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

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Comment Sorting
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

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.

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