Richard Shimooka: Understanding the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict

Opinion: For Putin, the current crisis allows him to continue his broader efforts to undermine the West’s leadership in international affairs. He has long viewed the United States and its allies as weak.

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In recent months, Russia has continued its military buildup around Ukraine, while making belligerent demands of the country and NATO members in Eastern Europe. Part of the challenge has been understanding Russia’s goals, which basically boil down to the mind of President Vladimir Putin, who led Russia for more than two decades.

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Several interpretations have been put forward for Russia’s actions. Perhaps the most common is that Russia believes that it should enjoy an exclusive sphere of influence in its immediate territory as a great power, and that the West should respect this. There are variations to this view, but many focus on Russia’s historical hegemony over the region. Putin and his government have presented this logic as the main modus vivendi in recent years.

Putin said that the democratically elected Ukrainian government, in his words, “was a forced change of identity” that caused the Ukrainian people “to deny their roots… and to believe that Russia is the enemy”. This is partly the reason why Moscow prefers to negotiate only with the United States, rather than with Ukraine and the European members of NATO; Washington is the real power broker in this scenario.

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Although the validity of the ‘Greater Russia’ perspective is extremely dubious, it may be a view honestly held in Moscow and should not be ignored. Even if Putin’s government has different goals and calculations in mind, any solution must at least pretend to stick to this point of view. This is the message that has been constantly conveyed to the Russian people, who believe in the kinship between themselves and the Ukrainian people.

Another frequent interpretation of Russia’s actions is that they stem from the regime’s inherent weakness. While a powerful autocrat, Putin also understands the need to balance the different national constituencies that keep him in power. As a KGB agent in East Germany in 1989, he was at the forefront of the potential of grassroots movements to overthrow authoritarian regimes, and constantly sought to avoid the same fate.

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His regime’s situation is not ideal. International sanctions imposed on Russia after its 2014 invasion of Ukraine and continued support for the Donbass insurgency in eastern Ukraine are seriously hampering the Russian economy. Moreover, many regions of Russia are experiencing severe economic stagnation and growing social unrest. This is clearly evident with the widespread protests in Siberia throughout 2020 and 2021, as well as recent survey this suggests growing discontent within Putin himself.

Ukraine also represents a political challenge for Putin’s regime. The people of Ukraine overthrew their corrupt, Russian-backed rulers in 2014 and began building a modern state apparatus that meets European Union governance standards. Last year, anti-corruption reforms removed many of the Kremlin’s most powerful backers from Kyiv, further diminishing Moscow’s ability to influence Ukrainian policy.

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For Putin, the current crisis also allows him to continue his broader efforts to undermine the West’s leadership in international affairs. He has long viewed the United States and its allies as ideologically weak and arrogant; it has pursued a consistent adversarial policy to undermine them, including disinformation, cyberattacks and support for illiberal groups in places like Hungary, Italy and France.

In Ukraine, Putin may believe he has found an ideal place to expose these flaws. While the United States and Europe have invested significant resources in building Ukraine’s prosperity and security, it remains vulnerable to Russian military coercion.

The situation also allows the Kremlin to exploit the flaws in the Atlantic alliance. France, Germany and the United States have a limited interest in Ukraine, compared to many former Eastern bloc states like Lithuania, Poland and the Czech Republic, which consider the fate of Ukraine. Ukraine as a harbinger of NATO’s commitment to their security. Many have memories of Soviet domination of their states, as well as the West’s inability to deliver on its security promises. This follows the disastrous end of the Afghan mission, which could further damage its credibility.

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Russia’s military buildup has certainly pushed the West to the negotiating table. But even still, there are reasons to believe that Putin may not be entirely interested in an invasion. The economic consequences will be brutal and immediate, including sanctions and the boycott of Russian gas. While Russia is likely to prevail in a conventional war against Ukraine, it will almost certainly face a prolonged insurgency in any territory it holds. A protracted and bloody conflict with many dead Russian soldiers could cause serious domestic problems for Putin. Moreover, any attack on Ukraine would only increase nationalist sentiment in the country, risking further reducing Russian influence.

The West’s response has been to navigate carefully between these various perspectives. Accepting Russia’s broader demands would simply be unacceptable. Nor can the West trade anything that would undermine Ukrainian sovereignty. Any offer can embolden Russia to make more demands and more threatening military deployments in the future. So far, NATO member states have done a fairly good job of presenting a united front, which Putin might not have expected given his low opinion of Western states.

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At the same time, one must be wary of putting Putin in a corner. Even if he did not consider resorting to military action, Putin may feel compelled to do so because he had (or is perceived to have) no other option. That’s part of the reason the Ukrainian government has advised calm and tried to avoid escalating the situation: they don’t believe Putin wants to invade, but they don’t want to put him in a position where c is his only choice. .

Finding a solution will take months of diplomacy and finding a way that allows Russia to move away from its precarious situation without Ukraine or the West acquiescing to Putin’s demands. There really isn’t an easy answer to this dilemma, but with a thorough understanding of Putin’s goals and thinking, it may be possible.

Richard Shimooka is a Principal Investigator at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

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Joan J. Holland