With the downing of the Malaysian Boeing 777, the escalation over Ukraine is reaching a critical stage and leading to a reassessment of the Kremlin’s long-term policy towards Ukraine. 


The Kremlin may reassess its Ukrainian strategy after the MH17 downing. Photo: AP

The meeting of the Security Council on July 22 was an attempt to adjust Russia’s position on Ukraine. The Malaysian Boeing tragedy has worsened the international political position of Russia. The situation in the Donbas also remains unfavorable to the Kremlin, where the separatists are retreating.

In a worst-case scenario, Moscow is facing the prospects of a direct military confrontation with Kiev, which will have strong support from the U.S. and EU. Russia is now grappling with the question of how to make adjustments to its prior approach to the Ukrainian crisis.

Three myths about Russia’s Ukraine policy

In Western media, a few myths dominate how Americans and Europeans view the position of Russia in the Ukrainian conflict. These myths have become so persistent that they have acquired the status of the official view of Vladimir Putin’s policy on Ukraine.

The first myth is that Russia wants to occupy or put Ukraine under its control. In fact, if the Kremlin had sought to do so, it certainly would have taken the appropriate steps at the end of February. Ukrainian statehood was paralyzed after the Maidan events. Following the reforms that took place between 2010 and 2012, the country had practically no full-fledged armed forces. At a meeting in Kharkov, the Party of Regions on February 22 decided that local councils should take power into their own hands. The legitimate president Viktor Yanukovych was in Rostov-on-Don and was urging Russia to suppress the Euromaidan. If the Kremlin had so wished, better conditions for a victorious march on Kiev could hardly be imagined.

The second myth is that the Kremlin had long ago prepared the separation of Novorossiya (New Russia) from Ukraine. American experts write that the Russian leadership started preparing such a scenario either in 2010 or even as far back as 2004. If this were so, then in the cities of eastern and southern Ukraine they would have prepared, well in advance, groups of pro-Russian activists and militant groups not inferior in power to the “Maidan Self-Defense Forces.” In reality, the movements for federalization in Kharkov, Zaporozhye and Odessa were weak, due to growing differences between the various parties and their inability to reach a compromise.

The third myth is that the Kremlin was somehow frightened by Western sanctions. Economic sanctions are unpleasant for Russian business, but their scale is quite exaggerated. (For example, the U.S. refused to cooperate with Russia’s military industry, something that never existed in the first place). At the same time, Moscow retains in its possession levers of retaliation against the U.S. in the military-political sphere.

In the arsenal of its policy, Russia could include a set of tools like a complete cessation of cooperation with NATO on Afghanistan, refusing to take NASA astronauts to the ISS, and tearing up a series of agreements on disarmament – all the way up to the START-3 Treaty. However, the Kremlin has never officially threatened to use any of these levers.

It now appears that the Ukrainian policy of the Kremlin was never originally a cohesive strategy but, rather, a response to circumstances as they developed. In Moscow, until about the middle of February, the Kremlin believed in the stable position of Yanukovych. Until mid-April, the Kremlin believed in a speedy federalization of Ukraine. The coming to power of pro-Russian forces in Crimea was seen as a geopolitical gift by Moscow, which it skillfully took advantage of. The euphoria of the Crimean success and perceptions of the weakness of the Kiev authorities gave birth to a new game plan.

Russia’s Ukraine strategy changes course in April

The first outlines of Russia’s new policy on Ukraine were hinted at by President Vladimir Putin in his televised dialogue with the citizens of Russia on April 17. The essence of the Kremlin’s policy on Ukraine was reduced to three key positions.

First, Russia accepted a future reconciliation with West. In his April television appearance, Putin made no verbal attacks against the U.S., and never threatened Washington with retaliatory measures. (For those who recall Putin’s famous Munich speech, such a move seemed unusual). Russia made it clear that Crimea was a special case, and should not be used to deepen the conflict.

Second, the president of Russia used the ethnonym “Novorossiya” (New Russia). After the Luhansk People Republic (LPR) and the Donetsk People Republic (DPR) signed an agreement establishing Novorossiya on May 24, this term was seen as Moscow’s support for Ukrainian separatism. However, in April the talk was about federalization, and not about the breakup of Ukraine. Russia made it clear that a more federalized Ukraine better suited the interests of Moscow than a unitary state with a regime objectionable to the Kremlin.

Third, Moscow urged the countries of the EU to engage in dialogue to address the Ukrainian problem. The idea was to place the Ukrainian crisis in the context of European security, and so it was no accident that on that same day, the Geneva peace process was launched. Moscow had hoped that Paris and Berlin would mediate between Russia and the United States.

A federalized Ukraine with borders as of March 17 suited Russian interests. On the one hand, a Ukraine with its territorial disputes and conflicts would be impossible to take into NATO. On the other hand, Ukraine could become a buffer state between Russia and NATO. Moscow’s goal was to prevent the military and political forces of western and central Ukraine - which the Kremlin considers “nationalistic” - from taking control of the military and industrial potential of the southeastern regions of the country.

Three roadblocks to Moscow’s April strategy

However, the implementation of Russia’s Ukraine strategy, as it was formulated in April, quickly ran into three obstacles. The first roadblock was Moscow’s refusal to retaliate against American sanctions. The Russian leadership hoped that the West would appreciate this conciliatory gesture. Perhaps if Russia, in response to the sanctions, had stopped its cooperation on Afghanistan or withdrawn from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the situation would have turned out differently.

The second obstacle was the rapid consolidation of Ukraine on the basis of anti-Russian sentiment and a drop in support for advocates of the federalization of Ukraine. The pogroms in Odessa on May 2 that killed more than 40 people did not consolidate, but rather frightened supporters of federalization, and the protests in the Donbas became discredited.

The third roadblock was the recalling by the Federation Council of its March decision on the possibility of using Russian armed forces in Ukraine. Earlier, Kiev proceeded cautiously with military operations in the Donbas, fearing Russian intervention. Since the end of June, this threat has been removed. In the West, this gesture of the Kremlin was perhaps judged as Moscow signaling a willingness to retreat.

Finally, the Ukrainian crisis in general, and the catastrophe of the Malaysian Boeing, in particular, put under question the prospect of whether Western European countries – especially Germany and France – would be willing to quarrel with the United States for Russia’s sake.

Russia’s Ukraine policy changes course one more time

Putin’s speech on July 22 to the Security Council proves that Russia is beginning to revise its Ukrainian strategy. In essence, this boils down to three key points. First, at the present time, there is no threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia - but such a threat may appear in the future. Second, it is necessary to look for a strategy to counter the sanctions. Third, NATO is beginning to deploy military infrastructure in close proximity to Russia’s borders.

The first victim of these moves, by definition, will be the Russia-NATO “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security.” Russia will need to find an adequate answer to the new rules of the game in the Baltic and Black Sea regions.

In the coming months, the tasks of Russian policy seem obvious. This is to maintain control over Crimea, to search for the appropriate response to sanctions and to find some way to counter the strengthening of NATO positions. At the same time, it is preferable for Moscow to restore the mechanism of the “Contact Group” involving Germany and France.

As of today, the main problem for Russia in the Ukrainian conflict is the lack of time. Moscow’s diplomatic strategy, based on reaching a compromise with the European Union, needs time to implement. The situation in the Donbas, however, for now is more favorable for Kiev. As a result, the Kremlin is reformulating its approach to Ukraine so as to prevent the destruction of the separatists. The ultimate goal, of course, is to force Kiev and the EU to negotiate with Novorossiya.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.