What Is behind Putin’s Sudden Gambit in Ukraine?

2022 / 02 / 03

Soso Dzamukashvili, Contributing Researcher, Central and East European Studies Specialist, M.A. from the University of Glasgow (UK)

Europe is likely to face a war in the upcoming weeks as, for over a month, Russia has amassed more than 120,000 troops and military equipment within striking distance of the Ukrainian border. This has triggered transatlantic society to believe, eight years after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, that Russia has been looking for a pretext for another incursion, which could put European security, as well as the future of NATO, at stake. Recently, the British Defence Ministry made a statement which suggests that Moscow is “looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv”. As fears of a potential military escalation have grown, Ukraine’s western partners have delivered a significant amount of military and humanitarian aid to Kyiv.

Despite deteriorated relations with Russia, NATO and the US started diplomatic talks to deescalate the possible military conflict. In response, Vladimir Putin unveiled a list of security conditions demanding NATO rescind its decision of the 2008 Bucharest Summit on the possible membership of Ukraine and Georgia in the Alliance, and that it roll back its troop and arms deployments on its eastern flank to the position of 1997. Moreover, the Russian side has reiterated that it has no intention of invading Ukraine, even though the massive military mobilisation in the vicinity of its neighbour largely contradicts these claims.

While a large-scale war may be unleashed soon, it is not entirely clear why it is happening right now. There has not been any particular event that could trigger Russian President Vladimir Putin to escalate conflict against Ukraine, and it is in contrast to, for example, Russia’s 2008 military build-up and its subsequent war with Georgia, which followed NATO’s Bucharest Summit where Ukraine and Georgia were promised future membership of the Alliance. Right now, instead of one particular event, there appear to be several aspects driving Putin’s Ukraine gambit.


Ukraine – the Kremlin’s unfinished business

The most obvious possible cause of the current Ukraine crisis is the dramatic shifts in Ukrainian politics that have taken place since 2020. In 2019, newly elected President Volodymyr Zelensky was interested in starting a direct dialogue with the Kremlin to return Ukraine’s “lost territories”. However, seeing the lack of opportunity to resolve the conflict, Kyiv quickly took a hard turnaway from pursuing compromises with Moscow. The Ukrainian government continued its commitment to integration in western institutions, and took an unprecedented hard line to actively eliminate Russian influence in the country. First, Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian Parliament) passed a law that declared Ukrainian the only official language in the country, substantially diminishing the status of Russian. Then, in 2021, Ukraine launched a campaign against Russia’s alleged agents in the country. In the spring of the same year, Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council announced sanctions against pro-Kremlin Ukrainian opposition MP and tycoon Viktor Medvedchuk, and several other individuals. Medvedchuk has often stressed his friendship with Putin (Putin being a godfather of his daughter), and has supported separatists in Donbas. The Zelensky administration also banned three Medvedchuk-owned media outlets for “spreading pro-Russian propaganda”.

Russia’s miliary build-up near the Ukraine border (source:
ABC news)

The tough anti-Kremlin measures of the Zelensky administration eventually shattered the Kremlin’s hopes of bringing the country back into the Kremlin’s orbit. Simultaneously, the US and NATO military cooperation with Ukraine showed a substantial increase, through ever-growing military aid packages, more serious arms provisions, the training of the Ukrainian military, and support to combat Russian cyber threats under the Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine. The West’s continued support for Ukraine was interpreted as a threat to Russia’s security, and the Kremlin started to view the Zelensky administration as a puppet government. Kyiv’s measures to eliminate Russian influence in Ukraine, namely the crackdown on pro-Kremlin individuals, was followed by Russia’s first military buildup at Ukraine’s border in April 2021. In May, at a meeting with permanent members of the Security Council, the Russian President even stood up for Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, stating that Moscow “would not give up on him.”

Additionally, as Russia’s leverage over Ukrainian domestic politics dwindled, public attitudes in Ukraine towards the West began to show an upward trend, despite Russia’s active anti-Western disinformation campaigns. According to the IRI polls of 2021, only 21 per cent of Ukrainians supported joining the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, whereas around 60 per cent of respondents expressed their support for Ukraine’s membership in NATO. These developments led to the perception in the Kremlin that Ukraine had finally slipped away from its grip. In the article ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, Putin underlines his concerns about the presence of malign, West-linked, anti-Russian forces in Ukraine that have exploited the image of the “victim of external aggression” and “Russophobia”. As a leader of a declining economy whose influence is destined to diminish in the near future, Putin might thus have been enticed to act now.


A bigger puzzle

Even though the past developments in Ukraine might have played a pivotal role in forming Putin’s decision to opt for coercive measures against Kyiv, the Kremlin’s interests are based not solely on Ukraine’s possible membership of NATO, but the current post-Cold War order in Europe which formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the 1990s, the US and its allies designed a Euro-Atlantic security architecture in which Russia had almost no stake. At the dawn of the 2000s, former Soviet republics, along with former members of the Warsaw Pact, joined the EU and NATO, which was perceived as “Western encroachment” into what Russia viewed as its sphere of influence. This was combined with the wave of "colour revolutions" in several former Soviet republics. These events threatened not only Russia’s foreign policy goals but even its authoritarian regime.

NATO’s eastward expansion (source: Reddit)

From Moscow's viewpoint, the West was working to impede Russia's foreign policy and undermine its sovereignty by imposing on the Kremlin an international order that was at odds with its foreign policy objectives. After coming to power, Putin’s major goal became averting that order and restoring Russia’s control over the ex-Soviet space. That is why he staged incursions into neighbouring states (Georgia, Ukraine), that were leaving Russia’s orbit, to reorient them back towards the Kremlin. Moscow’s security demands, which it recently put to the West, also served that objective. By agreeing to end the open-door policy, to rule out the admission of Ukraine and Georgia to NATO, and to limit troops and arms deployment on the Alliance’s eastern flank, NATO would agree that security decisions in Europe cannot be made without Moscow’s consent. Thus, the West would acknowledge the superiority of Moscow’s concerns over its neighbours’ strategic aspirations, which contradict the underpinning values of transatlantic society.

Without Ukraine, Moscow’s attempts to revitalise control over the post-soviet space would end in failure. Russia already “lost” the Baltic states to the EU after the Soviet fall, and its influence has also significantly decreased across the Balkans. Conceding Ukraine, a country of 47 million people with access to the geopolitically paramount Black Sea, to the West would be a grave strategic mistake for the Kremlin. Even though Moscow managed to keep Lukashenka in the Kremlin’s political orbit by securing his regime, its attempt to keep Ukraine close has failed. Neither the incumbency of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich turned the tides in Russia’s favour, nor the occupation of the Donbas region. Moscow’s coercion was always “struck back,” and Ukraine positioned itself further away from Russia and its “Russky Mir”. In his article, Putin acknowledged his disappointment that Ukraine had not opted to negotiate with Moscow, but “slowly but surely turned into some kind of antipode of Russia”, which “simply does not need Donbas”. 

While Moscow’s ambitions to shift the European order have long been on the Kremlin’s agenda, Kyiv’s unprecedented drift from Russia could have played a decisive role in Putin’s sudden gambit in Ukraine. By further invading the country, the Kremlin will not only put the pieces of the former Soviet Union back together, but will manage to leave European security exposed, being finally able to impose its preferred European order. The stakes are high due to the growing possibility of tough sanctions from the West. Nevertheless, the timing to invade Ukraine is perfect for the Kremlin. Firstly, Europe remains divided, largely due to Germany’s reluctance when it comes to dealing with Moscow. Second, many EU countries remain immensely dependent on Russian natural gas, especially now, in winter. Due to these main factors, Russia might have the upper hand to avoid or weather any sanctions imposed by the West.

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