ISSN 2330-717X

Russia’s Strategy To Control Ukraine – OpEd


Relying on NATO and the support of its European allies, the United States has trapped Russia in a geopolitical dilemma since the 1950s and has reduced Moscow’s ability to play an influential role in the international community. In order to break this barrier after the annexation of Crimea, Russia has considered Ukraine as the last piece of the puzzle, which will be completed only by a military attack on this country. Ukraine is currently Putin’s most important geopolitical case, as he sees Kyiv as out of Russia’s orbit and seeking closer ties with the West.

Kremlin believes that Ukraine has long been a strategic depth between the heart of Russia and Western powers. It was this strategic depth that saved Russia from defeat in 1812 during Napoleon’s invasion and in 1941 during Hitler’s invasion. With the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO, Russia is losing this strategic depth, and its recapture is an essential requirement of Moscow’s security policy, which has survived through centuries of revolutions and changes of government.

Ukraine, as part of the former Soviet Union, has enjoyed great importance for Russia’s territory and population security, and geopolitical position to create a balance with the great powers of Europe. Also, Ukraine’s deep cultural, religious, and linguistic ties with Russia, especially the history of Kyiv as the cradle of the Russian government, have been of strategic importance to Russia. The escalation of the crisis on Ukraine’s borders stems from Russia’s efforts to ensure its strategic depth, and the Kremlin seeks to define an effective role for itself in Europe and the world, especially in securing energy exports and new competition with the United States and China.

Russia considers Ukraine its “sphere of influence” and considers Ukraine not as an independent state, but as a neighboring territory. Kremlin believes that Ukraine and Belarus, as countries of the former Soviet Union, form a single historical “trinity” with Russia and that any attempt to secede from Moscow would be a direct, Western-backed attack on Russian rule. The Kremlin intends to prevent the emergence of an alternative and democratic system of government on the Russian border. An independent and stable Ukraine inspires ordinary Russians, but a failed Ukraine is an antidote to democratic sentiment inside Russia. Therefore, if Kyiv is not to be completely dominated by the Kremlin, it must remain unstable, weak, and inefficient for Western and unsuitable for membership in any collective security alliance, especially NATO.

Under the pressure of the West since 2004, Putin has been forced to reconsider working with Ukraine because his backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, lost the game to pro-Western opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko. But Russia continued to control key sectors by providing security positions to holders of Russian passports, and Ukraine became completely dependent on Russian gas. At a time when the Russian Black Sea fleet was still stationed in Crimea, at Russia’s insistence and despite growing public demand for closer integration with the West, Ukraine’s neutrality was enshrined in the constitution to at least prevent Ukraine from joining NATO.

After former Ukrainian President Yanukovych fled to Moscow, a stronger government was formed in Kyiv that, despite its limitations, was able to withstand Russian military pressure and, through a multilateral campaign against the Kremlin, took back the control of a small part of the Donbas region and the Crimean peninsula.

But Putin wants to finalize the territorial connection to Crimea and the Donbas region, including Luhansk and Donetsk before Ukraine becomes an official member of NATO. The region is in eastern Ukraine and populated by Russians, and since 2014 the Russians have established two self-proclaimed republics, Donetsk and Luhansk, and formed local governments independent of the Ukrainian government. But Russia has not yet been able to reach the land border with Crimea via Donbas after occupying Crimea in 2014. After seven years of trying, this failure is a historic humiliation for Putin.

In the face of the Kremlin’s weakness, NATO has embarked on a Ukraine military development plan that poses a long-term threat to Russia, with Putin calling the continuation of the process a “security red line.” Putin’s use of the red line in relation to Ukraine is unprecedented, and since then the Kremlin’s stance against Ukraine has sharpened and deems it futile to continue negotiations with Ukraine’s leaders.

Russia’s recent military moves on Ukraine’s borders have raised concerns in Kyiv and NATO, with the Kremlin viewing the situation in the region similar to that of 2008, which eventually led to Moscow’s military invasion of Georgia. The source of the current growing border dispute with Ukraine is Russia’s strategic goal of dominating its security periphery, and the Kremlin still hopes to make Ukraine politically and economically dependent on Russia and into Moscow. For the past two decades, Putin’s strategy has been soft coercion, but over time, given the recent regional and global developments, the military option has also come to the fore.

All in all, the strategic impetus of Russia’s aggressive presence on Ukraine’s borders is to prevent NATO from being present on its borders and to influence the future of Europe’s energy security, and to regulate its relations with China. Moscow wants to keep Ukraine economically, politically, and institutionally weak and dependent to prevent its Euro-Atlantic integration. If Russia fails, then at least it will try to keep NATO out of its borders by annexing Crimea and establishing eastern Ukraine as a buffer zone.

Given Europe’s cold winter and need for energy to exit the Corona recession, as well as the military weakness of the Ukrainian army, now is the best time for the Kremlin to force Kyiv to retreat behind the Dnieper River with a swift military strike to crush the Ukrainian army and to keep NATO away from its strategic depth. The move will satisfy the Kremlin to control what is commonly referred to as the “Left Ukraine”, including the historic part of Kyiv, which Putin considers to be an integral part of Russia’s great government. Otherwise, in Plan B, the Kremlin will even try a coup and appoint its own government in Kyiv.

Russia’s other trump card on Ukrainian soil is the support of its proxy forces in the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine. Moscow can develop the territories under its control by “supporting” the separatists and paving the way for wider border aggression. This scenario could be implemented by a direct attack by Russia or Belarus, on the northern front or via the Crimean Peninsula, and a naval attack on cities such as Odesa and Mariupol. Another Russian strategy could be to annex Crimea, which is currently connected to Russia by a bridge built-in 2018.

Of course, any attack would certainly require a long-term challenge to manage and maintain security in the newly occupied territories and could lead to new EU-US sanctions on the controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, arms embargoes, Russian oil, and gas companies, and state-owned banks.

Russia is well aware that it is very difficult to defend the Ukrainian army against any large-scale Russian military operation. Some are quite pessimistic about its capabilities. Ukraine’s possession of systems such as the US Javelin anti-tank missiles is not necessarily enough to make the Kremlin hesitant to recalculate the cost of military action. Fear of war in the spring of 2021 and the Kerch Strait incident in 2018 revealed the limitations of Western support for Ukraine and were clear examples of the fact that neither NATO as a whole, nor the United States and any other individual member of the coalition was ready to accept the risk of war with Russia over Ukraine.

Ukraine’s military power has been increasing since 2014 as Russia annexed Crimea. Military equipment, especially anti-tank missiles provided by the United States to Kyiv is a case in point. Kyiv also counts especially on Washington’s “intelligence” support. Nevertheless, it is still a long way from Russia’s military power. Moscow, for example, has more than three times as many tanks as Ukraine, and in the event of war, Ukraine’s strategy will be more defensive, based on “resistance,” as well as relying on its Western allies. 

Therefore, in the event of a large-scale Russian invasion, Ukraine will have no choice but to counter-attack to make the war for Russia eroding and costly. Although Ukraine has close relations with NATO, it is not an official member of the organization. Undoubtedly, NATO leaders will not give up in this regard, because any NATO decision to defend Ukraine could even lead to a “direct” war with Russia.

*Timothy Hopper is an international relations graduate of American University.

Timothy Hopper

Timothy Hopper is an international relations graduate of American University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *