That Russia and Ukraine have come to the brink of war in just a few short days is obvious enough. What is less obvious is not the quickly evolving events that might unfold over the next days and weeks but Russia’s end game.
As with its negotiations over the Syrian civil war last September, Russia is playing an adept game of strategic chess. While Russia has its game planned well in advance, the West is only just coming to terms with the next move.
Underlying Russia’s positioning on Ukraine, and key to its ability to fob off Western protestations, is its longer-term plan to establish a Eurasian Union to rival that of the European Union. As a significant regional economy, Ukraine is critical to the success of Russia’s bid to counter the EU, which is why Russia is insistent it remains within its strategic sphere.
Russia also stations its strategically important Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol, which under a deal signed by ousted President Viktor Yanukovych it leases until 2042.
In one sense, Russia’s Eurasian Union is a reinvention of the economic relations within the former Soviet Union. In another sense, however, it is an economic reinvention of the pre-Soviet Russian Empire. Either way, Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to restore Russia to an international greatness corresponding to that prior to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Russia has already sent 6000 troops without insignia to Crimea in southern Ukraine, ostensibly as "local patriots". These are to protect its naval base at Sevastopol and in support of ethnic Russians unhappy with the recent ousting of Yanukovych, who is pro-Russian. The Ukrainian government has said such moves could lead to war between the two countries.
A war between Russia and Ukraine would be bloody and vastly destructive; if Ukraine struck quickly it could achieve an initial strategic advantage. Similarly, if Russia invades it will be a long, bloody and costly conflict. Neither country wants to go down the path of direct conflict.
If Ukraine continues to resist Russia’s assertions, expected at least to be for a pro-Russia economic policy as agreed to by Yanukovych, Russia will assist ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s south and east to declare themselves independent from Ukraine. Ukraine could respond militarily to such separatism but would, by definition, then be involved in a war within its borders; Russia would have punished Ukraine without having become directly involved.
The solution to this situation would be a divided Ukraine suing for peace, the conditions of which would be greater autonomy for ethnic Russian regions and the economic obeisance of Ukraine to Russia’s Eurasian Union.
The United States and the EU are deeply concerned at current events and have made angry noises. Ukraine has requested NATO’s intervention. But while the EU would like Ukraine to become economically closer, the EU and the US do not critically need Ukraine, and NATO will, consequently, not go to war over it.
It is highly likely that, should events continue to unfold as they seem, the EU and the US will push for economic sanctions against Russia, but this then starts to play to Russia’s longer game. Russia supplies about a third of all of the EU’s oil and almost 40% of its gas. The balance of trade between Russia and the EU goes approximately 3:2 in Russia’s favour. In short, Russia needs the EU oil and gas market, but the EU needs Russia’s oil and gas even more. Trade may reduce, but Russia will survive.
More to the point, with Russia moving to consolidate its Eurasian Union as a balance to the EU, keeping Ukarine within its orbit and reducing reliance on the EU is part of Putin’s longer game. That this might well result in a new iteration of the Cold War would simply be testament to Putin’s vision of Russia’s return to international greatness.
Turmoil in Ukraine may continue and events, unfolding quickly, are not entirely predictable. But if Russian President Vladimir Putin is acting in a supremely confident manner over this conflict, as has been noted by some observers, it is because Russians play chess very well.