There seem to be two main narratives of the Ukrainian conflict doing the rounds in the Western media. On one extreme is the thesis that Putin is determined on expanding Russian territory. On the other, his actions are a logical and understandable response to the reckless expansion of NATO. Neither of these is quite true.
Crimea aside, Putin has resisted officially expanding the territory of the Russian Federation. The separatist statelets of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdnistria have each asked to be admitted to the federation only to be politely ignored. The military logic of this is impeccable: the cost of incorporating and defending territory is unnecessary if the same aims can be achieved by sowing chaos. Better to keep one’s neighbours worried enough that they don’t want to provoke you, but not worried enough that they act decisively against you. The ideal outcome from Russia’s point of view is a near-abroad of buffer states that know their place in the pecking order, and for nearly two decades that’s more or less what it had.
We instinctively understand that military alliances are threatening, and it’s tempting therefore to point the finger at NATO. But to blame NATO for upsetting the balance is disingenuous. The Yushchenko government suggested in 2008 that it might join NATO, and was rebuffed after Russia (understandably) objected. The post-Maidan government initially made clear that it had no intention of repeating that mistake. NATO membership was overwhelmingly unpopular in Ukraine before the Crimean crisis, polling consistently under 20%. The threat to Russia came not from NATO, but from the EU.
Unlike NATO, the EU is consistently popular in Ukraine. The catalyst for the Maidan protests was the choice of the government to abandon a long-promised free trade agreement with the EU in favour of a Russian counterproposal. Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, three of the five largest post-Soviet economies, had recently agreed to create the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a rival economic bloc to the EU with two distinct advantages for Putin: Russian hegemony and fewer restrictions on the exercise of state power.
Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Armenia were all close to signing free trade agreements with the EU when the EEU counter-offers started coming in. Armenia was persuaded to switch, but as the second largest economy after Russia itself, Ukraine was the real objective. When the Ukrainian people chose the EU over Russia, it not only stunted the viability of the EEU project, but also spurned what most Russians assumed was still a uniquely special friendship, even despite a decade of increasing political distance between the two countries. (The English and the Scots would surely understand.)
Ukraine is uniquely important to Russia economically. Since Soviet times, the industrial supply chain has straddled the border. Ukraine’s Donbass region relies heavily on Russian customers, and the military is one of the largest. With their relationship now probably damaged beyond repair, Ukraine and Russia have been working furiously to disentangle their economies – the most likely explanation for the mysteriously half-empty aid convoys is that they had enough capacity to asset strip entire factories and transport key machinery back to Russia. If this is true, then it demonstrates Russia has understood that it has lost Ukraine to the EU economically. But this has only increased its determination to salvage what it can and keep NATO out. The differing levels of outside commitment in Ukraine prove that Russia still claims a military sphere of influence, and NATO has little intention of challenging it.
Crimea was taken because it was easy, because it was strategic, because the Ukrainians know (even if they won’t admit) that they’ll never get it back, and because that’s what happens when you cross the wrong people. Unlike the other post-Soviet frozen conflicts, Crimea had to be annexed – Sevastopol is far too precious to be left in the hands of amateurs. The Donbass rebellion was facilitated to keep the Ukrainians tied down fighting a second insurrection while Russia quietly consolidated the first one. Now that a frozen conflict has been successfully engineered in the east, nobody is going to suggest an armed liberation of Crimea in the face of a hostile populace.
This leaves Ukraine in a nasty position – economically and politically committed to the EU, but militarily overshadowed by old-school Russian hard power. It also reminds us that the EU is not expanding into a vacuum. We have always thought about European integration as if it were a contract, where the only countries that matter are the contracting parties, and any agreement between them would naturally have the blessing of the world. The only enemies of European integration in this scenario are internal factions who disagree with their own government’s policy. The worst reaction we ever received from a third country was jealousy.
We now know that this was complacent. There is an external enemy of European integration, and he sits in the Kremlin. Some countries have decided for themselves that they don’t want to be involved in the EU project. Putin has decided that he doesn’t want other people’s countries being involved in the EU project. He has his own alternative, and clear ideas about who should be a member of which one. Talk of a new Iron Curtain is overblown, but there is an increasingly clear demarcation between the EU and Russian spheres of influence.