The current Ukrainian-Russian crisis is an event many analysts anticipated years ago. I participated in a simulation evolving both countries while pursuing post-undergraduate work at Washington State University. The current crisis is compelling me to reflect on the simulation. What’s interesting is neither the present situation or the exercise have many commonalities.
The current crisis mandates asking several questions: Why is the Ukraine vital in Russia’s psyche? What are Moscow’s strategic interests in Kiev? What potential directions might Russia take in the upcoming days and weeks towards Ukraine? And is Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, willing to risk long-term repercussions in exchange for a direct or covert domination of Ukrainian politics?
• Kiev is historically seen as the birthplace of Russian civilization.
• The Ukraine traditionally serves as an invasion route of European powers into Russia.
• Kiev is at the crossroads of Europe’s energy affairs.
• The Ukraine allows Russia to project its naval power into the Mediterranean and beyond via the Black Sea fleet in Crimea’s Sevastopol port.
• A key unknown is how far Putin will pursue his Ukraine endeavor.
The Ukraine is strategically vital to Russia for several reasons. Many Russians view the Ukraine with a certain historical awe. The ancient Kievan Rus Empire in the Ukraine unified the Russian and Ukrainian people under Christianity in 989 A.D. The action planted the seeds for Russia’s eventual emergence. The Ukraine has also served as an invasion route into Russia for different European nations during the centuries. The most notable incursions transpired when France invaded in the early 19th century, and Germany during World War II. Moscow vehemently opposes Kiev’s efforts for joining NATO consequently — even if there is an almost nonexistent possibility any European power will attempt a similar operation. Russia sees controlling or strategically influencing Ukraine as a means of preventing a similar recurrence.
The Crimea is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol. The city is the only warm water port in Russia Proper. The fleet consists of over 100 submarines, cruisers, destroyers and smaller combat ships. Moscow uses the Black Sea Fleet for power projection purposes. Ownership rights of the fleet has been a source of contention between Moscow and Kiev. Control of the Crimea mutes the problem; it also gives Russia undeniable ownership of the Black Sea fleet.
Russia sees enhanced influence in Ukraine as solidifying its energy clout over Europe.
A significant portion of Europe plus Ukraine are reliant upon Russia for its natural gas needs. Moscow is not above using its energy clout as a political instrument as has occurred. Moscow has used its natural gas supplier status as leverage during several disputes with the Ukraine since 2000 — at the expense of Russia’s European customers. A Ukraine under Russian control and/or with a Kremlin proxy might eliminate this issue.
Moscow sees Kiev as the final element needed for a new Russian empire. Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” He is seeking to create a new Russian empire via a new entity called the Eurasian Union. Russia plans on modeling the new organization after the European Union; Ukraine’s membership is crucial for the organization’s legitimacy in Putin’s opinion. It’s a key reason why Russia opposes any augmentation/enhancement of Ukrainian-EU relations.
Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea is unsurprising, nor is Moscow’s diplomatic maneuvering. How far Putin is willing to take his Ukraine pursuits is debatable. The EU and U.S. have already issued sanctions against various Russian officials; Moscow is also experiencing a degree of international isolation considering its membership in the G8 is suspended. Any military invasion of Ukraine outside of the Crimea will likely be met with additional EU/U.S. economic sanctions and international isolation. These may especially include a cancellation of EU projects or contracts that could allow Russia to start diversifying its economy away from an energy-focus — an objective Moscow is pursuing, yet may have to postpone depending on Putin’s policies. The Kremlin will probably initiate an unheard of economic, energy, diplomatic and/or military scenario toward the Ukraine. It will likely surprise Brussels and Washington. Nothing can be discounted; it’s not above Putin to pursue such measures, especially regarding the Ukraine.
Matthew Kennedy has a master’s degree in diplomatic studies from the University of Westminster in London. He’s lived in Europe, Asia and Russia. Comments or questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.