In 2014, brother nations (“bratskie narodi”) Russia and Ukraine, united by common cultures, mentalities, customs, traditions and closely related languages, became enemies. They have remained so for eight years now. The main reason behind this negative development has been the geopolitical game between the Russian Federation (RF) and the West.
After the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych from power in 2014 as a result of a coup d’etat (or popular uprising, depending on the perspective), Kiev’s foreign policy shifted toward Europe. This shift has been interpreted as a threat to Russia’s national interests. Subsequently, Moscow began the process of annexing Crimea through a popular referendum held in the peninsula in question.
The Moscow-organized referendum resulted overwhelmingly (95%) in favor of the union of the Crimean Peninsula with the RF. The Russian government considers the referendum’s result as a sufficient international law basis for the accession of the said region into the RF. However, the West dismissed this result as being rigged (or engineered) by the Kremlin. What are Russia’s security concerns though as they seem to be at the heart of the current crisis?
First, Moscow is concerned that the United States (under the guise of collective NATO defense) will eventually deploy troops (and possibly missiles) in Ukraine as military cooperation between the two has seen unprecedented growth since the regime change of 2014 in Kiev. (NB: Regime change has been a time-honored “tenet” of US foreign policy – we need not elaborate in the confines of this short article.)
Russia feels the need to create a security buffer zone in Ukraine to make up for the lost ground in the Baltic states which became NATO members at one stroke. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all three former Soviet republics, acceded to NATO on March 29, 2004. Severe domestic political and economic problems resulting in a weakened international position prevented the RF from resisting this process. Moscow has ever since been faced with an increased American US military presence on its doorstep.
In this respect, let us mention that Russia has kept Kaliningrad a semi-exclave, situated on the Baltic coast, bordered by Poland to the south and Lithuania to the north and east. Thus, this Russian strip of land is squeezed by two NATO members with the US stationed troops. Currently, approximately 4,500 US personnel are on rotation in Poland while Lithuania seeks permanent US military presence in the country (online report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 9, 2022).
Second, without Crimea, the Black Sea, which connects European Russia to the rest of Europe, would become a vulnerable point for Moscow. In the case of the Baltic Sea region, Russia maintains a balance of power with its weapons in Kaliningrad, reducing vulnerability in its northwest. However, Russia would become vulnerable in its western and southwestern part: In the Black Sea the RF is surrounded by Georgia and Ukraine, which are both hostile, plus Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, all three NATO member-states. Moreover, it is well known that the latter, boasting the second strongest army in NATO, harbors neo-imperial ambitions of control over former Ottoman lands in the Middle East, the Caucasus as well the Turkic republics of Central Asia (Pan-Turanism).
The Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine also held a referendum. Unlike Crimea, as of 2014 they received the status of an unrecognized state, separate from Ukraine and Russia. However, the Ukrainian crisis did not end there. We are now witnessing the second most active phase of the crisis.
From the West’s perspective, the reason for the increased tension is the buildup of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border. Talk of an invasion is ripe in the West. Moscow refutes these allegations. Against this background, in December 2021, Russia invited the United States and NATO to negotiate security guarantees, which became the main agenda of the current international political life. The threat of Western-initiated economic sanctions, which primarily hit common people’s daily lives (see case of Iran), intensifying existing tensions in society, means that Moscow cannot afford to attack Ukraine.
Russia is pursuing an open foreign policy, positioning itself as a friendly state, in order to improve its image in the eyes of the world community, as evidenced by various international programs and projects for young people and foreign students, international humanitarian assistance, as well as peacekeeping and anti-terrorist missions in Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Given the above facts, it becomes clear that Russia wants to convince everybody that it has no reason to attack Ukraine, except for one – Ukraine’s NATO accession. Therefore, the troop buildup near Ukraine’s borders is an accompanying tool for negotiating security guarantees.
Ukraine itself seems not to be the question, but the negotiating terrain between Russia and the United States. Russia’s national interests appear not to be founded on the capture of Ukraine, but on the inadmissibility of NATO’s expansion to the east.
Such is clearly reflected in the proposals for security guarantees put forward to NATO and the United States: non-advancement of NATO to the east and non-deployment of weapons systems near the borders of Russia. Russia’s proposed non-expansion of NATO not only implies an exclusion of Ukraine and Georgia from NATO membership, but also a return to the 1997 membership, which means the exclusion from NATO of North Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, Croatia, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Estonia. Of course, the Kremlin understands that such a turning back of the clock is practically impossible. However, it is a frequent stroke of Russian (and not only) diplomacy by Russia to go for the maximum in order to secure the desired minimum.
The Russian leadership has repeatedly stated that the inclusion of Ukraine in NATO is a red line. At the same time, the Kremlin reckons that the US-NATO camp shares its unwillingness to enter into a direct confrontation. First, after the Iraq and Afghanistan debacle, fresh US foreign meddling in Ukraine could deal a serious blow to the current Biden administration’s domestic approval rate. Second, NATO has no legitimate reasons to provide military assistance to Ukraine. Third, an eruption of war will lead to sad consequences for the whole world.
For all the above reasons, it seems that Moscow’s proposals for security guarantees are a good enough compromise option for both sides.
Possible crisis outcome
A possible scenario would be the conclusion of an agreement on security guarantees, where the main emphasis would be placed on the non-deployment of medium-range and shorter-range missiles near the borders of Russia. Consequently, even if Ukraine joins NATO, missiles will not be placed on its territory. Of course, this does not form a new world order, but it will ensure regional security.
From Moscow’s perspective, subjugation or occupation of Ukraine is not the end. Prevention of NATO expansion is. Russia fears the deployment of troops and missiles near its borders. It is a red line in its foreign policy. The Ukrainian crisis is not at all about Ukraine. It is about the conflicting geopolitical interests of Russia and the United States in the former Soviet space. On the one hand Moscow attempts to form a multipolar system of international relations while on the other hand Washington favors steadfast adhesion to the unipolar system established at the end of the Cold War.
Last but not least, we should not forget the important role of China in providing political support to Russia. At the same time, however, Beijing aims at capturing the energy market in Europe, which Moscow stands to lose in case sanctions are imposed.
* Dr Yiorghos Leventis is director of the International Security Forum. Elias Hadjikoumis is a foreign, security and defense policy expert and a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.