Does Russia Really Need Ukraine?

February 25, 2014 Topic: Grand StrategyGreat PowersSecurity Region: RussiaUkraineEurasia

Does Russia Really Need Ukraine?

Moscow doesn't need to get tangled up in blue and yellow.


As the triumphant soldiers of Ukraine’s protest movement savor their victory on the streets and squares of Kiev, their commanders probably can’t help wondering how the Kremlin will respond to the ouster of Ukraine’s ‘pro-Russian’ president Viktor Yanukovych. Vladimir Putin has condemned the forceful seizure of power in Ukraine and suspended promised purchase of Ukrainian bonds. But the question remains: will Russia’s strongman get actively involved in the chaos of Ukrainian politics as he did back during the previous Ukrainian evolution when he rallied for Yanukovych?

I would argue there is no real need for the Russian leadership to get entangled in the Ukrainian quandary in an attempt to influence who becomes its next leader as long as Russia’s interests there—including the safety of ethnic Russians and the presence of the Black Sea fleet in the Crimea—are not threatened. In fact, Putin may even benefit if Yanukovych’s arch-foe Yulia Tymoshenko—who has been released from prison and already announced she would participate in the 2014 presidential elections—became the next leader of Ukraine. After all, she was the one who agreed to buy gas from Putin, as Ukraine's premier in 2009, at exorbitant prices, making Kiev even more vulnerable to economic pressure from Moscow.


Zbigniew Brzezinski has famously observed that “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” Both proponents of the restoration of the Russian empire in Moscow and their Western opponents—who favor playing lower-budget versions of the Grand Game in the post-Soviet neighborhood—probably agree with such a proposition.

But how much does Putin's Russia really need Ukraine in the twenty-first century? A hard-nosed realist's answer: not that much.

Russia’s desire to anchor Ukraine is driven by ethnic, historic perceptions (Russians see Ukrainians as their prodigal brothers, Kiev as the mother of Russian cities and Crimea as the Russian peninsular), economic expansionism (need to expand the Eurasian Union) and, of course, strategic military calculations (need for permanent military allies and/or buffer states). While brotherly sentiments of Russians towards Ukrainians are understandable, the need to subordinate Kiev to Moscow militarily is not.

Surely, the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) would be stronger if Russia were to somehow convince Ukraine to enter this alliance. But what would Russia do with the extra muscle even if we were to fathom the unfathomable: western Ukrainians conceding to their country's membership in a Russian-led military block?

The fact is Russia faces no threats that would require solicitation of military assistance from additional allies. The threat of destabilization in Central Asia or any type of low-intensity conflict with insurgents can be dealt with by the military resources that Moscow and its existing allies already have at their disposal.

Nor is there a need for Ukraine as a buffer state to buy time in case of hypothetical aggression against Russia from the West, even though Russia's defense doctrine ranks NATO as the number one source of military threats. Such an aggression is unthinkable as long as Russia has nuclear weapons that can destroy not only NATO nations, but the entire planet.

That said, there are, of course, tangible benefits that Russia could derive from Ukrainian participation in the Eurasian Union (EUA), which it is trying to build with Kazakhstan and Belarus. Ukraine represents a large and attractive market for the Russian economy. Ukraine's membership would also increase the size of the union's population by a solid 27 percent with most of the newly added population sharing a religious and cultural background with ethnic Russians.

Such an addition would certainly strengthen the overall quality of EAU's labor force, which is quite important in a time when human capital increasingly matters more than the number of divisions or missiles nations possess. Ukrainians might be not as skilled and healthy as some of their Western counterparts with an aging and shrinking population. But Ukraine did rank forty-second in Bloomberg’s list of the world’s most innovative nations in 2013. It also has 5,400 students in tertiary education per 100,000 inhabitants, which is more than Italy or the Netherlands, according to UNESCO. Co-founder of WhatsApp, Jan Koum, who has just sold his share in this mobile messaging service to Facebook for $6.8 billion in cash and stock, is a native of Ukraine. And Ukraine’s defense and aerospace industries are among the world’s most advanced.

At the same time, Ukraine's inclusion into EUA would not be without cost.

It goes without saying that of the three EUA founding members, Russia would have to bear the burden of subsidizing Ukraine’s energy inefficient economy through steep gas discounts and other perks in order to draw and keep Ukraine in the union. Judging by the fact that Russia had to agree to buy $15 billion worth of Ukrainian bonds just to prevent its western neighbor from entering a free-trade agreement with EU, Ukraine’s participation in the Eurasian Union could put a serious strain on Russia’s budget, especially given the current stagnation of Russia’s own economy.

Moscow could avoid the aforementioned costs, but collect the economic and demographic benefits of cooperation with Kiev if negotiators from Russia, Ukraine and European Union sit down and work out an arrangement that would allow Ukraine to freely trade with both, but refrain from reexporting.

In contrast, attempts to lock Russia’s troubled western neighbor into a geopolitical alliance modeled on last-century concepts would be costly and may prove to be futile in the long run, given the staunch opposition by western Ukrainians to Moscow-led integration projects. Moreover, given how fierce that opposition is, such attempts may push Ukraine, which is already in a fragile state after a second revolution in a decade, toward disintegration. Many common Russians might actually welcome such disintegration if it entails the return of Crimea to Russia, but does the largest country in the world really need more land, especially acquired as result of annexation?

Western countries might also think twice about whether they need a Ukraine firmly anchored to Brussels and/or Washington, given how divided the country is as well as the financial burden of subsidizing a nation of forty-five million which has learned to live in the post-Cold War by playing Western countries and Russia off each other to win concessions from both.

A Ukraine outside of any military alliances and capable of sustaining itself economically, socially and politically, could be an outcome that realists—not only in Moscow, but also Brussels and Washington—would probably find acceptable.

Simon Saradzhyan is assistant director of the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism and a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. His research interests include international arms control, counter-terrorism, foreign, defense, and security policies of Russia and other post-Soviet states and their relations with great powers.

Image: Flickr/ Alexandra (Nessa) Gnatoush. CC BY 2.0.