The strategy behind Putin’s aggression in Ukraine


The war in Ukraine continues despite the Minsk
ceasefire agreement because it is rooted deeply in ideological, geostrategic, and domestic
political goals of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s likely president–for life.
Russia has violated two ceasefire agreements. It continues to send troops, arms and heavy
equipment into Ukraine in support of its proxies, the so-called “separatists.” And Russia
will continue this war until it achieves all of its goals there–or until Vladimir Putin
finds the domestic political costs too high and will be forced to scale down and to compromise.
So what is Putin seeking to achieve in Ukraine and why?
Ideologically, Putin fancies himself the “gatherer” of historically Russian lands. In his worldview,
Russia is not only a country—it is the center of a unique Eurasian civilization, distinct
from both Europe and Asia. Policies like the “Russian World” and the “Eurasian Union”
seek to fulfill this ideal: not a new Soviet Union but a Russia militarily, politically
and economically dominant over much of Eurasia with a veto power over the neighboring countries’
foreign policies and domestic political arrangements as well. So a Europe­-bound Ukraine is a
key, perhaps fatal, obstacle to such a plan. Geostrategically Putin sees this new Russia
as a counterbalance to the United States and the West, which, in his view, not only are
bent on world domination but first and foremost are constantly scheming against Russia with
a goal of taking away its sovereignty. Domestic political considerations, however, are by
far the most important factor in Putin’s policy in Ukraine. Before Russia’s “Ukrainian
adventure”, Putin’s popularity was at record lows. Promises of reforming and modernizing
the economy went unfulfilled, and Russians were left with the same corrupt, oil­-dependent
system that they have had for years. By contrast, the patriotic mobilization and the anti­-West
hysteria, unleashed by the state controlled television, have made the President into the
defender of the Motherland, accounting for his astronomic ratings – which is the only
reliable part of the regime’s legitimacy. But it is a two-edged political sword. If
Russia is seen to have achieved anything short of a total victory in Ukraine, there is likely
to be a sharp downfall in Putin’s personal popularity. This should be especially troubling
for the regime, given that Russia’s economy is sliding into full-blown economic crisis,
with the ruble plummeting and inflation heating up. So Putin needs a victory that would include
not just a permanent dismemberment of Ukraine but also its destabilization and ultimately
the replacement of the current pro­-European regime in Kiev with a Russian puppet.
So, what can the West do about this? Given Russia’s military advantage over Ukraine,
a quick victory on the battlefield is out of the question. Instead, a patient, long-term
strategy is needed—one which would include, but not be limited to, arming and training
Ukrainian forces in order to raise the domestic costs of Putin’s aggression: both in treasure
and, most importantly, in blood. Putin will in Ukraine for as long as he needs to. So
if the West is serious in thwarting his plans, it needs to have just as much patience and
resolve.