When Viktor Yanukovych, the last pro-Russian president of Ukraine, was deposed in the midst of the Euromaidan protests in 2014, Moscow moved quickly to annex the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea. The reason for that was obvious: Crimea is the site of Sevastopol, traditionally Russia’s most important naval base in the world.
The 20-year lease Kiev and Moscow signed in 1997 was expiring soon, and now almost certainly would not be renewed. Moscow couldn’t risk losing the home base of its vaunted Black Sea fleet on a territory that had never been considered part of Ukraine before the ravages of Communism.
Along the Russian frontier in eastern Ukraine, on the other hand, Russia has moved more slowly, making its ultimate goal less obvious. The provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk in the region of Donbas declared independence almost at the same time as Crimea, but they were not annexed. Despite issuing 600,000 passports to residents of Donbas and funneling more than $1 billion in humanitarian assistance to there every year, Moscow has done virtually nothing to integrate the areas into Russia administratively. On the contrary, it is facilitating emigration from Donbas to Russia proper.
So what does Russia want now? Its principal demand of Kiev is the implementation of Ukraine’s obligations under the Minsk cease-fire agreements of 2014 and 2015, which are enshrined in U.N. Security Council Res. 2202.
Ukraine promised to let Luhansk and Donetsk conduct local elections under a special status law with guarantees of local autonomy and a general amnesty. In exchange, the separatists agreed to disband their “people’s republics,” lay down their weapons, and allow the Ukrainian military to regain control of all Ukrainian territory to the Russian border.
The agreements were never implemented, due largely to disagreements over sequencing. But now Ukraine seems to be walking away from them altogether. Ukraine has apparently decided that leaving the separatist areas under Russian control indefinitely may be preferable to implementing the Minsk Agreements and giving Russia a powerful lever over Kiev again. That might be right, and may be the real reason Russia is about to go to war.
What the USSR Left Behind
The map of Ukraine left behind by the Soviet Union in 1991 had no historical precedent in the history of the area before the Communist Revolution. Ukraine and Crimea came to Russia independently starting in the 17th century. Ukraine came in stages as Poland waned in territory, with the areas east of the Dnieper River firmly in Russian hands by the time of Peter the Great, while Crimea was captured from the Ottoman Turks.
Centuries later, after World War II, the Soviets wanted to give the impression of a diverse coalition of states, particularly in order to justify their demand for multiple seats at the United Nations, so Ukraine was presented to the world as a powerful Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1954, Premier Nikkita Khrushchev – a Ukrainian – “gave” Ukraine nominal control of significant territory and strategic forces, but it was all a show, because everyone knew the Kremlin retained total control.
When those borders suddenly became “real” in 1991, amidst the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kiev found itself in control of a nuclear arsenal, the Black Sea fleet, Russia’s most important commercial and naval ports in the world (Odessa and Sevastopol), and tens of millions of Russians. U.S. diplomats realized the situation was dangerously untenable, and quickly pressed Kiev to return the nuclear arsenal and Black Sea fleet to Russia. Unfortunately, the adjustments stopped there, leaving Ukraine with a bigger bite of Russia than it could safely chew.
A glance at the map of 1991 should have made people wonder whether Ukraine, in these artificially enlarged borders, could even be a viable state. It wasn’t at all clear that Ukraine would be strong enough to maintain both political independence and territorial integrity given the weight of vital Russian interests involved. “Russia is never as strong as she looks, Russia is never as weak as she looks,” the saying goes, and the map of 1991 reflected a state of Russian weakness that was bound to prove fleeting.
Ukraine had no problem controlling the territory as long as it accepted Moscow’s control. But the moment it definitively broke away from Moscow in 2014, it immediately lost control of those areas that were most vital to Russian interests, and nobody with an even minimal sense of Russian and Ukrainian history can pretend to have been taken by surprise.
Choosing Independence Over Territory
The years since have helped clarify Kiev’s priorities. The exclusion of Crimea and eastern Donbas from Ukrainian elections had a salutary benefit: There would henceforth be virtually no chance of a pro-Russian party winning an election in Ukraine. Understandably, Ukraine has upped the ante.
In 2017 it imposed an economic embargo on the separatist areas of Donbas, leading to their total economic collapse; they are now utterly dependent on Moscow, and good riddance as far as many Ukrainians are concerned. Perhaps even more infuriating from Moscow’s point of view, the most prominent Putin ally in Ukraine, Viktor Medvedchuk, has been under house arrest since May 2021, his television stations and other enterprises shuttered. Now Kiev is advancing a draft law “On the Principles of State Policy of the Transition Period” that would make the implementation of Minsk all but impossible.
What explains these moves is that Ukraine is now free of Russian dominance and is consolidating its political independence and increasingly westward orientation. But that could change if the Minsk Agreements are implemented, which explains why Russia is so insistent on their implementation. The Minsk Agreements – particularly their provisions on the reintegration of Donbas into Ukraine – represent Russia’s last hopes of maintaining political influence over Kiev by peaceful means.
Whatever military action Moscow is contemplating now will almost certainly be shaped by the overriding objective of political influence – not territory – and the United States should plan accordingly. Russia may decide to take territory instead, but if it does so violently, it is not likely to stop at the areas under its current control. It will most likely (at the very least) capture the hundred miles of coastline along the Sea of Azov that currently separate Donbas and Crimea. It’s important to keep in mind that if Russia’s objective was to annex the Donbas territories, it could have done so at any time since 2014, without the need for massing an invasion force on three sides of Ukraine.
Americans with only a thin understanding of Russian motives are thinking in terms of “domino theory.” They insist that if Russia isn’t stopped here, it will only go for more territory. Echoes of Sudetenland and “peace in our time” incline many of us to stand up to tyrants who would prey on peaceful democracies.
But Russia’s motives appear to be considerably more nuanced and carefully considered. Putin hates the settlement of 1991 and would change many things if he could. For example, he would love to have at least part of the Baltic States back. But he surely sees that any inch of territory of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member is hopelessly out of reach, and NATO must make sure the point is crystal clear.
But Putin seems motivated more by a desire to forestall further degradation of Moscow’s strategic position than by a desire to revise the settlement of 1991. In that sense, Moscow is reacting to events, as it did in 2008 when it invaded parts of Georgia, a preventive response to the Bush administration’s reckless suggestion of NATO membership for that former Soviet republic.
That brings us to the crucial question of NATO and the vital U.S. interests in the Ukraine crisis. It’s crucial to remember that in managing the liquidation of the Soviet Empire, it was never a goal of U.S. policy to separate Russia from Crimea or its Black Sea fleet, or otherwise dismember it. Such a goal would have jeopardized the whole objective of a peaceful end to communism in Europe, not to mention the dubious justice of continuing to punish the people who were arguably the principal victims of both Nazism and Communism, namely the Russians themselves.
The principle of territorial integrity and political independence of sovereign states is part of the bedrock of the international system, and the United States should reaffirm it always. But a nation’s commitments must always be calibrated to the weight of the interests involved, and a territorial dispute between Russia and Ukraine simply does not, in and of itself, implicate vital U.S. interests – leaving aside the fact that this dispute involves the historical territorial integrity of Russia as well as a newborn Ukraine.
For some, the Ukraine crisis implicates U.S. prestige, in tatters after the shameful withdrawal from Afghanistan. But prestige is a good reason not to make commitments that can’t be backed up.
NATO’s Mixed Messages
Confusion about NATO’s mission since the end of the Cold War has inevitably translated into confusion about how big the alliance should be. In 1999 and 2004, NATO expanded its membership to include Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the Baltic states. Including those countries made sense both geographically and in terms of shared values, interests, and national power.
But with the accession of Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, and Croatia in 2004 and 2009, NATO expanded to include countries that were unstable, militarily weak, and economically moribund in a geographic area that was not vital for the survival of NATO. Worst still was NATO’s announcement that it “welcomed” membership for Georgia and Ukraine, a move that had no strategic justification and caused considerable alarm and anger in the Kremlin.
NATO is open to states that can qualify for membership, and Russia cannot be given any sort of formal veto rights under the NATO treaty. But that doesn’t mean that the composition of NATO is none of Russia’s business.
Russia points to the principle of “equal and indivisible security,” which the United States and its NATO allies have agreed to under auspices of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, as enshrining a commitment not to increase the security of one state at the expense of another. Historical examples abound to back this up.
For example, the proposed Anschluss of Germany and Austria in 1938 was very much the business of France and England, which should have gone to war to prevent it. And Russia is entirely within its rights to protest the stationing of strategic offensive forces in countries right on its borders, for the same reason the United States protested Moscow’s placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962.
Compromise isn’t always the same as appeasement. To give one prominent example, the idea of NATO membership for Ukraine, while it still claims sovereignty over Russia’s most important naval base in the world, is both preposterous and needlessly provocative, and there is no shame in admitting it.
Russia has continued to be a malign force in world affairs. But not all its grievances are unreasonable, and it is a dangerous mistake for Kiev and Washington to reject them all out of hand.
The United States and its NATO allies should recognize Kiev’s decision to prioritize political independence over territory, for it helps clarify the outlines of a peaceful settlement. The Ukraine crisis can’t last forever. And while Russia surely knows it can’t have everything it wants, if it gets some of what it vitally needs, perhaps Ukraine can, too.
Mario Loyola, a professor at Florida International University and a visiting fellow at the National Security Institute of George Mason University, is a former defense policy adviser at the Pentagon and in the U.S. Senate.