Putin’s Power Play

March 12, 2015 Updated: March 12, 2015

In the past months, the international community has been shocked by Vladimir Putin’s audacity in taking advantage of a neighboring country’s political instability. Like a game of territorial Hungry Hippo between the EU and Russia, Europe has accused Russia of trying to secure as much of the territory bordering Europe as is possible.

Presumably this is because Russia hopes the European Union and NATO will stop encroaching on its economic and political interests. Russia, on the other hand, has argued consistently that it is merely being a mother bear protecting its cubs from racial abuse by Ukrainians.

As the conflict escalates and an estimated 5,700 trained Russian “volunteers” swell the ranks of the Eastern Ukrainian fighters, it is clear Russia is not helping to tamp down the violence. Rather it appears that President Putin is determined to keep Ukraine and other states in his sphere of influence at any cost.

The Curse of Mother Russia

Certainly Russia has every right to argue it is merely looking after its citizens. Russia is unique among colonial powers, in that its own territories were often given away to other nations during the Soviet Union. Some portions of the current Ukraine were originally part of Russia and were incorporated into Ukraine. Utilized like pawns in a game of chess, territories like the Crimea and Donetsk were gifted to other areas for either enrichment of the state bureaucrats or better population control.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union many ethnic Russian communities were left stranded outside their motherland. Now a minority within a foreign community that had suffered under Russians communism, these ethnic Russians often faced discrimination and racial vilification. In Ukraine this manifested last year in attacks by Ukrainian neo-nationalists that left two people dead. The resulting outcry is the driving force behind Russian involvement in the current conflict.

Russia’s Strategy for Control

Is this the only reason that Russian troops swarmed, incognito, into eastern Ukraine or why, despite peace talks and cease-fires being declared, the fighting is still continuing? Clearly it is not.

Since 1993 Russia has had an aggressive foreign policy mandate. According to former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyev, Russian foreign policy is based on the premise that the entire former Soviet Union is Russia’s sphere of influence and it is Russia’s responsibility to maintain peace and security in this area. Any other incursion by, or invitation to, a foreign player to become involved in this sphere is unacceptable and will lead to conflict. As a result, Russia engages in activities and conflicts outside its homeland in an effort to protect itself from outside forces.

This rationale is evident in multiple conflicts that have occurred throughout the former territories of the Soviet Union when countries become engaged with other nations. In 1993 Russia manipulated the conflict between Abkhazia and Georgia to force Georgia into closer ties with itself. Likewise in the Nagorno-Karabakh (Azerbaijan) conflict and the Transdniestr conflict in Moldova, Russia has used a variety of military and domestic agitation methods to either create or harness a conflict through which they could then “enforce and secure a peace,” leaving the state firmly under Russia’s influence.

Putin’s New World Order

Elements of this strategy were clearly utilized in Ukraine. Last year prior to the conflict 20–40 buses of Russian activists from the nearby Russian city of Belgorod were brought across the Ukrainian border to protest in Kharkiv. However, the use of Russian forces to annex an entire region, the possible shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, and the constant stream of trained volunteers and weaponry entering eastern Ukraine demonstrates that Russia is being far more aggressive in Ukraine than in previous conflicts.

Unlike other destabilization operations, in this one there was never a large Russian-speaking minority, no knowledge that the territory was formerly Russian, and no ability of the targeted state through its resources, economic power, and strategic location to challenge Russia. As such, Russia is playing for keeps, and the reason is that Ukraine is clearly a linchpin in the Russian president’s new plan to create a Eurasian economic empire.

In 2013 Vladimir Putin declared that he wanted to establish an economic union that would rival Europe and Asia, utilizing all of the former territories of the Soviet Union. Under Russia’s control, this union would establish Russia as a dominating global power, like America or China.

However, within the majority of Ukraine and many of the Baltic States there is little desire to participate in such a union. Western Ukrainians are highly motivated to draw Ukraine and other Russian satellite states into the EU’s sphere. This desire is reciprocated by the European Union, which wants to capitalize on cheaper gas and oil access from many of these states.

Western Impotence

Unfortunately the Western powers have a poor track record aiding countries within Russia’s sphere of influence. The lack of aid given to Georgia, Armenian, Azerbaijan, and Moldova also demonstrated to Putin that he may do as he sees fit within his region.

Consequently, unless the EU and NATO are prepared to provide military and economic aid to Ukraine to counter Putin’s domestic manipulations, Ukraine may enter into a protracted period of civil war against foreign agitators that are channeled in across the border. This instability will then drive these eastern territories further into the arms of mother Russia, forcing the Ukrainian government to cede the eastern half of the state.

In doing so Ukraine may secure peace but Russia will gain more control over Europe’s gas and oil rents and enable Putin to create his dream of a New Eurasian Empire.

Dr. Victoria Kelly-Clark received her doctorate in political science and international relations from the Australian National University. She has lived in Central Asia and specializes in Russia and its former Soviet territories. For more information see her blog Central Asia and Beyond and http://centrasiia.blogspot.com.au/.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.