Since Vladimir Putin launched his war against Ukraine back in February, speculation has run rampant about the Russian president’s objectives. While objectives change in the course of any war, Mr. Putin himself has admitted that the invasion of Crimea was a strategic decision that, therefore, had strategic objectives in mind. Those objectives also relate to the current fighting in the Donbas region (encompassing Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces). As such, Russia’s conduct repudiates the speculation in Washington that Russia’s Ukraine policy is something of an improvisation. Rather, U.S. policymakers would be well-served in trying to figure out the factors driving Mr. Putin’s decision-making, both at home and abroad.
For example, few observers gave grasped that one core legitimating factor of the Russian state, in all of its historical guises, is that it is the sole heir of Kievan Rus, medieval Russia, whose original center was the present-day Ukrainian capital of Kiev. In this narrative, Ukraine merely plays the role of Russia’s errant “younger brother,” and its claims to independence are dismissed out of hand. If Ukraine made a decisive break with Russia and opted for affiliation with the West, its example would more than simply stimulate demands for reform within Russia; it would serve to undermine Mr. Putin’s claims to be the legitimate heir to Russian Orthodoxy and history. Inasmuch as religion and history are now major props of an increasingly repressive and fascistlike Russian state, this delegitimization would seriously compromise the foundation of Mr. Putin’s political project.
Moreover, few have noted that the addition of several million “ethnic Russians” also strengthens the Slavic component in a declining Slavic majority and helps stave off the pressure of a growing Islamic population — at least for a while. Thus, imperial territorial gains serve multiple domestic purposes.
Simultaneously, there are multiple foreign policy goals that reinforce Russia’s perception of itself as a great and rising global power. First, there is the clear intention, as spelled out by Mr. Putin himself as long ago as 2008, to dismember Ukraine, reclaim much of its territory as “Novorossiia” (new Russia) and create a contiguous Russian state all the way to the Transdniester region of Moldova. Doing so would satisfy Russia’s determination to destroy any possibility of an independent Ukraine, as well as teach other post-Soviet states a lesson about the high costs of resisting the Kremlin.
But Moscow wants more than simple territorial expansion. The ultimate strategic prize coveted by Mr. Putin and company is nothing less than the reorganization of European security along new lines. The invasion of Crimea, the overflights of Europe and flights close to the United States, along with nuclear threats and continuing aggression in Ukraine, all bespeak a determination to demonstrate the European Union’s — and especially NATO’s — impotence. Essentially, Mr. Putin wants to return Europe to a Cold War-like bipolarity between Moscow and the United States, even as his government conducts subversion across Europe to hollow out and undo the twin processes of European integration and democratization. This objective invariably means war, because Ukraine, Poland and other post-Soviet states are ready and willing to resist a new Russian imperial despotism.
These objectives require a resolute Western response. The state of siege already engendered in Europe by Mr. Putin’s actions is a function of the lackluster and weak way in which Western powers have reacted to Moscow’s aggression. Formulating a strategy to roll back Russian objectives remains an imperative for the United States and its allies. For if we do not heed this demand now, we will be forced to do so later at still greater cost, measured in the lives and treasure of Western nations — and in prospects for independence and democracy in the “post-Soviet space.”
• Stephen Blank is senior fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council.