Russia continues to want what it always wanted: Ukraine away from NATO and respecting Donbass. Writes Lucas Leiroz
In the West, governments’ officials and political analysts insist that Russian strategy in Ukraine presupposes as a goal the permanent occupation, annexation, or Balkanization of the country. However, the course of events in the conflict and the official pronouncements of the Kremlin seem to suggest a totally opposite direction, in which the purpose is only to neutralize the Ukrainian military force, making the country an impartial point in the geopolitics of Eastern Europe.
When, at the start of the Russian Special Operation in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin stated that the mission was aimed at demilitarizing Ukraine, analysts began to interpret his words as an indicative of constant aggression. For Western experts, Russia simply wants to eradicate the Ukrainian military power in order to keep the country weak and submit it to continuous aggression, which could result either in occupation and annexation or in division, partition and Balkanization. In other words, in the Western interpretation, the Russian objective with demilitarization would be to make possible an annihilation of the Ukrainian state.
These conclusions, however, seem absolutely wrong from a purely realistic point of view. Recently, the head of the Russian delegation in diplomatic talks with Ukraine Vladimir Medinsky claimed that Kiev had finally shown an apparent willingness to demilitarize. As reported by him, the only requirement of the Ukrainian government would be the right to maintain its own regular armed forces, as neutral nations in Europe currently do. Subsequently, Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that “this (plan to demilitarize) is the option that is really being discussed now and which can be seen as a real compromise”.
For these – and other – Russian officials, demilitarization is the main basic condition for peace to be achieved, even more important than the issue of the end of the sanctions recently applied against Moscow. According to Peskov, the sanctions, although serious, are still limited to the sovereign decisions of the countries, and many states continue to resist American pressure to adopt such measures: “I will not comment [on sanctions]. Indeed, the topic of sanctions is touched upon at these negotiations. But I would not like to give any details now (…) The United States is exerting unprecedented pressure on many countries of the world these days. The vast majority of countries bend under this pressure, but there are also countries that do not bend and take their sovereign position, more balanced. And they openly declare that they consider any pressure on themselves unacceptable”.
In fact, these speeches only confirm the previous pronouncements of the Russian government claiming that the military neutralization of Kiev is the central goal of the operation. It is quite simple to understand why Russia prioritizes the Ukrainian commitment to demilitarization over a Western commitment to the end of sanctions: the decision to adopt sanctions or not rests with each national state, and many states are refusing to do so. It is not something that existentially threatens Russia, it just reconfigures global trade and financial routes. On the other hand, the existence of a militarized government in Kiev and the strong presence of NATO on the Russian western border are extremely dangerous facts for the very existence of Russia as a National State, which makes the issue a priority and above any other discussion.
Gradually, the West and the Ukrainian government seem to start to understand that demilitarization, not sanctions, is the shortest and most efficient way to restore peace. Zelensky himself recently reported that he already considers Ukraine’s accession to NATO unlikely to happen. Although there is still no official confirmation on the possible Ukrainian willingness to demilitarize, this seems to be an inevitable path, which Kiev will have to take at some point. Obviously, this is not what the Maidan Junta really wants, but it is what could prevent further escalations of violence in the region.
For eight years, Moscow refused to intervene militarily in the conflict in Donbass, but the extreme militarization of Kiev and the threat of further escalation led Moscow to support the sovereignty of the republics and start the Special Operation. In other words, earlier, Russia planned to maintain Kiev’s territorial integrity under the condition of respecting the Minsk Accords – with such plans failing, the attitude changed, and the priority went from respecting Ukrainian territorial integrity to militarily preventing the aggression against sovereign republics. Before, the diplomatic method served to trying to legally guarantee the end of violence in the Donbass; now, the physical coercion of military operations serves to neutralize any possibility for such violence to occur. Russia has simply taken the case to the extreme and is now using the most radical means to protect Donbass.
This is why it is not appropriate to talk about annexation or Balkanization plans. It is necessary to mention that permanently occupying Ukraine would be a strategic mistake as it would generate huge costs in defense plans, damage Moscow’s international image and push Russian forces to deal with the country’s internal conflicts. In the same sense, annexing or balkanizing the country sounds illogical, as it would further increase Russian border tensions (if Russia annexed the entire Ukraine, it would face Poland, which is a member of NATO, for example). In fact, if Russia wants to move NATO’s troops away from its borders and reduce violence against the ethnic Russian population, promoting an occupation that damages its image and increases Russophobia or an annexation that further increases contact with NATO seem like really anti-strategic ways.
Russia continues to want what it always wanted: Ukraine away from NATO and respecting Donbass. What changed was only the strategy to achieve this objective, which migrated from a diplomatic method to a military one. Currently, what is planned in the Kremlin is to make Ukraine a neutral nation, a kind of “Eastern Austria”, with regular armed forces of a merely symbolic character and low offensive potential. Thus, Kiev will play a very important role in regional geopolitics, distancing Russia and the West, preventing friction between both strategic environments. Furthermore, the Donbass will be protected through the sovereignty of the republics and peace will finally be restored.
Lucas Leiroz, researcher in Social Sciences at the Rural Federal University of Rio de Janeiro; geopolitical consultant.