Viewpoint: Russia's Ukraine strategy ends Europe's dream

Man waves a Soviet Union flag in Simferopol (16 March 2014) Image copyright AFP

Russia has its eyes set on bigger goals than Ukraine - it wants to tear apart the territorial status quo created in Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union, says Jonathan Eyal of the Royal United Services Institute.

The most immediate topic of discussion at Tuesday's meeting of Nato foreign ministers - the first since Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula - was whether Russian troops currently massed on Ukraine's borders were likely to launch a new invasion deep into Ukraine's ethnically mixed eastern provinces.

The chances are that such an invasion will be averted. But Russia's security threat to the European continent remains both substantial and systemic, and is likely to endure for years to come.

There are a number of very concrete reasons why Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to send his troops into eastern Ukraine.

The first is that, although the region has many ethnic Russians, it also has many Ukrainians who are likely to resist a Russian occupation. So, unlike the swift and bloodless takeover of Crimea, an occupation of eastern Ukraine is almost certain to embroil Russian troops in serious fighting.

Eastern Ukraine is also a much larger territory, requiring a substantial force to pin down. And unlike Crimea, there is no obvious geographic limit to this territory: the Russians therefore risk becoming involved in a major military adventure with no immediate "exit strategy".

But the most important reason why Mr Putin will not send his troops into Ukraine now is that he has other ways of achieving his objectives.

He knows that Crimea is his to keep, and that no Western government is likely to challenge this newly acquired Russian province. At Sunday's meeting in Paris between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Crimea was not even mentioned in the communique released to the public.

Ukrainian 'federalisation'

Russia's most immediate task is to prevent Ukraine from joining Western economic and security structures such as the European Union or Nato, to keep the country in suspended animation as a buffer zone, belonging to neither East nor West.

And that can be accomplished by persuading the West to accept what Moscow likes to call the "federalisation" of Ukraine.

Russia's demands for the creation of a federal Ukraine are very sweeping. They include a proposal that Ukraine's regions will have a say not only over local affairs, but also over "Ukraine's foreign policy direction" - a more polite Russian way of saying that the ethnic Russians inside Ukraine will be able to block the country's pro-Western orientation.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Crimeans have swapped their Ukrainian passports for Russian ones

And, if this strategy does not work, Moscow can resort to the simple expedient of encouraging ethnic Russians in Ukraine to declare their separation and even secession from the Ukrainian state. As President Putin sees it, he now has in his hands the instruments to undermine Ukraine without actually firing a single shot.

Moscow has also signalled a determination to apply the same approach to other parts of Europe where ethnic Russians may reside, particularly the Trans-Dniester region in the former Soviet republic of Moldova, and in the Baltic states.

Most of the Russians there have already been issued with Russian passports or identity documents, precisely in order to strengthen Moscow's claim to speak on their behalf.

The purpose of this grand strategy is clear: to tear apart the territorial status quo created in Europe when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a status quo which, as President Putin has repeatedly observed, Russia considers both unjust and unsustainable.

That does not need to be achieved by occupying and reabsorbing former Soviet republics. It could just as easily be accomplished by undermining key countries from within.

Nato's tough feat

As a military alliance trained to repel external aggression, Nato is ill-equipped to deal with such internal challenges.

But in the days to come, the alliance will have to show its mettle by staging various military exercises particularly in the small and vulnerable Baltic states, in order to reassure them and other Nato members that the alliance's security guarantee remains valid and relevant.

Russia must be left under no illusion that, should it try to interfere with a Nato member-state, the response will be swift, and include a military component.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Nato's speciality is fighting external aggression, not dealing with a nation's internal challenges

A truncated Ukraine may yet succeed in preserving its independence.

But the events of the last few weeks are not just a blip in East-West relations. They mark the end of an era, the end of the hope that Russia could be incorporated into a united and peaceful European continent.

Historians may have the luxury of arguing over who should be blamed for this sad development.

Today's Western politicians, however, have no choice but to deal with the new reality outlined by Mr Putin: the future belongs to more, rather than less, east-west confrontation.