News / Europe

For Putin, Ukraine Is Too Important to 'Lose'

People fly Ukrainian and European Union flags following the toppling by protesters of a statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin in Kyiv, December 8, 2013.
People fly Ukrainian and European Union flags following the toppling by protesters of a statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin in Kyiv, December 8, 2013.
Robert Coalson, RFE/RL
Each time a statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin falls in Ukraine, it becomes a little more tempting to think that Russia's Vladimir Putin has somehow "lost" Ukraine.

U.S. President Barack Obama tried to circumvent such Cold War rhetoric in comments during a trip to Mexico on February 19. "Our approach as the United States is not to see these as some Cold War chess board in which we're in competition with Russia," he said. "Our goal is to make sure the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future."

But harsh geopolitical reality tells a different story. Since gaining its independence in 1991, Ukraine has been stuck between the allure of the West and a Russia eager to maintain its sphere of influence in the former Soviet space.

"Russia, understanding that without Ukraine it would not be able to take its place in the wider arena of Europe and create a new, powerful structure that could counterbalance the United States and others, made the strategic decision to keep Ukraine in its embrace," Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine's first post-Soviet president, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Former U.S. ambassador to Kyiv Steven Pifer speaks in similar terms: "The Russians have very strong motivations. I think this is a big deal for Vladimir Putin. He wants to build a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. A big part of that would be the customs union. If Ukraine is moving towards the European Union, there's a big hole in that sphere. And I think it's also important for Vladimir Putin, for his domestic political constituency. Pulling Ukraine back is popular at home. Losing Ukraine would not be popular."

Existential threat?

But Ukraine's importance for Russia is much more than merely one of popularity. Writing in The Independent on February 23, Andrew Wilson, author of "Ukraine's Orange Revolution," argues that "a real democracy in Ukraine is an existential threat to the entire system that Vladimir Putin has built since 2000."

Not only is authoritarian Russia unlikely to welcome an example of an overthrown kleptocracy in the post-Soviet space, Moscow also sees vital economic and security interests in Ukraine. Its Black Sea Fleet is based at Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea; much of its natural-gas flows to Europe still pass through Ukrainian pipelines; and Russia's oligarchs have extensive and lucrative interests in the country, especially its eastern reaches.

Analysts agree the likelihood of a Russian military intervention anywhere in Ukraine - despite occasional calls from Russophone areas for Moscow to send in "peacekeepers" - is minimal. Any such intervention would be far more difficult and costly than Moscow's incursion into Georgia in 2008.

However, Russia does seem intent on promoting what it calls the "federalization" of Ukraine, a tactic that could increase its leverage against the central government and enable Moscow to throw up roadblocks to Ukraine's further integration with the European Union by establishing deep economic relations with "autonomous" eastern regions.

Analyst Dmitri Trenin, who heads the Moscow Carnegie Center, argued in "The New York Times" on February 23, however, that "although federalization is seen in Kyiv and western Ukraine as a step toward ultimate partition, it could in fact help hold Ukraine together" since "more financial and cultural autonomy" could enable the different parts of the country to coexist more easily.

Torn between East, West

At the same time, Ukraine's economy is teetering on the brink of collapse. The government has issued a call for $35 billion in immediate assistance and an international donors conference. Russia's leverage via trade and energy - Ukraine is heavily dependent on subsidized gas from Russia - gives the opportunity, if it desires, to stimulate popular discontent and aggravate political divisions.

As Wilson wrote in his analysis, "the new government in Ukraine...will be given the briefest of ritualistic honeymoons before Russia uses every instrument at its disposal to try to make it fail."

Already on February 24, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev cast doubt on the new government's very legitimacy. "Some of our foreign partners, Western partners, think otherwise - they consider these authorities legitimate. I don't know which constitution and what legislation they are reading from," he said. "I think it is an aberration of consciousness of some kind to give legitimacy to something that in essence is a result of an armed revolt."

Being caught in this East-West vortex has been not only painful but harmful for Ukraine since independence, argues Samuel Charap, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the Washington-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). In a piece for "Foreign Policy" earlier this month, Charap said that "it is precisely this 20-year tradition of geopolitical one-upmanship that led to this crisis in the first place by allowing a parasitic political-economic system to bargain its way out of reform."

He argues that only "international mediation" involving both Russia and the West can produce a long-term solution for Ukraine. "Such common ground seems like a pipe dream given current tension," he concedes. "But the alternative is perpetual crisis."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

You May Like

Beloved Lion Killing Sparks Virtual, Real Life Outrage

Twitter, as usual, was epicenter for anger directed at Palmer, with some questioning his manhood, calling for him to be released into the wild More

Video Booming London Property Market a Haven for Dirty Money

Billions of dollars from proceeds of crime, especially from Russia, being laundered through London property market, according to anti-corruption activists More

Video Scouts' Decision on Gays Meets Acceptance in Founder's Hometown

One former Scout leader thinks organization will move past political, social debate, get back to its primary focus of turning boys into good citizens More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: j d from: ca
March 01, 2014 5:13 PM
Morons, Putin invaded Ukraine because Obama is another pathetic weakling like Carter.

by: Danram from: Houston, Texas, USA
February 27, 2014 2:55 PM
The headline to this article captures the gist of the problem.

Putin regards Ukraine as belonging to Russia.

The fact is that Ukraine does NOT belon to Russia! Ukraine is a soverign independent nation that should be allowed to determine its own future.

Putin is clearly trying to intimidate the new Ukrainian government by flexing his military muscle with these so-called "exercises". What the US needs to do is flex its own muscle by sending a couple of US aircraft carrier battle groups into the Black Sea, having the B2s and F22s at Aviano and Incirlik fueled up and ready to go, and dispatching a few squadrons of Apache attack helicopters to Ukraine that have been loaded to the gills with TOW anti-tank missiles.

For all his bluster, Putin knows full well that his army is only a pale shadow of its former self. He would have no chance in a full-blown fistfight with the US, the EU, and Ukraine's own military and if he sensed any willingness on the part of the west to confront him militarily, there's no way he would risk it. US air power alone could chop any Russian invasion force into mincemeat.

The question is whether or not our president will have the guts to confront Putin. Based on his past record, I'd say the Ukrainians have good reason to be worried.
In Response

by: Doug from: Canada
February 27, 2014 8:24 PM
Danram

Please try and live in reality for the US or any of allies including Canada will never risk even attempting to do the totally absurd things you mentioned here.We are not going to risk WW 3
over Ukraine.

by: dan from: Canada
February 26, 2014 12:56 PM
The transitional government will need to move quickly to outline out a pre-polarized arrangement tying the country as a whole toward Europe, and the East toward Russia, in economic, social, and cultural spheres. With planning, polarization can be a feature rather than a bug.

The time for this is measured in days. Perhaps even hours.
In Response

by: Tim
February 27, 2014 4:28 PM
The problem is that it seems Russia is making some military movements... Granted, they say that this is just military exercises but they are on the border of the Ukraine. Therefore the rest of the world has to tread lightly when it comes to trying to engage in this.

by: Tim
February 26, 2014 12:15 PM
I am not sure how we should handle this. On the one hand, it's becoming clear that Putin seems intent on recreating the soviet union and that is a dangerous thing.

On the other hand, I don't think that the US is in a position (or should) to start another costly cold war with them.

Not sure how best to handle this, to be honest.
In Response

by: Danram from: Houston, Texas
February 27, 2014 3:00 PM
I'm exactly sure how we should handle this. We should make it known to Putin in no uncertain terms that if he tries to invade Ukraine:

1) Russia will be immediately kicked out of both the G8 and the WTO
2) All capital flows to Russia from the west will be immediately shut off
3) The billions that Putin and his "silovaki" thugs have stashed in western banks will be immediately frozen
4) Western air power, combined with Ukraine's own military forces, will rip his invasion force to shreds

I am sick of people quaking in their boots over Vladimir Putin and Russia. The US outspends them 10-to-1 in military spending. Russia is a paper tiger. Most of their equipment is old and outdated and most of their troops are poorly trained conscripts.

Putin is a two-bit thug and a bully, Bullies only understand and respect one thing, and that's a kick in the butt. It's past time to stop coddling him and instead stand up to him.

by: Tom from: Calgary
February 26, 2014 12:14 PM
I think its unlikely that Russia is "afraid" of Ukraine being free - they didn't intervene when Poland became independent from Soviet Union in 89.

Sure Russia will use any means to get as much payoff from the crisis as possible & given rather "unwise" decisions by temporary government it seems more and more likely that Ukraine will split. Same case as with Georgia which for some unknown reasons played exactly into the hand of Russia.

Ukraine should concentrate on bringing country together and on getting its economy fixed. Not on removing Russian as official language in a country that around a third of the population doesn't speak much Ukrainian language.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’i
X
July 29, 2015 9:34 PM
Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Scouts' Decision on Gays Meets Acceptance in Founder's Hometown

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs