Ukraine and Putin

Ukraine: the strategy of Putin

This article was published under the title “Armament Ukraine increases the chance of peace Bewapening van Oekraïne vergroot de kans op vrede)” in the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant on March 23, 2015; see

March 2015

Many politicians and scholars in the West are still too naive about the situation in Ukraine. An example is Ivan Krastev, director of the renowned Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria. See the article by him and Prof. Stephen Holmes on February 25 as posted on, and in various newspapers, including on February 26 in the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant (People’s Paper). Their view is that Putin has, after the annexation of the Crimea, no longer a strategic interest in control over eastern Ukraine. Yet at the same time Krastev and Holmes argue that it is Putin’s goal to keep the area of the former Soviet Union (excluding the Baltic states) in the Russian sphere of influence. But that actually is a strategic objective.

Krastev and others overlook the fact that Putin will not achieve this goal in Ukraine, because Kiev will no longer settle into the role of vassal state to Russia. Too much has happened for this to continue. This given gives Putin all the more reason to cause disarray in Ukraine, but mostly to preserve as much as possible a sphere of influence in at least part of that country. He thus not just wants to teach the West a lesson, as Krastev and others argue. Then he could have stopped meddling after the annexation of the Crimea.

The fact that the arming of the separatists in recent months has increased significantly and the subsequent offensive that followed, both show that the Russian (or rather Putin’s) ambitions go much further. In order to strengthen Russia’s strategic position vis-a-vis an independent(-minded) Ukraine, the creation of a robust vassal state in eastern Ukraine is of vital importance to Putin. This vassal state could well include an area with a boundary west of Kharkov going south towards the river Dnieper, and then through Melitopol to Henichesk, where a land connection to the Crimea would then become possible.

In the eyes of the power-politician Putin, who has let on that he aims to recover the old Soviet empire as much as possible, the cities located within this area, Kharkov Mariupol, and access to the Crimea would be, like Donetsk, pearls on his crown.

Mariupol has repeatedly been under fire, and as we know there recently have been attacks in Kharkov. The situation on the ground has unfortunately shown that the current ceasefire does not contain a single guarantee that the separatists would not start a new offensive in the near future.

Krastev and others argue that it is necessary to set a strategic goal rather than to teach each other a lesson. But he leaves unanswered the question what those strategic goals should be. We have just indicated which strategy Putin is pursuing. The strategic objective of the West is to strengthen the democratic order in Europe. A state like Ukraine, which, in order to become part of that zone of justice, peace and prosperity, seeks rapprochement with the West, should be supported in this endeavor. That is not to say that Ukraine could become member of the EU in the near foreseeable future. But it is in the interest of the West to expand the democratic order as much as it can. Even Russia itself should receive a warm welcome in this endeavor. Unfortunately, the Putin regime pursues the opposite extreme, by destroying the free press, seeking to silence the opposition, inundating the population with extreme propaganda, and commit aggression against neighboring countries. It is strategically important to defend a democracy-aspiring neighbor of the EU against the rise of dictatorship.

The actions of Russia are not only morally unjustifiable, but also in flagrant violation of international law. Article 2 of the United Nations Charter prohibits a state to undermine the territorial integrity or political independence of another State through violence or the threat of violence. Moreover, Russia, like the US and Great Britain, have guaranteed in the Memorandum of Budapest in 1994 the inviolability of the existing borders of Ukraine, and promised not to commit aggression against the state. In exchange for these guarantees Ukraine gave up 1800 nuclear warheads. Putin clearly violates this Memorandum flagrantly.

To the question whether the arming of the Ukrainian army can contribute to a solution, Krastev responds in the negative. He cites two reasons for this; first, the separatists are being supported by a military superpower, and second, the vigor and capability of the Ukrainian armed forces are questionable. These arguments are insufficient. In the current situation, it is attractive and tempting for the separatists, who have not concealed their wish to expand their territory, to use their supremacy in heavy assault weapons for that purpose. When they are faced with effective weapons like anti-tank missiles by the Ukrainian army, however, that option would become much less attractive to them.

The chance that a ceasefire will hold is greatly enhanced if the opponent is able to give a strong response to any major violation of it. Though the Ukrainian army often is inefficient, it has shown that there are enough forces within it that are able to defend themselves and push back. It also has many highly motivated soldiers. If the West supplies weapons to this army, these will be used if the need arises. This scenario, once realized, leads to a much smaller risk that the separatists would begin a major offensive to expand their territory. Military aid through armaments to the Ukrainians – especially with weapons that increase their defensive capability – is not only judicially and morally justified, but also increases the likelihood of a real, lasting peace.


Marcel Buurman, judicial analyst, legal expert

Caspar ten Dam, conflict analyst and PhD researcher at the Institute of History, Leiden University, the Netherlands