Article written by Elias Götz, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science and Government, Aarhus University under the title: ' It’s geopolitics, stupid: explaining Russia’s Ukraine policy’. The original article has been edited.

Russia’s policy towards Ukraine is driven above all by geopolitics, not Putin’s personal idiosyncrasies. For starters, Ukraine is of utmost strategic importance to Russia. Russia shares more than 1400 miles (2200 km) of border with Ukraine. Moreover, Ukraine is less than 300 miles (480 km) from Moscow and in close proximity to the Volga region, which is the industrial and political heartland of the Russian Federation. Given Ukraine’s geopolitical location, the primary objective for Russia is to keep Ukraine out of foreign military alliances and geopolitical blocs. If that is not possible, Russia will try to establish a forward security zone along its western border. It is in this context that Russia’s Ukraine policy is best understood.

The Association Agreement (AA) of Ukraine with the EU will effectively close off the Ukrainian market for Russian products as well as disrupt the close links between the Ukrainian military and aerospace industry and Russian enterprises.

The Association Agreement goes beyond economics. The fine print also includes clauses to integrate Ukraine into the EU’s common security and defence policy. A substantial part of the Russian political elite looks with deep suspicion at the EU’s intentions and its increased activism in Eastern Europe (e.g. Eastern Partnership). What is more, many Russians regard the EU as a ‘Trojan horse’ for NATO expansion. This fear may be unfounded, but it can hardly be denied that Union membership went hand in hand with Alliance membership in the recent past: examples being the Baltic countries, Romania and Bulgaria, and Croatia most recently. Indeed, it is not farfetched to assume that a West-leaning government in Kiev will sooner or later develop closer ties with NATO, perhaps even hosting NATO military infrastructure on its territory. This is a prospect of which many Russians are flat-out terrified, partly for historical reasons and partly for its strategic implications.

After all, despite major advancements in transport and military technology- think of long-range bombers, aircraft carriers and drones - it remains a fact that the ability to project military power increases with proximity. That is why no country wants to have forward operating bases, radar installations or airstrips of actual or potential great-power rivals close to its border. Nor does anyone want to have client states of foreign military alliances or geopolitical blocs in its immediate vicinity. Russia is no exception to that rule. It has a genuine national interest in preventing outside powers from acquiring a foothold on the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Russia’s power play in Ukraine

The first move was the annexation of Crimea. Although the takeover was carried out under the pretext to protect the Russian speaking population in the area, the ultimate driver was geopolitical. The primary aim was to ensure that Russia maintained control over a string of naval bases in Sevastopol and surroundings. The swiftness of the takeover suggests that contingency plans had been in place. In the wake of the annexation Moscow confirmed its commitment to upgrade the existing bases on the peninsula and drafted plans to supply new ships and submarines to the Black Sea Fleet. By so doing, Russia will extend its control over strategic waterways in the eastern part of the Black Sea, specifically the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov. In addition, the annexation also sent a strong message to the new leadership in Kiev and other governments in the region: if you disregard Russia’s strategic interests, you will incur substantial costs and risks - including the very real risk of territorial dismemberment.

Second, Russia sought to keep the provisional government in Kiev off balance. Among other things, Moscow made clear that it refused to accept the Ukrainian interim leadership as legitimate. Instead, it dismissed the new government as a “fascist junta”. In mid-March, moreover, the Russian energy giant Gazprom announced that it would switch to a system of pre-payment and raise the price of gas delivered to Ukraine to world market levels. This innocent-sounding announcement meant, in fact, that Russia nearly doubled the price of gas supplied to Ukraine from one day to another. This, in turn, plunged the country into even deeper economic troubles, making life for Kiev’s fledgling leadership even harder.

Third in parallel with the first advances of the separatists, Russian state officials began to press the government in Kiev to grant regional authorities a larger degree of  autonomy. There are good reasons for the Russians to do so. To begin with, a decentralized Ukraine will provide Moscow with the opportunity to nurture a belt of pro-Russian provinces along its border. In the best case, Russia would be able to station troops in the area as guarantors of the federal arrangement. At the same time, Moscow would not have to bear the diplomatic and economic brunt of incorporating eastern Ukraine into the Russian Federation, the costs of which would be immense. Moreover, a decentralized Ukraine in which Russia-backed regions have a de facto veto over Kiev’s foreign policy would allow Moscow to block any attempt by the Ukrainian leadership to move the country towards closer ties with NATO. Finally, in case the central government in Kiev turns against Moscow and orients its foreign-affairs and security policies towards the West, it would be fairly easy for Moscow to conspire with local leaders and effectively cut off the eastern provinces – including, perhaps, the Kharkiv and Odessa regions – from the rest of the country. The partition of Ukraine would hang like Damocles’ sword over government authorities in Kiev.

In essence: Russia has acted very nastily towards Ukraine and is likely to continue to do so in the foreseeable future, but for good strategic reasons. Russia has no intention of launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Instead, it wants to regain some control over Kiev’s foreign policy orientation and hedges its bets by sowing unrest in eastern Ukraine. The leadership in Moscow is well aware that countries marred by ethnic conflicts and unresolved territorial disputes cannot, according to NATO’s rulebook, join the western security alliance. Russia’s behaviour, in other words, is driven primarily by geopolitical imperatives.

A closer look at the historical record shows that major powers tend to pursue different policies, depending on the level of geopolitical pressure (referring to the activities of other great powers in their backyards). If the level of geopolitical pressure is low, major powers usually rely on a mix of economic inducements and institutional arrangements to control their neighbourhood. If the level of geopolitical pressure is high, however, major powers adopt very assertive policies, including economic coercion and the threat and use of military force. In other words, the level of geopolitical pressure accentuates (or moderates) the firmness and forcefulness with which regional domination is pursued. Seen against this background, it is not hard to explain Russia’s growing assertiveness in the post-Soviet space. Moscow’s central objective is to prevent neighbouring countries from teaming up with outside powers – be it the Americans, the Europeans, the Chinese the Turks, or anyone else. To that end, Moscow has employed a variety of diplomatic, economic and military means. Not surprisingly, the primary targets of Moscow’s geopolitical offensive have become countries such as Ukraine and Georgia, whose governments openly expressed their willingness to develop closer ties with NATO and the European Union.

Like it or not, Russia’s behaviour towards Ukraine is best understood as a response to geopolitical imperatives. Just imagine, for a moment, how policymakers in Washington would react if China proposed to conclude a major association agreement with Canada. Imagine, moreover, this agreement was signed by a transitional government in Ottawa that, from Washington’s perspective, had been brought to power not without assistance from Beijing. On top of that, imagine the Chinese had set up several military bases in the Caribbean, against the expressed wishes of the White House, and now talked about deploying military infrastructure in British Columbia. One does not have to be Nostradamus to predict that the United States would go to great lengths to prevent that from happening and, if possible, roll back China’s influence in the western hemisphere. The same logic applies to Russia’s Ukraine policy today. Just as the Americans want to prevent neighbouring countries from joining forces with outside powers, so do the Russians.

Good News, Bad News

The good news is that Moscow’s strong-arm policies in Ukraine do not imply that Russia is a revisionist power bent on overthrowing the existing international order. The annexation of Crimea notwithstanding, it appears highly unlikely that Russia will go on a rampage to conquer other former Soviet republics.  Thus, policymakers in Brussels and Washington should rid themselves of old Cold War thinking and treat Russia as what it is – a normal great power – and try to cultivate normal relations. That such relations will be marked by elements of cooperation but also competition should not be terribly shocking to any sensible observer of international affairs. Put differently, even though Russia is probably never going to “join the West”, there remains scope for cooperation on a wide range of issues, including strategic arms control, nuclear safety, counter-terrorism and the fight against non-traditional security threats such as the spread of HIV/ AIDS, the drug trade and various environmental hazards. Russia, for instance, could be an important player in U.S. efforts to end, or at least contain, the Syrian conflict and the resultant spread of the so-called Islamic State (IS). It also plays a key role in international efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and in stabilizing Afghanistan and Central Asia following the drawdown of coalition forces. While the United States has been reluctant to see Russia as a major player in the Asia-Pacific region, the sanctions have led Russia to deepen its already robust engagement with China and give new momentum to its own Asia “pivot” strategy. The challenge for the United States is to achieve its objectives in and around Ukraine, while minimizing the impact on its ability to cooperate with Russia across the whole range of issues where U.S. and Russian priorities intersect.

The bad news is that Russia will continue to pursue regional domination – regardless of who sits in the Kremlin. Even if President Putin eventually steps down, regional domination will remain a central objective of Russian foreign policy. The West can do little about it. This is no doubt an unpalatable reality. Still, any far-sighted western policy must take account of this fact. Understanding the geopolitical drivers of Moscow’s actions in Ukraine (and elsewhere in central Eurasia) is the first step to develop smarter policies towards Russia, unlike the current ones.

The current policies towards Russia are ineffective and misguided. At best, diplomatic and economic sanctions will have no effect on Russia’s regional ambitions. This is not to say that the Russians are insensitive to the costs inflicted by sanctions. The modernization of their country remains a top priority, which depends on access to foreign capital and technology. When push comes to shove, however, geopolitical priorities trump economic ones. At worst, the threat of tougher sanctions will derail cooperation between Moscow and the West in areas of mutual concern and may lead to conflict in other parts of the world.

What is the upshot of this analysis? It does not mean that the West should appease Russia. Rather, it does mean that half-hearted attempts at expansion are a recipe for failure. Whether or not it is worthwhile to project the EU’s economic and diplomatic influence into central Eurasia is, at the end of day, a question on which reasonable people can disagree. There are arguments for and against this approach. Nobody, however, should be surprised that it will antagonize Moscow and evoke a strong response from Russia. If the West decides that it wants to extend its influence into central Eurasia, it should stop making hollow promises and back up its words with action. Brussels and Washington should provide substantial diplomatic, economic and military support to countries that summon the courage to strengthen their ties with the West in the face of Russian pressure. Alternatively, western governments should stop making promises which they are either unwilling or unable to fulfil. Poking the Russian bear with a stick in the eye and letting smaller neighbouring countries take the swipe of his paw is the worst policy of all.

Regarding U.S.-Russian relations they have plummeted to levels not seen since the Cold War, though the relationship was already facing difficulties before the crisis in Ukraine started. For the short to medium term, prospects for U.S.-Russian relations are dim. Not only has the Obama administration essentially written off Putin and Russia, but Russia itself sees less and less need for cooperation with the United States today. Once the immediate crisis passes though, it is likely both states will have an interest in finding a stable modus vivendi that allows Russia to address its economic challenges and the United States to secure Russian support for its security objectives in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific. Whatever the new framework for relations is, it is likely to look quite different from what prevailed for the past two decades. One of the more pernicious aspects of the crisis on U.S.-Russian relations has been the suspension of existing channels ranging from the Bilateral Presidential Commission to regular military-to-military engagements. Given this closing of communications and the overarching need to find a solution to the Ukraine crisis, establishing a high-level back channel to the Kremlin should be a top priority right now. At the same time, unofficial engagement, including at the Track 2 level, should be expanded to discuss the parameters for renewed U.S.-Russian engagement once the immediate crisis has ended.

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