Spring/Summer 2014
Number 26

Dispatches - What Russia Wants in Ukraine

Michael Bohm

MOSCOW—Russian President Vladimir Putin is not someone who gives up easily, and he certainly won’t give up on trying to regain Ukraine. Although direct military intervention is unlikely, there are several other ways he could wrestle the country back into Moscow’s camp.

There are many reasons why Putin wants to undermine and ultimately reverse the coup in which Viktor Yanukovych was ousted on February 22nd of this year. Ukraine is not only the most populous and largest former Soviet republic. It is the birthplace of Russian civilization. Ukraine is also a key trading partner, provides the main pipeline routes for Russian gas to European markets, and is an important buffer zone between Russia and NATO. Finally, without Ukraine firmly in Russia’s camp, the Customs Union and Eurasian Union—the Kremlin’s two key power-projection initiatives—are doomed to fail.

Ever since Putin became president in 2000, he has tried to establish a pro-Russian government in Kyiv, with various levels of success. Although Putin’s preferred candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, lost in the country’s 2004 presidential election and ensuing “Orange Revolution,” Putin maintained good relations with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko during the presidency of Victor Yushchenko (2005-2010), which helped keep Ukraine at least partially tied to Russia. He recovered some of his losses in 2010, when Yanukovych won the presidential election after years of discord and decline under Yushchenko. But Yanukovych proved to be an unreliable partner for Moscow. Worse yet, he was a weak one.

The crucial moment in the confrontation between Yanukovych’s forces and the Ukrainian opposition took place on Feb. 21st, when Yanukovych signed an agreement on a new Constitution that reduced presidential powers and authorized early elections. Although Russia was invited to participate as a mediator, it refused to sign the agreement, taking the position that Yanukovych shouldn’t have made such concessions at all.

After the peace agreement was signed anyway, Putin advised Yanukovych not to remove security forces from Kyiv, where thousands of protesters were still camped out. Like Russia, the protesters also opposed the agreement, but for a different reason: they feared it was only Yanukovych’s latest trick to buy time.

Yanukovych, however, did not listen to Putin, and ordered security forces to remove their barricades and retreat from Maidan Square. Once this happened, protesters seized government buildings in Kyiv. Then, Yanukovych’s top party leaders and key government officials abandoned him, and Yanukovych, fearing reports of armed groups of nationalists coming to the capital from the western regions of Ukraine, fled Kyiv and—several days later—Ukraine itself.

Putin was incensed by images of angry mobs occupying government buildings and crowds wandering through Yanukovych’s luxurious presidential palace, gawking at his personal belongings and collecting secret government documents that he had had no time to destroy. Yanukovych’s humiliating ouster was a painful embarrassment for Putin, who had put a great deal at stake by propping up Yanukovych with political support, generous gas discounts and a promised $15 billion economic bailout. But soon, the power vacuum that followed Yanukovych’s ouster gave Putin an unexpected but golden opportunity to annex Crimea, something that had purportedly been a strategic goal of the Kremlin for years.

Yet the annexation, which is now complete, was only a partial victory. Although Putin won Crimea, he lost all of Ukraine. If Putin doesn’t “regain” Ukraine by installing a pro-Russian regime, the Crimean victory could easily turn into a Pyrrhic one. Therefore, Putin will do everything in his power—short of a military intervention—to undermine a 2014 repeat of the “Orange Revolution.”

One of Putin’s weapons is a sharp increase in gas prices to Ukraine or cutting them off entirely. Russia’s state gas conglomerate, Gazprom, has already announced an eighty percent price hike, and more will likely follow.

The Kremlin can also apply trade sanctions—thirty percent of Ukraine’s foreign trade is with Russia—on the grounds that the February 22nd coup, in which the parliament stripped Yanukovych of his presidential powers without a constitutional impeachment process, violated international law. In the past, in response to tensions with Kyiv, Russia closed border crossings to trucks, banned some Ukrainian imports and closed two Ukrainian-owned chocolate factories in Russia. The next round of sanctions will be far more serious.

In this way, Putin could turn the tables on the U.S. and Europe. He could say that since the February 22nd U.S.-supported “junta” violated international law by deposing a democratically elected Yanukovych, Moscow is justified in levying gas and trade sanctions against the “usurpers” in Kyiv.

Although these punitive measures would also hurt Russian-speakers in Ukraine—the same people Russia claimed it had a compelling obligation to protect with armed forces in the first place—the larger goal of undermining the new government in Kyiv may be worth the short-term loss for the Kremlin.

Even without Moscow’s economic sanctions, Ukraine is on the verge of bankruptcy. The preliminary $27 billion aid package that the International Monetary Fund is offering may not be enough. The rub is that the IMF will demand serious austerity measures for Ukrainians, and this will play directly into Putin’s hands. Once Ukrainians are hit with IMF-mandated currency devaluations and decreases in government subsidies, which will result in an increase in prices and unemployment, we could see violent protests in several Ukrainian cities, much like what happened in Greece after austerity measures were implemented. Maidan-like protests across Ukraine are exactly what Moscow needs to destabilize the new government.

Another way to destabilize Ukraine would be to step up provocations in eastern Ukraine and Kyiv to draw Ukraine into violent clashes between ethnic Ukrainians and Russians. This will bog the new government down in a messy political (and perhaps military) quagmire. In early April, armed pro-Russian protesters seized government buildings in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lugansk in a coordinated attack. They made appeals to Moscow to support their independence movement and to send troops to these regions for “peacekeeping purposes.” Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities are convinced Russian intelligence agencies are behind this destabilization campaign in eastern Ukraine. What’s more, a continued buildup of Russian forces on Ukraine’s eastern borders could intimidate the government in Kyiv and push it into making political concessions to Moscow.

Finally, the Kremlin can support strikes in eastern Ukraine and encourage residents to refuse to pay taxes to the “usurpers” in Kyiv. Such provocations are likely to persist beyond the country’s May 25th presidential election, in an ongoing attempt by Moscow to delegitimize the new Ukrainian order.

Another attractive option for Russia is to press for federalization. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already floated the notion that Ukraine cannot function as a “unified state,” and Kremlin officials have advocated for an arrangement that provides Ukraine’s eastern regions with more local autonomy. Such an arrangement would be beneficial to Moscow, because within the framework of federalization Ukraine’s eastern regions could hold referendums—including, presumably, referendums on joining Russia along the lines of that held in Crimea. Then, Russia could argue—as it did in Crimea—that it has a legal basis for absorbing those regions as well.

The West is today applying sanctions against Russia to send a signal that nations should not break international law by violating the territorial integrity of another state. The Kremlin will likewise apply sanctions against Ukraine, but for a completely different reason: to foil the Kiev revolution.

Putin began his Ukrainian adventure as a “great Russian conqueror” who, by annexing Crimea, supposedly rectified a gross historical justice and defended Russians against Ukrainian extremists. He is liable to finish it in a role that he has played many times before: that of spoiler.

Michael Bohm, author of The Russian Specific: An Analysis of the Russian Work Ethic, is opinion page editor at The Moscow Times.