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Russias goals in the

Ukrainian conflict
Crimea and Donbas viewed through the lens of realism

April 14, 2016

Bartosz Ciurski

The end of the Cold War has brought many people to believe in the illusion of peace in
the Western World. As Russia and the United States signed historical treaties about reducing
nuclear stockpiles, the main attention to world violence turned to the Middle East. This was only
strengthened by the September 11 attacks in the United States, followed by the War in Iraq as
well as Afghanistan. The world, however, got a wake-up call in 2008, that the area of the former
Soviet Union is not peaceful after its dissolution. This happened when a first larger and more
publicized conflict took place in Georgia. Since then, a much larger conflict began, this time over
Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Donbas, fueled by the Russian Federation,
are best described from Russia's perspective by realism in general but more specifically, by
Mearsheimer's offensive realism. This theory is able to explain Russia's behavior and its
aggressive pursuit of the goals it has set out to achieve within the close proximity of its borders
and particularly the control of the Black Sea, but also political influence within the neighboring
After World War II, the Soviet Union maintained influence over the countries east of
divided Germany, while the western world controlled territories west of that. The Soviet Union
itself was made up of republics, which often followed purely political boundary lines with no
regard to actual ethnic populations and allegiances, much like in decolonized Africa. The main
hot spot, Crimea, had been under Russian control ever since its annexation by the Russian
Empire in 1783. Within the system of the Soviet Union, Crimea was arbitrarily transferred to the
Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic on the basis of ...the integral character of the economy, the
territorial proximity and the close economic and cultural ties between the Crimea Province and
the Ukrainian SSR... (Transfer of Crimea) To an extent, it was also suggested to be a
symbolic gesture commemorating 300th anniversary of Ukraine becoming a part of the Russian
Empire (Transfer of Crimea). As closer scrutiny shows, this was a very short-sighted political

move which was supposed to bolster Kruschevs support on the domestic stage (Kramer). A
move, which had little real consequences at the time, as the everyday, practical situation of the
peninsula remained the same. The population of Crimea remained majority Russian, the territory
remained as a part of the Soviet Union with the centralized government ultimately in Moscow,
and the Black Sea fleet firmly stationed and in control in Sevastopol (Roeder).
It was not until the break-up of the Soviet Union that the issue of ownership of certain
places, in this case Crimean peninsula, became crucial. Initially, after declaring independence,
Ukraine claimed the entirety of the Black Sea Fleet, stationed in Crimea, as Ukrainian Navy,
much as it did with the remainder of the Red Army stationed on its soil. However, after a series
of agreements and transitional period, Ukraine gave up a lot of the Black Sea Fleet to Russia and
signed a lease agreement with Russia, allowing the Russian Navy to use the Sevastopol base for
its Black Sea Fleet. In the meantime, the Russian Federation signed a series of Budapest
Memorandums, in which signatories, including Belarus, Ukraine, UK, US, agreed that Ukraine,
Belarus and Kazakhstan will be considered independent countries, their territorial sovereignty
respected and no nuclear force to be used against them (Budjeryn).
While all of the countries coming out of the Soviet Union were weak and fighting for
survival, states aligned with the west, including Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Baltic
states, made efforts to join NATO. From the very beginning, these states made it clear that they
feared Russia (Gebhard). NATO, an organizational founded chiefly against the Soviet Union,
was now being enlarged and was accepting members closer to Russia's borders. Finally,
countries such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia turned towards the West and expressed interest
in joining the European Union and, more importantly, NATO, with which Russia is at odds.
Russia understandably fears that its interests and security are being threatened by NATO's
and the European Union's already established expansion to the central European countries and
the Baltic States, as well as the attempted expansion into Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova

(Plekhanov). For a period of time, Ukraine was ruled by governments that were at least neutral,
if not friendly towards Russia. Such was the case with the Yanukovich government, which was
violently overthrown by the Euromaidan riots. It is no coincidence that soon after
overwhelmingly Western-oriented forces took over, Russia stepped in to secure its vital interests
in the Black Sea (Stent).
All forms of realism share some basic tenets which are fundamental to the theory. These
include the recognition that the international system is a state of anarchy, not ruled by a single
government. They also recognize that each state's core goal is survival. However, as offensive
realism furthers this, each state tries to maximize its power. A state which is able to achieve
hegemony, at least regionally, will definitely not pass up the opportunity to do so. In case of the
Russian Federation, two things are at play. One, security. One of the tenets of realism is that
states can never be certain of other states' intentions. The conflict between Russia and the West
demonstrates that perfectly. While there were debates over NATO's future and even possible
dissolution in the early 90's, just the opposite happened (Sjursen). Of course, Russia is not just a
victim in this game. Russian Federation fulfills that uncertainty tenet of realism on its own as
well. This is demonstrated by events such as military exercises codenamed West aimed at
warfare west of the country's borders, placement of large numbers of ballistic missiles in the
Kaliningrad Oblast or breaching the airspace of the Baltic states and Canada, which is often
reported in the media and heightens tensions (Dearden). At the same time, Russia obviously
informs the public that its objectives are peaceful and it is NATO that is attempting to attack it
Second issue at play here is the regional power and attempt at hegemony. The main
purpose of Ukraine's and Georgia's pursuit of NATO membership was the fear of Russia and its
possible attempt at imperialism just after the Soviet Union dissolution, as well as simply an
attempt to leave its sphere of influence after such a long time as either satellite states to Russia or

republics of the Soviet Union. As such, it was only natural to expect Russia to attempt to keep its
control over those countries, even if it involved using military power to destabilize the region or
annex certain territories.
Even though the pro-Russian, Yanukovich-led Ukraine extended the lease agreement of
Sevastopol base, which gave Russia the legal rights to it until 2043 (Harding), the instability that
ensued after Euromaidan forced it to action. While there was perhaps little realistic threat to its
fleet, Russia decided to take control of the entire peninsula and it went ahead with the support for
separatist movements and engineering of the first breaking away of, and ultimately annexation of
the Autonomous Region of Crimea. To maximize its show of force and its influence in Ukraine,
it backed separatist movements in Lugansk and Donbas regions. The war in the eastern parts of
the country plunged Ukraine into economic depression and serious political instability. For
Kremlin, this is the best way to destabilize the country and reassert its control when the time
comes. By fueling the crisis and indirectly supporting the rebels, as well as raising prices on
resources sold to Ukraine, Russia can win over the Ukrainian populace by showing them that
while things were not great under Yanukovich, they are a lot worse now. It is clear to the rest of
the world that it is really Russia and not just small separatist groups that are behind the rebellion,
but it also enable Moscow to slowly reach its goal without having to spend enormous amounts of
money for a full-scale invasion, which would not be viable in today's world and the nature of the
international law. Still, Russia has gained military control of Crimea, de facto control of the
eastern-most Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Lugansk and its areas, and managed to destabilize
Ukraine and sink its economy. Knowing very well that the European Union will be not prevent
Russia from doing so, apart from economic sanctions and limited aid to Ukraine, Russia's leaders
can patiently wait as the country naturally falls back into its sphere of influence, as it will be
forced to seek external aid, and Russia will be the only one who can willingly and realistically
provide it.

The cease-fire between Ukraine and the rebels, brokered and signed in Minsk, henceforth
known as the Minsk Protocol, is another way in which the stronger state, Russian federation,
subjugated Ukraine, in the name of theoretical international law. As the realist theory views the
international system as an anarchy, there is ultimately no ability to enforce such an agreement if
a state is a strong one. Thus, it is Ukraine that is ultimately bound by it and its forces have to
respond to western scrutiny, as any aid from the West depends on such determinations. On the
other hand, Russian-backed separatist forces cannot be realistically compelled to follow such an
agreement, thus keeping Ukraine pinned down without a real recourse to any higher authority,
for no such authority exists.
In conclusion, offensive realism explains why Russia took action in Crimea and furthered
the conflict in Ukraine. It shows that it is not, like some commentators would like to believe, a
crazy, Stalin-like move to re-create the Soviet Union or that it is led by a power-hungry
dictator in Putin. In fact, realism shows that main goals of these actions are, at its core, survival
of the Federation, and then, maximizing its power to at least restore the balance in the region.
Furthermore, the goal is to get as much of its influence in the region back as possible to become
a regional hegemon. Crimea and Ukraine are not isolated cases, after all. This is exemplified by
the cases of Moldova, which, on the pretext of keeping peace in the Transnistria region, have
permanently stationed troops on the territory which is internationally-recognized as Moldova.
Moldova has Western European aspirations, shown by EU association treaty, but due to the
Russian permanent stationing and lack of full territorial control over its territory, Moldova might
well be stuck in its positions as a vassal to Moscow, rather than Brussels. The same was seen
with Georgia, which, having made serious steps to join NATO and even made claims that it
would like to join the European Union in the future. Once it took actual steps to regain control of
its territory in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia intervened and destabilized the region, putting
any Georgian attempts to leave the Russian sphere of influence and join the Western world many

steps back in development. Russian Federation has the right to feel threatened as it is surrounded
by countries openly hostile to it trying to ally with western, rather anti-Russian organizations. It
is then understandable that Russia attempts to regain this by military and political force, and this
explains the case of Crimea and Donbas.

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