A Realpolitik Appraisal of Russia’s Motivations and Goals in Ukraine

October 19, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Eurasia Tags: RussiaUkraineRealpolitikGreat PowerPolitics

A Realpolitik Appraisal of Russia’s Motivations and Goals in Ukraine

What explains Russian conduct in its former sphere of influence?


Russian military gains after the acquisition of Crimea were historic and substantial in terms of strategic capabilities and potential. The annexation created a new fait accompli and resolved any uncertainty over Russian basing rights. The April 2010 ratification of the quarter-century lease of Sevastopol was conditional to whoever was in power in Kiev, and after Euromaidan, Moscow couldn’t be sure of the new Ukrainian government’s intentions. The Kremlin certainly wasn’t happy over the constraints regarding the type of crafts and treaty terms which prevented any expansion of the Black Sea Fleet, and was in a continuous legal conflict with the exact wording of the Ukrainian constitution, which prohibits foreign bases. All those constraints were essentially swept away.

Russian control, including retaining and scuttling the Ukrainian fleet, meant that Russia eclipsed Turkey as the biggest naval power of the region. Russia also took possession of Ukrainian naval bases and a marine infantry base at Feodosiya, alongside Sevastopol. Possession of Sevastopol also meant no more leasing payments, and a halt to Ukrainian aid funding freed up an enormous amount of money which could freely be used in military rearmament programs. 


Shortly after the annexation, Russian forces under the command of the Southern Military District were being deployed to the area in self-sufficient groups to provide military reinforcement, restore the Black Sea Fleet, upgrade naval weapons in Feodosiya, reactivate a dormant submarine base in Sevastopol, and establish long-range bombers in former Soviet-era bases. The Russian Air Force’s strategic aviation division, meant solely to deter NATO forces, began planning new patrol routes as Russian territorial waters had expanded. Russian troop reinforcement plans included new coastal defense and artillery units, as well as naval exercises simulating attacks on NATO warship detachments in nearby seas. Control over Crimea also resulted in the Kerch Strait coming under the full control of Moscow, along with Russian dominion over the Ukrainian continental shelf and exclusive economic zone and hydrocarbon resources. The strategic significance of Crimea to the Russian military elite was enormous, and the peninsula’s annexation was influenced by broader strategic considerations to enhance Russian military powers abroad.

In short, Russian actions in Ukraine, in both after the Orange Revolution and after the Euromaidan Revolution, have been focused on strategic denial. There is no evidence of these movements spreading to Kiev, simply because Moscow is satisfied with neutralizing the threat and achieving the strategic upper hand. Moreover, Moscow lacks the ideological zeal, will, and capability to push forward with a Neo-Tsarist empire. Moscow had indeed originally stated that Western interference with Ukraine and Georgia are red lines, and that the two countries joining NATO could lead to a colossal shift in the European balance of power. Moreover, Russia also viewed Ukraine as vital to its own national security interest, not only due to Ukraine’s location and historical ties with Russia, but also because of its critical industrial sector its links to Russian military capabilities. The closer NATO borders approach to Russia, the more acute the perceived threat is. This threat becomes existential the moment a Ukranian addition to the alliance becomes a viable prospect. Whether or not NATO would accept Ukraine was irrelevant, as Russia considers the mere possibility disconcerting enough to warrant a muscular response.

IF ONE considers Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, alongside the limited Russian war in Georgia and military intervention in Syria, one can draw some logical and reasonable conclusions about Moscow’s future inevitable aggression. It seems clear that Russia has a specific set of geopolitical interests. These are not ideological, nor contingent to the regime in Moscow. It is also apparent that there are potential areas of rapprochement and engagement where interests overlap, which need to be put under consideration. Russia may be an adversarial power, but it is not a power willing or perhaps even truly capable of radically upending the status quo. Russian aggression is predicated on what it perceives to be the established balance of power, and Moscow’s expansionism is not “mindless,” but rather based on a strong rational understanding of cost-benefit analysis, as well as opportunism.

We must also reconsider the true capabilities of Russia’s armed forces. The Russian military suffers from very real and massive disadvantages, and would effectively cease to be a great power if both the Ukrainian industrial base and defensible terrains and buffers are lost. The country’s fieldable manpower is already dwarfed by that of NATO forces. While the overwhelming understanding in Russian political and military circle is that Russia is qualitatively inferior to NATO, the military has shown an appetite for conflict against smaller adversaries as a broader show of force and deterrence against what it considers NATO intentions and designs in Moscow’s sphere.

Russia clearly considers NATO enlargement in Ukraine and Georgia as a threat, and does not differentiate between EU, NATO, and the United States. Russian rhetoric about EU interference in Belarus is similar. It is perpetually worried about NATO troops and armor being placed close to Russian borders. Moscow’s intention of safeguarding its own sphere of influence naturally leads to a clash of interests in countries like Georgia and Ukraine, which have repeatedly expressed a desire to join Euro-Atlantic institutions. With Russia’s rearmament, EU expansion and NATO enlargement, and the erosion of buffer zones, the opportunities for a conflict breaking out have increased, even though there’s no evidence of active American support coming to the defense of Ukraine and Georgia.

The chances of a ground war with Russia are, however, rather thin. It is unlikely that Moscow—given its narrow security interests, goals, and strategy—is planning such a war, nor has any intention in initiating a conflict of that scale. Moscow is also constrained by geography, demographics, economy, technology, industrial efficiency, and manpower. It has also not faced any concerted pushback, and remains numerically inferior to NATO ground troops. This remains a dilemma for both NATO and Russian forces. While Russian force concentration in its near abroad is higher compared to NATO, and according to estimates Russia can conquer the Baltics within a matter of weeks before NATO even fully steps in, that is unlikely given that Moscow shows no intention of expansionism. Russian military literature, and as well as behavior within its elite class, also indicate acknowledgement that the country won’t be able to prevail in a full-scale conventional war with NATO without resorting to nuclear weapons. Nor will it be capable of a war of conquest and subsequent counterinsurgency operations to stabilize the entirety of Georgia, Ukraine, or Belarus. Nonetheless, recent experiences have demonstrated that Moscow can easily salami-slice regions and enclaves of countries which are still not part of NATO, creating new instances of fait-accompli and strengthening its regional strategic position.

Both NATO and the United States are helpless in preventing these sorts of changes. For one, there is no evidence that either Europeans or Americans are willing to confront Russia militarily over its sphere of influence. This was evident by the lack of direct action undertaken during both Bush and Obama administrations in regards to the Georgian war in 2008 and the war in Ukraine from 2014 onwards. That is a prudent policy, as great powers should be wary of being drawn in a conflict with peer powers, dragged by smaller states. It is a policy that is unlikely to change, even with events in Belarus, regardless of which party is in power in Washington. At the end of the day, the choice whether to allow Moscow to keep its own sphere of influence, or push incessantly and invite a bigger blowback, is a purely political choice for Western leaders.

But by every measurable index, Western policy towards Russia has failed. The country is nowhere close to transforming into a liberal-internationalist great power anytime soon, and it is a futile effort to either encircle Moscow (and overstretch in regions of minor Western strategic interests), or win over by supporting liberal forces within. No serious war simulation anticipates a full-scale military conflict, and there is no indication of either Russia or the West actively seeking a peer-to-peer great power conflict anywhere across the globe. Russian military journals and strategy doctrines continuously highlight an acknowledgement of relative martial inferiority, and Americans urgently need to focus on the far greater threat of a rising China. Moscow’s aggression does remain a concern though. At the risk of making an understatement, one might say that the assessment of former U.S. president Barack Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry about Russia being a regional power acting like it is nineteenth century, to eventually be righted by a march of progress, were only partially accurate. Yet conservatives and foreign policy realists, from George Kennan to Henry Kissinger, have suggested a narrow, prudential approach based on aligned interests, not zealous liberal rights promotion. There is no sound reason to deviate from their counsel.

Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham.

Image: Reuters