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Destroyed bridge in eastern Ukraine
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Ben Robinson

The Putin regime's plan for the slow destruction of Ukraine

Nico de Pedro

This is an edited translation of an article in Spanish published on Agenda Pública/El País. Published with permission.

The original is here.

Ukraine is not sufficiently defeated. That is the reasoning behind the recent Russian attack on three Ukrainian vessels in international waters near the Kerch Strait. It’s not the first time Russian regular forces have confronted Ukrainian forces, but it’s the first time that Moscow neither hides it nor denies it. It is one more move in its conflict with Ukraine. For different reasons, neither party wants escalation towards open full-scale war, but the possibility can’t be ruled out either. To a large extent it depends, like almost everything since it started the war on its neighbour, on the will of the Kremlin.

In the short term, Moscow’s is to strangle the economy of the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk to add tension to the political situation in Kyiv and contribute to the collapse of the government. In the medium and long term, Russia wants to consolidate uncontested control over the Azov Sea and transform it, de facto , into a Russian lake. The illegal and illegitimate nature of the attack and of these objectives warrants little discussion, even if the Russian premise that the annexation of Crimea – even though that took place by force and was illegal  - allows it to extend its sovereignty to the surrounding waters of the Black Sea is accepted. The simple fact is that, in light of the information available, the attack took place in international waters and without prior provocation.

But Moscow does not care much about this. It recognizes neither the real sovereignty nor the full independence of a Ukraine that it is determined to subjugate. That's what this war is all about: the strategic control of Ukraine. Russia's goal is to force Ukraine to accept its geopolitical tutelage, neither more nor less. Everything else - Ukrainian decentralization, the language rights of minorities, etc. - are instruments to achieve that goal and, at the same time, rhetorical and diplomatic traps to mask and justify it.

Russia has never felt comfortable with the loss of Ukraine and Belarus or fully accepted it. The origins of the current conflict can be traced back to the end of the Soviet Union. It is worth remembering that one of the few issues where Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin agreed was in their conviction that the Crimean and eastern Ukrainian people would massively oppose Ukrainian independence. Not only was this not the case, but they supported it comfortably in the referendum of December 1991, even in Crimea, although there the result was closer there. The reasons were fundamentally economic. When the Soviet Union collapsed, everyone - with the notable exception of the Central Asian countries - tended to think that they would do better by themselves. But it is interesting to note how, 25 years later, Vladimir Putin's calculations in the spring of 2014 were based on the same misperception about the will of the Russophone population in the southern and eastern part of Ukraine. Russophone, Russian ethnic and pro-Russian are not, by the way, interchangeable terms.

The conflict that we are witnessing today cannot be understood without Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004. Given the pro-European and Atlanticist vocation of its leaders, the Kremlin decided to deploy a multiform and phased policy with a view to weakening Ukraine at all levels. Some results were very visible at the start of the crisis in 2014. The Ukrainian army was in disarray and the intelligence services were penetrated by Russia. The cycle of so-called colour revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and, to a lesser extent, Kyrgyzstan was perceived positively in Europe and interpreted as a continuation of the velvet revolutions of the late 1980s in Central Europe.

However, in Moscow and other capitals of the post-Soviet space, they were perceived and conceptualized as post-modern coups d'état instigated by Western intelligence services for geopolitical purposes. Hence the Kremlin's obsession with any protest movement, its tendency to interpret everything through a lens of conspiracy and its adoption of a siege mentality in the face of a supposed existential external threat. For Putin there is a line of continuity that leads from the Orange Revolution through the Arab Spring, the protests in Moscow in late 2011 and the Ukrainian Maidan. It is this cognitive bias that leads him to be convinced of the existence of a great Western plan whose ultimate goal is the bankruptcy and usurpation of power in Russia.

Another milestone is the famous NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, in which Putin crudely and explicitly warned of the consequences that Georgia and Ukraine could face for their aspiration to become members of the Atlantic Alliance. The war in Georgia broke out only four months later. Viewed in perspective, and setting aside the mistakes made by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili at the time, it seems clear that the lukewarm Western response, not to say disinterest, in turn encouraged the adoption of an aggressive agenda towards Ukraine. At that same summit, the Russian president predicted the breakup of Ukraine, which he views not as a country but a "complex state formation", in his words.

The enlargement of NATO is one of the common themes in our discussions about the conflict in Ukraine and the European crisis with Russia. Two notes on this. On the one hand, it is often insisted that the Alliance ‘absorbing’ the Baltic republics is the origin of the problem. Those who say this also often claim that the Baltics’ fears about Russia are unfounded because the very fact of belonging to NATO makes a Russian military attack unthinkable, since it would entail the activation of Article 5. NATO, therefore, would not be a source of instability, but a guarantor of peace in the region. The period between a country saying it wants to join and being finally accepted as a member - if it is accepted - is the critical time of maximum vulnerability, as evidenced by the Georgian and Ukrainian cases.

On the other hand, it is more accurate to state that the East moved towards the West than vice versa. It is the countries of the former Warsaw Pact that have been knocking at the door of NATO (and the EU). The question that should be asked by the Kremlin is why its neighbours feel the urgent need to have strategic insurance and move away from Moscow. The answer, obviously, is the fear and concern shared by all, except China, Mongolia and North Korea, but including the Scandinavian countries - that is, not only the former Soviet republics. However, it is that same fear - especially the destabilizing capacity of the Kremlin - that is the main element in keeping others like Belarus or Kazakhstan firmly anchored in Russia's orbit. That is why the Kremlin assesses - also because of the political culture of those who monopolize power - that intimidation produces satisfactory results.

The strength and triumph of Maidan disrupted Russia's plans to incorporate Ukraine into the Eurasian Union project. For the Kremlin it was a priority to make the reformist agenda in Kyiv fail, since a hypothetical prosperous and democratic Ukraine that could inspire ordinary Russians is an unacceptable risk for the Putin regime. Mismanagement by the Ukrainian political class is also responsible for the failure of reforms, but the Kremlin’s military intervention on the territory of its neighbour exacerbates these problems. In addition, the lack of reform in Russia itself implies the need to maintain captive markets against more competitive neighbours such as the EU or China. Not to mention that a Ukraine which is integrating in Europe clashes with the Kremlin's conception of the identity and scope of Russian civilization. This is a diffuse and controversial aspect that the Russian authorities use flexibly, but increasingly since Putin's return to the presidency in March 2012.

In the spring of 2014, the Kremlin toyed with the idea of incorporating the entire southern and eastern part of Ukraine. The Tsarist term ‘Novorossiya’ (New Russia) was employed to describe this entity and Putin used it in at least two public speeches. If it had been successful, it would have helped solve several problems: allowing Russia to have a land connection to Transnistria (broken off from Moldova) and to Crimea, as well as closing Ukraine’s access to the sea. The plan was to instigate popular uprisings that would later justify Russian ‘humanitarian intervention’ as a force for peace and stabilization. These uprisings not only did not occur, but Russia was forced to send fighters and leaders for an uprising that only managed to take root in small parts of the Donbas region.

In the last five years we have witnessed an undercover military intervention that was not declared and partly subcontracted . It's a growing pattern of the Kremlin’s operations elsewhere. The appearance in Syria or sub-Saharan Africa of the Wagner Russian military contractors, the role of the so-called Internet Research Agency - a force to aggressively intervene on social media -  are good examples of this dynamic. Ukraine has been the unfortunate guinea pig for the testing of new types of intervention, ranging from the use of conventional military force to massive cyber disruption or the intensive use of disinformation campaigns and psychological warfare operations.

The Kremlin expects that Ukraine will either collapse due to its impoverished domestic situation or that it will lose support from the Euro-Atlantic axis. Moscow also relies on its ability to co-opt members of the corrupt Ukrainian ruling class. The strategic use of corruption is an instrument that has worked well for decades and continues to do so, including in Western Europe. But in Ukraine, the Kremlin either ignores or does not clearly perceive the impact of the war on society. As a result, a clearly differentiated Ukrainian political identity is being consolidated, and even built in opposition to its neighbour. The conflict, therefore, will remain entrenched and unresolved for a long time. Even more so because Donbas is an instrument to achieve this strategic control over Kiev, but not an end in itself. Hence, through the Minsk process, only an indefinite ceasefire can be achieved, in the best of scenarios, but not a definitive solution for a war that has already claimed over 10,000 lives.

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