Maia Urushadze, Analyst

The Kremlin lists two reasons for Russia’s large-scale military aggression against Ukraine: The persecution of the Russian population in Ukraine, and Western measures endangering Russia’s national interests. It is intriguing how much of Russia’s activities are reactive, and whether the current events in Ukraine are a part of Russia’s long-term strategy, which has been modified in accordance with the resources of the Russian Federation, but remain largely unchanged.

On February 24, 2022, in his address to the nation, the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, named the official reasons for the start of the “special military operation,” in fact a large-scale war, as “the protection of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine from genocide, the de-nationalization and demilitarization of Ukraine, as well as the prevention of the growing threat to Russia’s national interests – the expansion of NATO to the east and the approach of the alliance’s infrastructure to Russia’s borders.”

Simultaneously, before the large-scale military aggression against Ukraine in 2022, Moscow applied ultimatums to the USA and requested the NATO Alliance return to the situation of 1997 and offer guarantees that NATO would not expand further eastward (These include Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania and the Balkan countries).Moscow directly considered Washington as a negotiator in this process, with whom it sought to reach an agreement on European security. If the USA had agreed to this Russian attempt (unrealistic as it was from the start), another precedent of dividing Europe into spheres of influence would have been created (for the first time since the Cold War), a fact fundamentally unacceptable for Washington.

Despite the Kremlin’s efforts to portray the decision to launch a war against Ukraine as a response to external threats, it is evident after examining recent political decisions, articles, and statements made by high-ranking Russian government officials that the aggression against Ukraine (and not just Ukraine) is part of Putin’s long-term plans. The November 2011 article “Where has the chaos gone?” “Unpacking stability by Vladislav Surkov, a former adviser to the Russian president and one of the Kremlin’s ideologues until recently, provides the best explanation of the Kremlin’s geopolitical visions.

According to Surkov, at the end of the 20th century, the Russian government overcame social chaos and created a solid-state structure. He notes the need to “let off steam” in closed systems, yet considers the expression of public energy in liberal-political processes within the country to be a “dangerous path”, and identifies the alternative as “the release of toxic social energy outside the country – the export of chaos”. As a successful example of the mentioned process, he cites the occupation of Crimea, during which, as he says, the consolidation of Russian society took place at the expense of the chaos created in the neighboring country.

Surkov concludes that the global chaos will continue until the global players (meaning the USA, China, and Russia) collide with each other, as a result of which a new international order will be achieved (a New Vienna Congress or Yalta Conference). According to the author, before this clash, Russia “should continue to collect land, not because it is good or bad, but because it is simply a law of physics.”

Even from this article, it is clear that the main foreign-political agenda of the last decade of Putin’s regime has been the division of the world into spheres of influence, under the pretext of transforming the world’s multipolar international system. If this goal is achieved, the Kremlin would at least be able to ensure its own influence on the post-Soviet countries. Further, the risks of public protest changing the political regime, considered the biggest threat to Putin’s government, would be prevented for a long time to come.

Traditionally, the particularly negative reaction of the Putin regime came as a result of the “color revolutions” in the post-Soviet countries, alongside the processes named the “Arab Spring” in the Arab countries. The Kremlin’s fear of popular protests leading to changes to autocratic regimes intensified during the so-called “Balotnaya protests” (2011-2013), as well as during the 2020 protests in Belarus, to which the Kremlin responded by persecuting and harassing dissenting political opinion in the public space of the country. This process reached a peak in 2022, against the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine.

In parallel, the Kremlin’s foreign-political goal has been the formation of the “USSR 2.0” by 2024 (ahead of the next presidential elections in Russia) which it seeks to do by unifying the Pan-Slavic (Russian Federation, Belarus, Ukraine) countries and by strengthening control over the countries of the South Caucasus and Central Asia. This strategic vision is seen in the pressure put on the political leadership of Belarus in 2019 by the Kremlin, in Moscow’s indirect intervention in the internal political processes of Belarus in 2020, and in the involvement of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (Kuho) in Kazakhstani issues in January 2021- all done with the aim of strengthening the integration of Russia-Belarus with the allied state. It is significant that as a result of the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan 44-day war, Moscow expanded its pressure mechanisms on Armenia and Azerbaijan by deploying Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Given the above scenario, it was extremely important for Russia to achieve military and political success in Ukraine. A few days after the start of the military operations in Ukraine, it became clear that Moscow would not achieve its strategic goal to, as a result of rapid and large-scale actions by the Russian armed forces, change the political leadership in Ukraine (presumably by illegitimately returning the former president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych to the post of president), which would translate into Ukraine coming into the sphere of Russian influence. Nevertheless, the Kremlin managed to occupy additional territories of Ukraine and continues to deplete Kyiv’s resources. At the beginning of the war, international pressure (international sanctions) and Russia’s failure to achieve significant progress on the front line pushed Moscow to adjust its tactics. There has since been some ambiguity in the rhetoric of the Russian government regarding the Kremlin’s plans in Ukraine. On February 21, during his speech before the Federal Assembly, the President of Russia explained the war in Ukraine as a defensive action of Russia and the Russian people. At the same time, he drew attention to the “decision to unite with Russia” of the population of the four occupied regions of Ukraine (Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson). Here, Putin noted that if the West supplies Ukraine with long-range weapons, Russia will have to move „these threats” further away from its borders.

The messages of the Russian President mentioned above may indicate that, in the short term, the Kremlin’s goal is to ensure its control over the occupied Crimean Autonomous Republic, as well as over the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson regions. However, in the event of military-political success, Moscow’s sphere of interest may expand. Overall, Putin has indicated his readiness to conduct long-term military operations in Ukraine and escalate the situation.

Taking into account the reality created in the combat theater today, and the international support expressed in favor of Ukraine, it remains unclear how well Russia will be able to hold the occupied four regions within the administrative borders of Ukraine. In the event of no tangible successes on the battlefield, the short-term goal of the Russian leadership may be to maintain actual control over the occupied territory of Ukraine and “freeze” the conflict. If events develop in this direction, Moscow will continue to manipulate Ukraine’s territorial issues and various internal state weaknesses and, after gathering forces, may even try to resume military operations once again.

Based on the above, the consolidated position of the liberal democracies is crucial today, both in terms of supporting Ukraine and in restraining/isolating Russia’s aggression. At the end of this year of war, with NATO member states providing Ukraine with the weapons needed for counteroffensive operations, the aggressor is likely to lose the strategic initiative and begin retreating.

Therefore, it is extremely important that the political initiative remains on the side of the West/Ukraine after a counter-offensive by Western-armed Ukraine. The West must make a consolidated choice not only between the political paradigms in terms of Ukraine’s winning or losing the war, but must also ensure the formation of a new European security architecture, at which time a long-term political strategy must be defined both with Russia and with the countries of the Black Sea region as a whole.

If not, Russia, based on its strategic goals, will continue its efforts to maintain its influence on neighboring countries and disrupt their statehood, in the very least via a variety of hybrid methods. It is extremely important that the West stays faithful to US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s vision, which implies the victory of Ukraine and, the weakening of Russia so that it can no longer pose a threat to its neighbors. For the long-term implementation of this formula, the security architecture and economic relations of the West should be established as a dominant factor in the wider Black Sea region. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova  supporting the process of full-fledged integration in the European and Euro-Atlantic space, and developing effective cooperation formats with Azerbaijan and Armenia is of the greatest importance.[1]

[1] According to an entry in the Constitution, Moldova has declared its neutrality. However, against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war, the political elite of the country are actively discussing the abrogation of Moldova’s neutrality and the expediency of the country joining NATO.