What Putin Fears Will Happen in Ukraine

The new Ukraine government is pivoting toward Western influence, and the Russian president is ready to pull it right back.

Russian forces guard in the Ukrainian anti-aircraft unit in the western Crimean city of Yevpatoria on March 5.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
March 5, 2014, 5:18 a.m.

As the threat of mil­it­ary con­flict builds in East­ern Europe, Ukraine has asked NATO for help.

Spe­cific­ally, Ukraine wants the mil­it­ary al­li­ance to “look at us­ing all pos­sib­il­it­ies for pro­tect­ing the ter­rit­ori­al in­teg­rity and sov­er­eignty” of the coun­try. Al­though NATO is not ob­lig­ated to de­fend Ukraine be­cause it’s not a mem­ber coun­try, al­li­ance of­fi­cials have called an emer­gency meet­ing with Rus­sia on Wed­nes­day to ad­dress its es­cal­at­ing mil­it­ary move­ments in Crimea, a sov­er­eign ter­rit­ory of Ukraine.

Some people have sug­ges­ted fast-track­ing Ukraine’s ac­cept­ance to NATO — and the European Uni­on, while they’re at it — so that the West could in­ter­vene in the crisis.

That is ex­actly the last thing Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin wants to hap­pen.

For Putin, a Ukraine fully in­teg­rated in­to the West means a Ukraine out­side of Rus­sia’s “sphere of in­flu­ence.” Ukraine has been a weak link in Rus­sia’s buf­fer against West­ern in­flu­ence since the end of the Cold War. If Ukraine enters the European fold, oth­er former So­viet na­tions could even­tu­ally fol­low suit, splin­ter­ing the em­pire that Rus­si­an lead­ers have des­per­ately tried to hold to­geth­er, at least un­of­fi­cially, since the break­up of the So­viet Uni­on. For Putin, an east­ward NATO ex­pan­sion means Mo­scow could lose its firm grasp on its neigh­bor­ing, young coun­tries and, by ex­ten­sion, its glob­al stand­ing.

“Rus­sia was, is, and will be an em­pire with an etern­al ap­pet­ite for ex­pan­sion,” Ju­lia Ioffe sums up at The New Re­pub­lic. “And it will gath­er whatever spuri­ous reas­ons it needs to in­su­late it­self ter­rit­ori­ally from what it still per­ceives to be a large and grow­ing NATO threat.”

In 2008, Ukraine be­came a can­did­ate for the NATO Mem­ber­ship Ac­tion Plan, a pro­cess by which cur­rent NATO mem­bers re­view the ap­plic­a­tions of na­tions wish­ing to join. This was, un­sur­pris­ingly, met with hos­til­ity in Rus­sia. But the pro­cess was hal­ted in 2010 when Krem­lin-backed Vikt­or Ya­nukovych, now ous­ted, be­came pres­id­ent. Ya­nukovych was ful­filling a cam­paign prom­ise to keep Ukraine out of the al­li­ance, one that was, at the time, not without pub­lic sup­port. A 2009 Pew Re­search poll on glob­al at­ti­tudes found that 51 per­cent of Ukrain­i­ans op­posed NATO mem­ber­ship, while only 28 per­cent favored it.

Last Novem­ber, E.U. of­fi­cials said that Ukraine could sign an as­so­ci­ation agree­ment, a treaty that makes way for co­oper­a­tion between the or­gan­iz­a­tion and a non-mem­ber coun­try, whenev­er Ukraine chose. The Ya­nukovych ad­min­is­tra­tion stalled on agree­ing to the pact in fa­vor of closer ties with Rus­sia, prompt­ing the protests in Kiev that even­tu­ally led to the pres­id­ent’s over­throw.

Now, the lead­ers with­in the newly formed Ukrain­i­an gov­ern­ment are eager to align their na­tion­al in­terests with Europe rather than Rus­sia. Be­fore he be­came Ukraine’s prime min­is­ter, Ar­sen­iy Yat­seny­uk said last month that “some­body” was look­ing to squash demo­cracy in the re­gion. Yat­seny­uk de­clined to name that per­son, but dropped a few big hints at Rus­sia. “You guess who,” he said. “A num­ber of coun­tries in this world have their own vis­ion of demo­cracy and their own style of demo­cracy, and they want to en­large this space and to have an­oth­er Ber­lin Wall.” A re­quest to re­start mem­ber­ship talks with NATO and the E.U. won’t come as a sur­prise.

And the West seems will­ing to ne­go­ti­ate if Ukraine seeks form­al re­cog­ni­tion. The E.U. an­nounced Wed­nes­day that the group is plan­ning to of­fer a $15 bil­lion aid pack­age to Ukraine over the next two years. The head of NATO, mean­while, has said that the door for mem­ber­ship re­mains open. Across the pond, mem­bers of Con­gress, such as Sen. John Mc­Cain, are call­ing for NATO mem­ber­ship for Ukraine’s neigh­bors, Geor­gia and Mol­dova. Those former So­viet re­pub­lics still re­main un­der Mo­scow’s thumb.

But ex­tend­ing NATO and E.U. mem­ber­ship to any of these coun­tries — now or in the fu­ture — would be a non­starter for Putin. Such a ges­ture could even prove dan­ger­ous.

“Ex­pand­ing NATO fur­ther in­to post-So­viet space is a red line with Rus­sia, and the U.S. is frankly not in a po­s­i­tion to chal­lenge it without run­ning a huge risk,” ex­plains Greg Scob­lete at Real­Clear­World. “Put bluntly, Rus­sia will be able to in­vade east­ern Ukraine faster than the West could ad­mit Ukraine in­to NATO to de­ter Rus­si­an ag­gres­sion.”

What’s more, Scob­lete writes, “mak­ing vague prom­ises about NATO mem­ber­ship to Ukraine may ac­tu­ally pro­voke Rus­sia to move bey­ond Crimea and ex­pose West­ern bluffs.”

Scob­lete’s pre­dic­tion stems from a sim­il­ar situ­ation in Geor­gia in 2008. Back then, the coun­try’s bid to join NATO had di­vided the al­li­ance. The United States had pushed hard on be­half of Geor­gia and Ukraine in or­der to help pro­tect the coun­tries from Rus­si­an mil­it­ary ag­gres­sion, but France, Ger­many, and sev­er­al oth­ers wer­en’t sold. NATO lead­ers chose not to put the two East­ern Europe coun­tries on a form­al path to mem­ber­ship, agree­ing in­stead that they “will be­come mem­bers” even­tu­ally. It was the is­sue of mem­ber­ship, Dmitri Tren­in, the dir­ect­or of the for­eign-policy think tank Carne­gie Mo­scow Cen­ter, wrote in The Guard­i­an on Sunday, that “ma­ter­i­ally con­trib­uted” to the war between Rus­sia and Geor­gia that year.

For Putin, main­tain­ing the cul­tur­al, eco­nom­ic, and polit­ic­al buf­fer between East and West is cru­cial. That means se­cur­ing the parts of Ukraine that would cost his coun­try the most, such as pro-Rus­sia Crimea. To the West­ern world lead­ers wel­com­ing Ukraine with open arms, Rus­sia has one mes­sage: Stay out of our back­yard.

Dur­ing his vis­it to Kiev on Tues­day, Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry said he has a “deep per­son­al sense of how deeply linked Ukrain­i­ans are to Amer­ic­ans and the rest of the world.” Putin would prefer to sever those links for good.

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