Inside Putin’s Ukraine War

New book explores why the Kremlin is prepared to risk everything in order to prevent the loss of Ukraine

Inside Putin’s Ukraine War
Illustration: fragment of "The Face of War" portrait by Ukrainian artist Daria Marchenko depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin using bullet shells collected from the eastern Ukrainian conflict zone
Business Ukraine magazine
Thursday, 19 July 2018 10:04

Since the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine in spring 2014, relations between Moscow and the Western world have entered into a downward spiral that many regard as a new Cold War. This deteriorating security climate has placed the troubled relationship between Russia and Ukraine at the very center of the global geopolitical debate for the first time ever. A timely new book by academics Taras Kuzio and Paul D’Anieri entitled “The Sources of Russia’s Great Power Politics – Ukraine and the Challenge to the European Order” provides important insights into this previously overlooked relationship while also seeking to explain why Russia views the democratization of Ukraine as an existential threat to its own authoritarian model.

Kuzio and D’Anieri’s analysis argues that the current crisis has deep roots in post-Soviet Russia’s refusal to come to terms with an independent Ukrainian state. They identify a number of key issues in the relationship such as Moscow’s view of Ukraine’s Orange and Euromaidan revolutions as Western conspiracies, before exploring the underlying reasons for Kremlin’s apparent inability to understand that most Russian-speaking Ukrainians do not want to rejoin Russia. The authors reach the conclusion that in Moscow’s eyes, Ukraine is simply too important to the process of rebuilding a sphere of influence within the former Soviet space and to re-establishing Russia as a great power on the global stage.

Co-author Paul Anieri spoke to Business Ukraine magazine about the impact of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict on international perceptions of the post-Soviet region, and explained why he is not particularly optimistic about the chances of a lasting peace emerging without dangerous compromises from Ukraine and the West.


Your new book seeks to explore the historic origins of the current Russia-Ukraine conflict. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 2014, the theme of Russian imperial policies towards Ukraine had traditionally received very little academic attention. Given the size of Ukraine and its strategic importance for European security, why do you think this subject has not previously been a focus of greater study?

For a long time, scholars paid very little attention to Ukraine because in the Soviet era we assumed that everything important happened in Moscow. Partly as a result of that legacy, many scholars have much less familiarity with Ukraine. To some extent, that tendency has endured in the post-Soviet era. Ukraine is not alone in this respect. It is also the case that many people felt the relationship between Russia and Ukraine was relatively unimportant when compared to other matters in international politics or even other issues involving Russia itself, such as its relationship with the EU, NATO and the US, or its turbulent domestic politics. Moreover, it was reasonable to believe that the disputes between Ukraine and Russia would continue to be addressed peacefully and so were not urgent. Finally, we must acknowledge that there has long been some degree of “Ukraine fatigue” throughout the Western world, firstly during the 1990s when Ukraine never quite managed to embrace reform, and again after the 2004 Orange Revolution, when there was a great deal of unrealized hope in the West for Ukraine to make a dramatic transformation.


To what extent has the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict been a wake-up call for experts and academics who previously favored Russocentric approaches to the study of the region?

The impact has been mixed. Some people who previously focused disproportionately on Russia have studied this conflict and learned a great deal more about Ukraine in the process, while also dramatically revising their understanding of the Putin regime. Others have retained or even reinforced their Russocentrism, essentially adopting the Russian government position on the causes of the conflict. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Donbas sent a signal that Russia now rejects what many consider the most basic rule of the game in post-Cold War Europe: disagreements are not resolved by force.

Moreover, Russia now appears to be a “revisionist power” in a broader sense, in that it seems to be trying to overturn the existing order in both Europe and globally. Its intervention in domestic politics all over the world reinforces that view. Those realizations have certainly been a wake-up call for many people who previously considered Russia to be essentially a conservative power rather than a revisionist one.

Despite those concerns, there is still a strong desire among some business leaders, policy makers, and academics to get back to business as usual with Russia. That desire leads to proposed solutions for the conflict that would accept the annexation of Crimea, adopt Russia’s position on eastern Ukraine, and reach some kind of deal with Russia that would keep Ukraine outside of Western institutions. Essentially, this would mean returning to the old world order in which the “great powers” get to decide what happens to the less powerful countries of Eastern Europe and elsewhere.


Your book places Ukraine firmly at the center of the current confrontation between Russia and the West. Why is the Kremlin prepared to risk so much over Ukraine?

The attack on Ukraine was an opportunity for Putin to kill several important birds with one stone: he regained coveted territory, undermined Ukraine’s stability semi-permanently via the ongoing conflict, received a huge boost in popularity for his re-election campaign, and forced the West to reckon with a resurgent Russia.

Our book points to several reasons why Russian policymakers view Ukraine as so crucial. Ukraine is very important to Russia’s sense of its own national identity. Every country has myths about its origins, and in Russia’s story, medieval Kyiv was the first Russian city. It was where the early Russians adopted Christianity. If Kyiv is not Russian, then Russia’s origin story needs to be completely rewritten. More recently, Ukraine was an integral part of the Soviet Union, as Soviet leaders Khrushchev and Brezhnev, among many others, hailed from Ukraine. For many in Moscow, Ukraine is still very much part of the historic Russian heartlands.

In the present era, Ukraine has become a direct threat to Putin’s rule because the emergence of a democratic Ukraine undermines Putin’s argument that democracy cannot succeed in Russia. Ukraine’s two anti-authoritarian post-Soviet revolutions created a dangerous precedent for overturning authoritarianism inside Russia itself. Russia’s security concerns are also significant, though we argue that Russia set its sights on regaining Ukraine long before there was talk of Ukraine joining NATO. Russian leaders perceived Russia as having lost one disagreement after another with the West since the end of the Cold War, not only with the eastward spread of European institutions, but in Yugoslavia and elsewhere. Ukraine was the red line.


Many observers have portrayed the hybrid war techniques employed by Russia in Ukraine as innovative but you argue that in many ways they are an extension of tactics first developed in the Soviet era. To what extent is Putin’s use of hybrid warfare a novelty?

Some of the techniques Russia is currently applying are new. However, many of the tactics Putin has employed against Ukraine, including falsehoods, assassinations, cultivating the support of minority parties and so on, are actually long-established and time-tested Soviet techniques. Indeed, the Soviets used many of these tactics precisely against Ukrainian nationalism in the past. For example, several Ukrainian nationalists were among those assassinated by Soviet agents in Western Europe during the Cold War, long before the cases we have seen recently in the UK. Similarly, painting Ukrainian nationalism as synonymous with fascism was a tactic used consistently throughout the Soviet period. Other techniques, such as using Russian forces to back separatist movements in order to create “frozen conflicts”, emerged in the early post-Soviet era.

There have also been some genuine innovations. Putin has taken advantage of newer technologies, especially social media, and deployed them in ways that the Soviets could not have imagined. He has figured out how tactics used to fight autocracy could also work against the new government in Ukraine. There is one particularly significant innovation in Putin’s information warfare tactics. The Soviet Union usually had a clearly defined alternative position to promote via its propaganda. In other words, Soviet propaganda was still based on the notion of a single truth. In contrast, Russian propaganda today is post-modern. It argues that there are multiple truths, each as valid as the next. Rather than putting out an alternative story and defending it, Russia puts out so many alternative stories that it seems to the uncritical reader that it is simply impossible to know the truth. The Russian response to the shooting down of flight MH17 was a prime example. Russia did not advance an alternative theory of the shootdown and defend it. Instead, it proliferated numerous theories around the internet and the news outlets it controlled, feeding the notion that it was impossible to know what really happened to the plane and therefore making it easy for those who wanted to believe Russia was innocent to stick with that position. We see these same tactics exploited now in democracies throughout the Western world.


One of the themes you address in your book is the issue of Russian and Western influence in Ukraine from 1991 onwards. What advantages did Russia and the West each enjoy when it came to gaining ground in post-Soviet Ukraine, and what proved the most decisive factors in this contest?

Russia had three huge advantages in 1991. Firstly, it began the post-Soviet era already deeply embedded in the Ukrainian elite and Ukrainian institutions. For example, when Ukraine became independent, the Ukrainian part of the Soviet KGB simply became the Security Service of Ukraine. While there were some efforts to root out Russian agents, the reality was that the Security Service of Ukraine came into being with the Russian successor to the KGB already enjoying complete penetration. The same was true of other Ukrainian bureaucracies. Rather than eroding with time, this Russian influence actually increased when former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych appointed several Russian citizens to high positions in the security apparatus after taking office in 2010.

Secondly, Russia had (and still has) incredible economic power over Ukraine, especially in the field of energy. Repeatedly throughout the post-Soviet era, Russia has shut off the gas supply to Ukraine or threatened to do so. This is not only damaging to Ukraine’s economy, but makes Ukrainian leaders facing elections understandably wary of doing anything that might irritate Russia. The gas trade also corrupted the Ukrainian elite so thoroughly that it made it much easier for Russia to exert influence.

Thirdly, after 1991 Russia continued to provide much of the television coverage watched by Ukrainian audiences, and was the location where most Western news reporting on Ukraine came from. Due to this dominant position in the information sphere, when “information warfare” became an important factor in 2014, Russia was already in the driver’s seat. The Kremlin was in the ideal position to influence opinion inside Ukraine and to shape how the West viewed the deteriorating relationship between Russia and Ukraine.

The West had one enormous advantage to counter all of this. The West’s political and economic models are highly attractive, while Russia’s is not. This was to prove decisive. Economically and politically, Ukrainians wanted to join Europe, not Russia. Whereas Russia had to use coercion to force Ukraine to align with Moscow, Ukraine begged the EU and NATO for deeper connections, with these Western organizations resisting and demanding reforms in return for integration. For all of Russia’s advantages, it could not match this “soft power,” and so finally it chose to deploy military force.


Based on your studies of the current conflict and knowledge of Russo-Ukrainian relations, what could a future peace plan look like and what will it take for progress towards peace to take place?

The positions of the two sides are currently incompatible, so any progress will depend on dramatic change in someone’s position. In the short term, the best we can hope for is a real ceasefire that would stop the steady occurrence of casualties along the contact line. While many dismiss the idea of a “frozen conflict” as a negative outcome, it is still preferable to the ongoing killing and is probably a necessary first step towards any further agreement.

One big problem for Ukraine (and for the West) is that any compromise would undermine some very important principles by legitimizing Russia’s takeover of Crimea and the idea that Ukraine’s sovereignty should be limited to appease Russia. For the West and for the EU in particular, that would be a dangerous precedent because it would discredit the rules against the use of force and encourage the practice of big states cutting deals over the heads of smaller states. Those rules have succeeded in preserving peace and prosperity in Western Europe since 1945. In this context, many observers understandably regard the idea of a “new Yalta” as especially threatening to states occupied by the Soviets after WWII.

However, there are signs that the Trump administration might accept just such a deal. Meanwhile, many European elites also hope to get beyond conflict with Russia, so the appeasement of Russia at Ukraine’s expense is a real possibility. Ukraine’s resistance to reform also does not help inspire Western support. In sum, because Russia seems unlikely to moderate its position, progress towards peace will rely on Ukraine and the West making concessions. That means compromising important principles and hoping that such concessions appease Russia rather than convincing the Kremlin that it can get away with more. If the West defends its principles, we can expect to face a long-term term conflict with Russia. The Cold War only ended when far-reaching change took place in Moscow and Putin seems determined to make sure that does not happen again.


About the interviewee: Paul D’Anieri is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside

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