In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship

Why Ukraine Is Key to Russia's Pursuit of Great Power Status

February 25, 2022
Nikolas K. Gvosdev

At this point, it is unclear what Vladimir Putin's end game will be after launching a full-scale, combined-arms invasion of Ukraine. However, what we can be reasonably sure of is that Putin, who has, for the last two decades, been reasonably consistent in his vision for Russia's role in world affairs, came to the conclusion that his aims were no longer served by continuing with diplomacy, and has chosen to "let the cannon decide." In making that choice, however, he is also foreclosing on Western, especially European, assistance in pursuing his vision of Arctic development which he has stated is the basis for securing Russia's economic future—and is gambling that a closer partnership with China can safeguard his priorities without subordinating Russia to Beijing's preferences.

Putin believes that Russia has no choice but to remain as one of the agenda-setting powers of the world. His view of "sovereign democracy" is that a Russia that lacks the wherewithal to defend itself from outside pressure will find itself forced to adopt Western standards or a Chinese diktat. Russia's position as a great power is defined, in part, by being able to maintain an independent Eurasian pole of power—more or less coterminous with the old Soviet Union. Over the course of his career as prime minister and president, Putin has changed his tactics and approaches in pursuit of these aims. In his first years, he hoped that a post-9/11 partnership with the United States and collaboration with the European Union to create a wider European space from Lisbon to Vladivostok would lead to Western recognition of Russian pre-eminence in this region—essentially a division where the Euro-Atlantic world would voluntarily cease its eastward enlargement at the Vistula and Baltic littoral. When it became clear that, in pursuit of partnership with Russia, the West was not prepared to accede to any Russian sphere of influence, Putin's approach became more controversial—as reflected in his 2007 Munich speech and his 2008 tête-à-tête with George W. Bush in Bucharest—and culminated in the 2008 Russian incursion into Georgia.

Hopes for a reset in Western-Russia relations, as epitomized by the efforts both of U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, foundered on the 2011 Libya intervention and ended with the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine. Since that time, Russia has embarked on a dual approach—using "sharp power" tools to try to impact politics in Western societies while also hoping that dependence on Russian energy and resources by European economies will produce sympathetic business and political leaders.

Key to all of Putin's plans has been to ensure a friendly and pliable Ukrainian government. Ukraine's economy, resource base and population are critical for the success of any Russian-led Eurasian Union which is the manifestation of Russia's ability to create that independent "Eurasian pole of power" that counterbalances a China-led Asian sphere with the Euro-Atlantic world. Ukraine's strategic real estate (particularly Crimea), in friendly hands, allows Russia a pathway to project power into the heart of Europe and the greater Middle East; in "unfriendly" hands, it not only pushes Russian power back, but also exposes critical vulnerabilities of the Russian heartland. Ukraine also serves an important role in validating Putin's belief in a pan-Russian/Orthodox civilization that is distinct from (although related to) European/Western culture.

Faced with the "loss" of Ukraine in 2014, Putin took several intermediate steps: seizing direct control of the Crimean peninsula, so vital to Russia's ability to project power across the entire Caspian-Black Sea-Eastern Mediterranean zone, while backing two separatist entities in southeastern Ukraine as a way to preclude Ukraine from joining key Euro-Atlantic institutions, starting with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. At the same time, Russia started a series of new geo-economic projects to more closely bind Europe's economies to Russia's resource base.

By 2021, however, there were signs that these efforts might not succeed in the long run. Two successive Ukrainian presidential administrations—that of Petro Poroshenko and then Volodymyr Zelensky—refused to countenance constitutional changes that would have prevented Ukraine from continuing along a Euro-Atlantic path as a price for regaining control over the Donetsk and Luhansk republics. Ukraine pushed back against projects such as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would allow Moscow to effectively end the use of Ukraine as a transit state for Russian energy headed for European markets. Finally, the successful creation of an Orthodox Church of Ukraine independent of the Moscow Patriarchate was a powerful rebuke to the claims of a single Russian/Orthodox civilizational space. Ukraine’s halting but real reform efforts, especially in the military sphere, and closer cooperation with NATO states, also raised the possibility that at some point in the future, the balance of forces might shift in Ukraine's favor, not only regarding the Donetsk and Luhansk entities, but perhaps even Crimea itself.

The Kremlin worked throughout 2021 to get American and European assent to a series of propositions: the permanent neutral status of Ukraine (so-called "Finlandization"); acceptance of Nord Stream 2 in return for Russian promises not to cease all energy transit through Ukraine; an end to military cooperation between Ukraine and NATO countries; implementation of the Minsk Accords that, in providing for the reintegration of Donetsk and Luhansk into Ukraine, would effectively give Russia the ability, through those entities, to veto aspects of Ukrainian foreign and domestic policy it objected to. Compromises offered by Western states, starting with the United States, fell short of what the Kremlin hoped to achieve, and in a final set of conversations with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, it became clear that Paris and Berlin could not override Washington's objections. Putin is now gambling that he can achieve most of these objectives through a military campaign, endure the initial set of Western sanctions and then, as occurred in 2009 after the Georgia war, lay conditions for a new reset on the basis of a new status quo.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and a non-residential fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Image shared under a Pixabay license.