Russia and Ukraine: the Empire Will Strike Back

With a revolution under way, it is unlikely for Russia to have tanks rolling into Ukraine. But humiliated now for a second time there, Russia does not need a military intervention to achieve its objective of squeezing Ukraine hard.

For the moment, Russian President Vladimir Putin has avoided making public statements on the revolution in Ukraine; his lieutenants have made plenty of grunts and noises, but the ‘great man’ himself has remained perfectly silent.

There are at least three main reasons for the silence. The first is timing: Mr Putin was unpleasantly surprised by the flare-up in the troubles in Ukraine while the Sochi Olympics were still going on, and was determined to do nothing to overshadow this particular propaganda showcase.

Silence was also advisable since Mr Putin was loath to admit that the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych and his gang of pro-Russian oligarchs amounts to the most serious setback for Russia’s foreign policy in decades; the humiliation is personal for Mr Putin who gambled on Yanukovych not once, but twice (the first time back in 2004), and lost the gamble on both occasions. People like Putin, who set great store in appearing invincible, don’t like to admit that they are not, so silence is often the preferred reaction.

But probably the most interesting interpretation of Mr Putin’s reticence to talk about Ukraine is that he knows that ambiguity about what Russia may do is now Moscow’s biggest asset.

Officially, the Russian foreign ministry accuses the Ukrainian opposition of ‘seizing power’ in violation of a peace deal thrashed out last Friday, ignoring the fact that the deal was overtaken by events once the Yanukovych regime collapsed, as swiftly as all dictatorships crumble once they no longer inspire fear. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has   branded Ukraine’s revolutionary leaders ‘pogromists’, a historic reference to the thugs who, during the Nineteenth century, massacred Jews and other ethnic groups in Eastern Europe. What he failed to recall is that the old pogroms were inspired by the Russian government itself, but that’s a tiny detail on what otherwise was a catchy phrase, particularly in Russian.

What Will Russia Do Now?

In  private, Moscow has grudgingly accepted that deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych is unlikely to return to power; Russia’s main task now is to maintain as many pressure levers as possible over Ukraine’s future government. One is Yanukovych himself. There are plenty of indications that Russia has turned down his requests for asylum, probably because the Kremlin calculates that having him on Ukrainian soil is better than having him in Russia. But he is, to all intents and purposes, yesterday’s man and his perigrenations through the eastern parts of Ukraine are just a diversion.

The economic levers which Russia has are far more serious. Russia has already cancelled promised loans to Ukraine and may soon demand repayment of the estimated US$2.3 billion of debts Ukraine allegedly owes Moscow for past deliveries of oil and natural gas. The Russians can also express their displeasure by cancelling visas of Ukrainian migrant labourers working in Russia, or by imposing strict controls on cross-border trade; both were tried before, and both cause real economic pain.

However, the biggest strategic lever Moscow has at its disposal is the ability to encourage separatist movements among Russian-speaking communities in the eastern half of Ukraine. Russia’s state-controlled TV is already reporting in great detail every meeting of local authorities in these communities, and waxes lyrical about their purported fears of discrimination. If one believes the Russian official media coverage, the real crisis in Ukraine is about the plight of ethnic Russians, faced with the rise of ‘fascism’. The fact that the Ukrainian parliament voted immediately after the revolution to downgrade the status of the Russian language in the country is also used as evidence that ethnic Russians are under threat and may ultimately require protection from Moscow.

Both US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have had long telephone conversations with Mr Putin, seeking to reassure him that a future Ukraine can remain on good terms with both the West and Moscow and that, as Susan Rice, US national security adviser put it, ‘It’s not in the interests of Ukraine or of Russia or of Europe or the United States to see a country split.’ Western leaders take some courage from the fact that, at least until now, there were no overt threats from Russian officials, and no hasty reactions.

But these are early days, and Russia does not need to be hasty. One can rule out the danger of a Russian military intervention in Ukraine. For, quite apart from the fact that Ukraine is not Georgia in 2008, and that the Ukrainian forces and population is likely to oppose such a military invasion fiercely, the political consequences in Europe would be both unpredictable and largely negative to Russia. But Russia does not need a military intervention to achieve its objective of squeezing Ukraine hard. Moscow could start by encouraging various ethnic communities – the Russians, Russian-speakers, Tatars and Moldovans – to demand their own autonomy and the ‘federalisation’ of Ukraine as a whole. It could encourage the creation of separate Russian parties, with separatist agendas. And at every stage, the message would be that Ukraine can become a Western ally, but only at the cost of becoming a rump state; if it is to stay united, it would have to keep its distance from the West.

In short, there is no evidence that Mr Putin accepts the West’s arguments that the new Ukraine need not be anti-Russia.  Nor is he resigned to Ukraine’s strategic loss. So it is virtually certain that in the near future Moscow will remind the world that Ukraine can never be stable without Russia’s cooperation, and that this only comes on Moscow’s terms.


Jonathan Eyal

Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

RUSI International

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