From Vladimir Putin’s own declarations, the statements of his officials and advisers, and the comments of informed Russians, it appears that the Russian president’s principal goal is to restore Russia to great power status by re-establishing Russian dominance over other former Soviet republics. The Eurasian Union, a free-trade bloc among former Soviet states that is due to emerge next year, is the instrument chosen for this task. It is to be responsible for economic, financial, and potentially strategic affairs. The latter competence could allow Moscow to intervene militarily in the other republics.
To bring recalcitrant potential partners to join the Eurasian Union, Russia appears to be prepared, if necessary, to use force.
Should he fail in enrolling certain republics, Mr. Putin may seek to have their Russian minorities annexed by the Russian federation.
For several reasons, Mr. Putin has begun to coerce Ukraine first:
– For Vladimir Putin, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus constitute a three-part Russian nation;
– The Russians consider Ukrainian membership in the Eurasian Union essential to its success;
– Russia wants to stop Ukraine from moving West;
– President Viktor Yanukovych’s downfall left Ukraine especially vulnerable to destabilization.
According to Russian sources, Russia has long had plans for intervening in Ukraine. The Ukrainians claim that Russian agents have been in Ukraine for some years in preparation.
Mr. Putin has stated that he wants to see Ukraine become a federation, with the states having certain competences in foreign relations. Various Russians have described the desired type of federation as similar to that in Bosnia-Herzegovina or between Greenland and Denmark. Such an arrangement would be, in fact, a loosely jointed confederation. Bosnia is barely a state, and Greenland is on the verge of independence. This week’s pseudo-referendums in Eastern Ukraine in favour of secession appear to be a Russian attempt to force the Ukrainian government to negotiate on either separation or federalization. Neither of these options shows much support in opinion polls.
One of Mr. Putin’s advisers and co-authors of the Putin Doctrine, Sergey Karaganov, has stated that Russia wants “a united, federative Ukraine.. if possible. Only this arrangement will maintain the formal integrity of the state, but Ukraine as a full-fledged state will be a distant historical memory.” “This scenario will ensure Russia's de facto dominance in east and southeast Ukraine and semi-autonomy for the country's west.”
Russian demands on Ukraine may cast a light on Russia’s plans for the other former Soviet republics. If so, they would be forced to become semi-sovereign entities without autonomy in foreign policy or in some aspects of domestic policy. The Russians threatened to break up Ukraine if it joined NATO or signed the Association Agreement with the European Union. Russia has also refused to accept the recent revolution in Ukraine and it has attempted to dictate Ukraine’s constitutional structure.
The language that Mr. Putin has used in seeking authority to invade Ukraine, and the bill put forward for annexing foreign territories, can also be used against other states. Mr. Putin asked for the authority to invade so as to protect Russian citizens and compatriots. Under Russian law, the term “compatriot” includes former Russian citizens, and descendants of citizens of the former Soviet Union or the Russian Empire – in other words, almost the entire population of all former Soviet republics, and beyond.
The bill submitted on 1 March to the Duma to allow for the annexation of foreign territories seeking incorporation into Russia was not restricted to Ukraine.
Russia’s new policy has created a highly dangerous situation. The Russian efforts to destabilize Eastern and Southern Ukraine so as to bring the country to heel can slip into war, creating a human catastrophe in Ukraine, and a flood of refugees beyond. An easy Russian victory in Ukraine can encourage Russian actions against the other republics.
The West has a strong interest therefore in supporting the territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine. The West must continue to pursue an activist diplomacy backed by strong sanctions.
The West must also consider building up NATO, and stationing NATO forces in its Eastern members. The Russians must be left in no doubt that the West will defend the Baltic Republics.