5 March, 2021
By Irena Baboi – Senior Fellow
On 24 February, Russian forces launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. A military build-up back in November 2021, which saw over 100,000 Russian troops being stationed on Moscow’s border with Kyiv, was followed by extensive military exercises with Belarus, a series of failed talks between Western leaders and the Kremlin, and Russia moving troops into Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk after declaring them independent. Until the early hours of the 24th, Moscow maintained that it has no plans to invade Ukraine proper, only for Kyiv to report air strikes across the country moments later. The invasion has been classified by Russia as a ‘special military operation’, by which Moscow aims to ‘protect people who have been subjected to abuse and genocide by the regime in Kyiv for eight years’ by pursuing ‘the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine’. What we are witnessing, in fact, is Putin’s war to convince the world that Russia is a dominant player on the international stage – and if the West does not provide Ukraine with its full support in this crisis, Kyiv will not be the Russian President’s last battleground.
Even before Russia’s full-scale invasion, the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union imposed a series of sanctions targeting state-controlled financial institutions, banking executives, military commanders, pro-Kremlin media personalities, and several members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz has suspended the certification process for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which was built to supply gas from Russia to Germany, but has yet to be authorised. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, the European Union announced it will also freeze Russian assets in the European Union, stop the access of Russian banks to European financial markets, and block Russia’s access to critical technology. The United Kingdom will also suspend and prohibit all dual-use export licences to Russia, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called for an end Russia’s use of the Swift international payment systems. On 26 February, the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and Canada announced that several Russian banks will be removed from Swift, and the assets of Russia’s central bank will be paralysed.
To justify this military escalation that has eventually led to an outright invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a series of claims. The first of these claims is one that has been invoked time and time again by Russia to justify its invasions – that Russian speakers living in a former Soviet republic are under threat, experiencing mass human rights abuses, and even facing extermination at the hands of the local authorities. In December 2021, Putin went as far as to say that what the ethnic Russian population in the Donbas region is experiencing is nothing short of genocide by the Ukrainian authorities. As part of Russia’s understanding and interpretation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, Moscow argues that it has the right and obligation to defend the rights and interests of Russians and Russian-speaking people anywhere in the world. This pretext has been used to justify Russia’s reconquest of separatist Chechnya, the war in Georgia, and the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea. It is a pretext that, given the opportunity, Moscow could easily use again in relation to Georgia – or, next time, to Moldova.
A further claim made by President Putin relates to Ukraine becoming a NATO member, a prospect that Moscow has deemed unacceptable. Russia is and has always been fundamentally opposed to NATO expansion, particularly when it comes to countries in what Moscow considers its traditional sphere of influence. Ukraine, however, is not likely to join NATO anytime soon. Kyiv has been a candidate for NATO membership since 2008, and the current Ukrainian government has been open about actively pursuing joining the North-Atlantic organisation, but there has not been any notable progress in this direction for years. What is more, even if Ukraine fulfilled all necessary criteria to join NATO, the issue of Crimea would still prevent Kyiv from becoming a full-fledged member. This February, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared that Ukraine joining NATO is ‘practically not on the agenda’, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy described his country’s desire to join the North-Atlantic organisation as a remote ‘dream’.
As such, the claim that an imminent NATO expansion justifies Russia’s recent and ongoing military actions is more fiction than reality. What is a reality, however, is that Putin’s domestic legitimacy predominantly rests on two elements: ensuring that Russia is a powerful player on the world stage, and consistent economic growth. Russia’s oil prices have been in decline since 2013, and economic growth shrank to a mere 0.4 percent between 2014 and 2020. In his 2017 state of the nation address, Russian President Vladimir Putin justified an increase in military spending – which came at the expense of investing in much-needed domestic reforms – by portraying it as a necessity, as Russia has be ready to protect itself from an ever-present outside threat. The Ukraine-related events could be a classic Russian tactic that aims to kill two birds with one stone: distract the population from increasing economic troubles by flexing the country’s military muscles, and create a situation where Russia is simultaneously a political actor to be taken seriously, and the object of seemingly unnecessary aggression by a ‘hostile’ West.
Looked at from this point of view, the timing of these Ukraine-related decisions becomes clearer. Since coming to power, United States President Joe Biden has been particularly vocal about a need to contain authoritarian governments, and has repeatedly urged Washington’s allies to take a harder line against countries like Russia and China. In June 2021, this translated into NATO declaring a united front against Russia’s aggressive actions, and that it has suspended ‘all practical civilian and military cooperation’ with Moscow until the latter ‘demonstrates compliance with international law and its international obligations and responsibilities’. That same month, the European Union deemed its relationship with Russia a ‘key strategic challenge’, and published its current strategy when it comes to Brussels-Moscow relations. As part of this strategy, while remaining open to selective engagement with Russia, the European Union stressed that its current aims are to constrain Russia’s attempts to undermine EU interests, and to push back against Moscow’s human rights violations and breaches of international law.
For all intents and purposes, the threat of invading Ukraine was highly beneficial for Russia in the short-term. With all eyes on Moscow, Putin was able to parade his country’s military capabilities, and remind the world that Russia is not to be ignored. In the long-term, however, and if economic and political pressure is kept on Russia, the costs of Moscow’s decision to go ahead with a full-scale invasion are likely to outweigh the benefits. Further sanctions imposed in the coming days and weeks will weaken Russia’s already struggling economy even more, with experts predicting reduced living standards and higher inflation as some of the consequences. Thousands of people have been taking to the streets in cities across Russia, with protesters demanding the Russian President’s resignation. Putin’s decision to declare war on Ukraine is also likely to further alienate not only Ukraine’s elites and population, but also those of other traditionally friendly states. Aside from Belarus, who is reportedly willing to support Moscow militarily if asked, not even China – Russia’s key strategic partner – has offered more than economic assistance.
The goal now is for this economic and political pressure on Russia to be maintained and even enhanced. Moscow must not be allowed to get away with this, even if the sanctions are also costly to the side imposing them. If Russia thinks it has won Ukraine, it is naïve to think it will stop there – this victory will only embolden it to go after everything else it desires.