and Ukraine indeed becomes the graveyard of their renewed imperial ambitions, this would provoke an internal power struggle in Moscow and set in motion a chain reaction that could lead to the removal of Vladimir Putin but, contrary to what Western liberals desire, both Russian history and Realpolitik indicate that he would likely be replaced by an even more hawkish leader (and there is no shortage of hardliners in Moscow), not to mention that revanchist sentiments amongst ordinary Russians would rise to sky-high proportions. Even worse, the Balkanization of Russia ‒ a country with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal ‒ would open Pandora’s box by bringing a toxic amount of uncertainty. Hence, this scenario is also problematic.
One way or another, mutual hostility will not subside because there are incompatible geopolitical interests and both sides are raising the stakes. In accordance with the worldview of the Realist intellectual tradition, the only way to prevent the conflict from spiraling out of control before it is too late would be to reach a negotiated settlement. Such alterative would not lead to everlasting peace but, in an imperfect world, it could provide a functional framework to manage rivalries so that there can be a reasonable degree of stability, a solution that continental European heavyweights like France and Germany could be inclined to favor. Russia would have to curtail the aggressiveness of its strategy and moderate its ambitions in exchange for reliable guarantees and, in turn, the West would have to make concessions and accept, based on a sober and dispassionate understanding of geopolitical realities, Russia as a force to be reckoned with. Nonetheless, a solution inspired by cool-headedness seems elusive, at least for the time being. Until attitudes change, the strong will do what they can and the weak will suffer what they must, as Thucydides wrote many centuries ago on the harsh nature of war.
The views expressed in this article belong to the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com