The roots of this artificial crisis lie in Putin’s pan-Russianist obsession. In his eyes, borderland countries with ethnic Russian populations, particularly Ukraine, are ‘Russian land’.
London: When President Vladimir Putin sent 2,500 Russian troops into Kazakhstan earlier this month under the guise of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, Central Asia’s equivalent to NATO, he gave a speech in which he let the cat out of the bag. Harking back to the time the pro-Russian government of Ukraine was overthrown by the Maidan or Orange Revolution, Putin said that he would not let anyone “destabilise the situation in our home and allow the so-called colour revolution scenario play out”. Note the words “our home”. Putin plainly defines Russia’s borderland countries, especially those containing large numbers of ethnic Russians, as “our land”.
When the Soviet Union collapsed 30 years ago, vast numbers of Russians suddenly found themselves living in foreign countries. Many Russians who spoke to me as I travelled around the newly independent states at the time were puzzled and confused. They had grown up in what they believed to be a single country, the Soviet Union, but now they had to cross guarded borders in order to get to what they considered their motherland. Many had moved to Kazakhstan where, even today, 30 years after it became an independent country, ethnic Russians still number 3.8 million out of a population of 18 million. Others moved in large numbers to Ukraine and the Baltic States because of the climate and agreeable lifestyles. Only a few decided to return, so that now 8.3 million ethnic Russians, nearly 20% of the population, are still living in Ukraine. In Latvia and Estonia, both members of the European Union and NATO, ethnic Russians make up a sizeable portion of the population, about 25% in each country. To President Putin, these are “our people”, and the worry for the country’s leaders is that he is now considering their land to be “our home”.
A pattern has developed over recent months whereby Putin has protected autocratic rulers in former Soviet Republics, first Belarus and now Kazakhstan, falsely blaming the violence in each country on nefarious foreign actors, and calling them insidious destabilisation plots supported by the West. In making his commitment public to support embattled autocrats in what Putin calls “greater Russia”, he is also sending a message to democracy-starved citizens in other former Soviet Republics that the Kremlin now stands behind the autocrats that rule over them. He is paranoid about democracy breaking out along Russia’s borders and the message is aimed to discourage those citizens from making further protests. At the same time, it will give him greater leverage over those autocrats who already rely on him for their survival—and those who may need to in the future.
In a further sign of his intentions, following Belarus’ clamping down of protestors after the fraudulent elections in 2020, Putin instructed the Russian ambassador to Minsk to hand the autocrat Lukashenko a present from him—a book of old maps showing Belarus as part of Russian land; as was Ukraine. The message was unambiguous.
For some time, it has been clear that President Putin bitterly regretted his failure to intervene in Ukraine in 2013, the time when the Moscow-backed President Yanukovych outraged most Ukrainians in suddenly announcing that he would reject the deal for further integration with the European Union. The agreement at stake had been in the works for six years and had been expected to provide a significant boost to Ukraine’s economy. Yanukovych’s Prime Minister later revealed that the reversal had come on the order of Vladimir Putin. During the dramatic uprising that followed, which of course Russia blamed on the United States and the West, thousands of Ukrainians braved gunfire to demand democratic reforms. Yanukovych eventually fled to Moscow, turning the event into a major defeat for Putin. Had Russia intervened at the time, there is good argument to believe that because of America’s hesitancy to become again embroiled in an overseas war, Russia would now have a tight control over events in Kiev and the Kremlin could define Ukraine as “our home”.
In a belated attempt to partially recover his position, just weeks after Yanukovych lost power, Putin launched his 2014 invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, which the Kremlin later annexed. Almost simultaneously, a new war broke out in the country’s Donbas region, where Russia still works hand in glove with Ukrainian separatists. That war has to date killed more than 14,000 people and remains a stalemate. Attempts at diplomacy have so far failed, and we are now witnessing the maxim that when a declining power, such as Russia, wants a different reality, the incentives to use force can outweigh the attraction of diplomacy.
President Putin is clearly dissatisfied with the current reality, which explains the build-up of 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border. However, by attempting to upset the status quo, Putin has now locked himself into a dilemma: will he lose face by accepting a largely un-changed situation, or use force to gain territory as a form of success in Ukraine? Many would argue that Russian force is already increasing in Ukraine. According to the OSCE’s Special Monitoring force to Ukraine, between the evenings of 5 and 9 January this year, there were 943 ceasefire violations (including 251 explosions) in the Donbas region, up from 143 the previous week. These are signs of snowballing Russian activity designed either to prepare for a big attack, or simply to pile yet more pressure on Kiev.
The Kremlin has learned over past years that military escalation usually yields some results that strengthen Russia’s position over the West. Putin knows that Western powers have responded to new incursions, be it in Crimea, Donbas or Belarus, simply by seeking to stop Russia from moving further, but not even seriously trying to push it back. Following the current build-up on the border, it was initially thought that the Kremlin would continue this policy of incursion by sending troops into the Donbas region and then negotiate for it to become an independent state, providing a buffer between pro-western Ukraine and Russia. Supporting this view, on Wednesday President Biden said he thinks Putin will “move in” on Ukraine but does not want “full-blown war”. He told a news conference that Putin will pay a “serious and dear price” for invading, but indicated a minor incursion might be treated differently, But the latest intelligence now has Defence Chiefs worried about a much larger incursion, raising fears of warfare engulfing cities and high civilian deaths, in the belief that Putin might as well go for a full invasion rather than a limited offensive. After all, he might as well go for as much of Ukraine as he can get hold of, because the threatened sanctions are just the same.
The problem for the West is that this is a totally artificial crisis manufactured by Vladimir Putin, nostalgic for the Cold War when the Soviet Union and the US negotiated how to run the world and divide it into spheres of influence. Ukraine does not represent a threat to Russia and is unlikely to join NATO for the foreseeable future. On the contrary, many Western thinkers believe that the real threat to Russia is Vladimir Putin himself. If he starts a full-blown war over Ukraine, it would be incredibly unpopular with the Russian people. A Russian occupation of Ukraine would be bloody and costly to Russian forces with large numbers of body-bags returning to Russia adding to the threats to the stability of Putin’s regime. According to US Senator Chris Murphy, a “Russian occupied Ukraine would turn into Russia’s next Afghanistan”, one of the many factors that destroyed the Soviet Union.
The roots of this artificial crisis lie in Putin’s pan-Russianist obsession. In his eyes, borderland countries with ethnic Russian populations, particularly Ukraine, are “Russian land” and their people are a branch of the “pan-Russian nation”. Ukrainians are “our people” and their leaders have no right to decide a destiny separate from Russia’s. Putin has no intention of living peacefully alongside a sovereign and independent Ukraine, which means that Western diplomacy is probably useless unless it is used in conjunction with Western military force to deter and, if need be, repel, Russia’s military aggression.
Nevertheless, talks continue. The hastily arranged meeting between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russia’s Sergey Lavrov ended on Friday with both sides saying that little progress had been made.
Describing the talks as “frank”, Blinken and Lavrov vowed to continue them next week. There’s even talk of a summit between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin as a last-ditch attempt to avoid the slide into a new war in Europe. If this fails, Putin could use the US’ written response to his demands for a complete restructuring of NATO’s security structure as a pretext for further escalation, but he soon faces the danger of any military action bumping into the start of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, starting on 4 February. His friend Xi Jinping would not be pleased to have the distraction of a war coinciding with his prize event. Then, shortly after the Games finish on 20 February, the spring rains are due in Ukraine, which would make a tank invasion impractical. The timeline for any invasion is therefore extremely tight for the Kremlin, increasing the odds that talks will continue for many months. Putin must know this, so is this what he plans?
Hopefully “yes”, as both sides should remember the wise words of Winston Churchill that “jaw-jaw is better than war-war”.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.